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Chalice Decorated with Leopards

© 2007 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Benoit Agnès

Painted ceramic vessels comprised the principal medium of artistic expression in Iran during the fifth millennium BC. The most beautiful examples feature highly stylized animal motifs repeated several times over. Goats appear frequently. Lions, panthers, and leopards are rarer. Footed vessels were found both in Tepe Sialk on the edge of the Kavir Desert and at Tepe Hissar east of the Caspian Sea.

Painted ceramics in Iran

Iranian painted ceramics of the fifth millennium BC and early fourth millennium BC are characterized by the quality of their execution and by the variety of designs employed: they formed a vast common cultural idiom. As the potter's wheel had not yet been invented, the vessels were made by hand using coils of clay. The brown designs with which they were decorated combined geometric patterns with elements derived from the local environment; however, animals and plants were so highly stylized that they were difficult to identify. These motifs were repeated several times - in the art of this period, rhythmic repetition took precedence over narrative considerations. The Tepe Sialk site was established on the edge of the Iranian plateau; it was founded circa the mid-fifth millennium BC - a little earlier than Susa, the major site of the Elamite period.

The chalices of Tepe Sialk and Tepe Hissar

Despite the existence of a vast common cultural idiom in Iran during the fifth millennium BC, which was principally reflected in painted ceramics, regional variations can be seen in the shapes and decorative motifs employed: footed vessels, also called 'chalices,' were made both in Tepe Sialk and in Tepe Hissar, east of the Caspian Sea. Goblets were common in Tall-e Bakun, in the Fars region. Bushel, bowls, and small elegantly designed jars were the three basic forms found in Susian pottery. Ceramics with designs painted on a red ground were typical of Islamabad, south of Tehran. The designs often combined geometric patterns (here, bands of jagged lines alternating with ladder patterns next to a stylized woolly fleece) and animal motifs: ibexes, ducks, birds with outspread wings, and, more rarely, big cats: panthers or leopards. Representations of human figures were very rare during this period. The image most frequently found on the vessels of Tepe Sialk and Tepe Hissar image is that of a leaping goat in mid-air with its legs pointing forwards. There was obviously a connection between the shape of the vessel and the nature of its design. On the vessel shown here, a procession of big cats with spotted coats is depicted. The walking motion is conveyed by the oblique position of the legs. It is amusing to observe a kind of contradiction between the simplified way in which the leopards' bodies have been rendered and the extreme realism with which the animals' tails are depicted, with their curling tips emphasized and fur meticulously evoked by small streaks of color.

The big cats of Sialk

The depiction of big cats is a characteristic of Tepe Sialk art. In contrast, such imagery is totally absent from the vessels vases produced in Susa. A larger shallow bowl from Sialk depicts a procession of panthers or leopards on its upper level. A sherd of a pot from the same site portrays a leopard rising up on its hind legs and gripping the hindquarters of an ox.

Technical description

  • Chalice Decorated with Leopards

    Late fifth-early fourth millennium BC; Sialk III period, level six

    South hill, Tepe Sialk (Iran)

  • Painted ceramic

    H. 28 cm; Diam. 29 cm

  • Roman Ghirshman excavations, December 1933

    AO 17797

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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

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