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Bushel with ibex motifs

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Caubet Annie, Prévotat Arnaud

This large painted vase, magnificently decorated, was among the funerary objects of the first inhabitants of Susa. On a secondary burial, the deceased received bushels (cylindrical earthenware pots), bowls and metal objects indicative of the prosperity of the city, then at its height. The style of the pottery is in keeping with that of the Susian plain, dominated since its foundation by the city of Susa.

A representation of the world

This large, handthrown vessel with thin walls has a stylized decoration that constitutes a kind of synthesis of the environment of the first agricultural communities of the ancient Orient. A frieze of aquatic birds runs around the top; the parallel lines of their necks suggest a whole flock on the water's surface, a sight that must have been common at the time in the low, reed-carpeted valleys. Underneath are running dogs with long, narrow bodies, perhaps the ancestors of the slender salukis, hunting dogs that were adapted to the steppe plateaus. The main part of the vase is decorated with large panels divided up with meander patterns; these may symbolize the settlement of the land by men, showing the borders of fields and villages and watercourses. In the center of the panels is the majestic figure of the goat, omnipresent in both its wild or domesticated forms. Traced with simple shapes, triangles and circles, small details such as a goatee beard or tail add a personal touch. Within the oversized circle of its horns is an abstract motif, perhaps a topographical or clan-related sign, serving to identify the vase and its owner as belonging to a particular group or a family.

Susa, a regional metropolis

This pot comes from a cemetery at the foot of the Susa acropolis, where thousands of secondary-burial places have been found, each containing painted ceramic vases and a few metal objects. This cemetery dates back to the original settlement of Susa, in the late 5th and early 4th millennium BC. At first a simple village lying in a plain where the land was worked by other agricultural communities, Susa seems very quickly to have become the leading community. Its superiority is visible in the construction of a high terrace of unbaked bricks of which only traces remain - sufficient, however, to identify it as one of the first monumental buildings of a public and probably religious nature, also found in Mesopotamia. At the foot of this high terrace, the Susians gathered the remains of their dead after the defleshing that probably took place farther away. The reasons for these funerary practices remain uncertain, as does the exceptional nature of the offerings. Because no dwellings places contemporary to the graves have been found, we do not know if painted ceramics were in common use or if the served specifically funerary purposes. They all have similar, highly recognizable forms, styles and motifs, but each vase bears the stamp of an individual craftsman: although specialized workshops mass-produced objects over several generations, each artist gave free reign to his personal genius. The painted earthenware of the Susa graves raises questions about the first villages of the ancient Orient, their lifestyle and thinking. Susa, a prosperous city in the 5th millennium BC on the arrival of Islam, provides a rare opportunity to study the development of some of these villages, which, on the advent of writing, became political, economical and religious centers.

Technical description

  • Bushel with ibex motifs

    Susa I period, circa 4200-3500 BC

    Necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran

  • Painted terra-cotta, hand thrown

    H. 28.90 cm; Diam. 16.40 cm

  • Excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906-8

    Sb 3174

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Iran, Susiana, and the Iranian plateau
    Room 7

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