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Work Base for a ritual offering, carved with animals

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Support d'offrande : lion et chèvre passant. Aigles protégeant leur nichée

© 2009 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Herbin Nancie

This base for a ritual offering is made of bitumen. This material was plentiful throughout the Middle East, but only in Susa was it used in sculpture. The object is carved with big cats, gazelles, and eagles. The theme of the eagle spreading its wings to protect its young was found only in Iran and also features on painted ceramics of the same period.

Bitumen: a plentiful material used in an unusual manner

This object in the form of a truncated cone is a base for a ritual offering. It is carved from bituminous rock, found throughout the region but used in sculpture only in Susa. It was used to make vases similar to this object (Louvre, Sb2726), and later, in the early years of the 2nd millennium BC, vases carved with bas-relief decorations and an animal's head in high relief (Louvre, Sb2740). The shape of this object - a truncated cone - is similar to other pieces made of chlorite and dating from the same period. The mortise at the top of the cone and the unfinished lip suggest that the object originally had a second part that fitted on top of the cone. However, the precise purpose of the object remains a mystery.

The animal carvings

The cone is carved with two registers separated by a narrow strip. The upper register is decorated with two gazelles calmly grazing on vegetation, represented by stalks between each animal. Alongside the two gazelles are two big cats, almost certainly lions, with their backs to each other. Their stylized manes are shown as vertical strips, reminiscent of those of the woolen Mesopotamian garments known as kaunakes. Their tails are raised horizontally over their backs, similar to depictions of lions on cylinders from Uruk or Susa. Their heads are depicted in geometrical form. All four animals are shown in profile. The artistic desire to create a scene and a landscape imbued with life is also evident in two cylinders from Uruk and Khafaje.
The lower register shows two highly stylized eagles, upright, as if resting on their tail feathers. Their wings and talons are spread to protect the chicks beneath them. These eagles differ somewhat from the usual representation of eagles as the attribute of the Sumerian god Ningirsu, where the birds are depicted with a lion's head, holding two lion cubs, which are shown face on.

Mythological creatures or carvings of local wildlife?

Eagles were a major theme in Susian and Mesopotamian art. This depiction of an eagle resting on its tail feathers is also found in ceramics, glyptics, and perforated plaques dating from the 3rd millennium BC. However, unlike Mesopotamian eagles, Susian eagles never resembled composite animals. Likewise, Mesopotamian eagles had a mythological dimension, which was absent from Susian portrayals of the bird. In Susa, eagles were simply considered ordinary birds of prey.

Bibliography

Amiet Pierre, Élam, Auvers-sur-Oise, Archée, 1966, p. 166, fig. 119.
Les quatre grandes civilisations mondiales. La Mésopotamie entre le Tigre
et l'Euphrate, cat. exp., Setagaya, musée d'Art, 5 août-3 décembre 2000, Fukuoka, musée d'Art asiatique, 16 décembre 2000-4 mars 2001, Tokyo, NHK, 2000, pp. 214-215.

Technical description

  • Support d'offrande : lion et chèvre passant. Aigles protégeant leur nichée

  • Bitume

    H. : 19,50 cm. ; D. : 11,50 cm.

  • Fouilles J. de Morgan, 1908 , 1908

    Lions and gazelles passant; eagles protecting their young

    Sb 2725

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Iran and Susa during the 3rd millennium BC
    Room 8
    Vitrine 1 : Le mobilier des temples. Suse IVA (2700 - 2340 avant J.-C.). Tell de l'Acropole.

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