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Coupe à décor humain, animalier et géométrique : homme schématisé entre signes-bêches, oiseaux, scorpion, croix de Malte et lignes brisées

© 1990 RMN / Christian Larrieu

Near Eastern Antiquities


Painted ceramics were the principal medium for artistic expression in prehistoric Iran. The objects have a simple, often open form and vary from one site to the next. At Susa, the three principal types of painted tableware were the bowl, the bushel and the small carinated jar. Their decoration consisted mainly in geometric and animal motifs, human figures being rare. This bowl is therefore an exception.

Painted ceramics in Iran

Painted ceramics in Iran from the 5th and early 4th millennium BC are characterized by the quality of their workmanship and diversity of their decoration. Pots were handthrown from a clay coil, the potter's wheel not having been invented. The ceramics were decorated with brown motifs including geometric figures and motifs inspired by the natural environment, with plants and animals stylized to the point of being hardly recognizable. Man is rarely depicted, except as a hunter. The motifs were repeated several times; the rhythmical repetition of motifs was preferred to narrative in the art of this period.

Art at Susa at the time of the city's foundation

The predominant medium for art in prehistoric times was indisputably painted ceramics. This craft was at its most accomplished at Susa, a city in the Susian plain extending from the Mesopotamian plain. The clay used by the potters was often light-colored, very slightly green-tinted, so thin that it is sometimes known as "eggshell" pottery, and fired at a high temperature to the point of becoming "resonant." The decoration of each vase was unique, except for a small series of wide bushels with zigzag motifs, probably made at a time when funerary ware was in high demand following a large-scale killing.

Description of the object

This bowl with an irregular circumference probably warped during firing. On either side of the central Maltese cross motif are two superposed "comb-animals" drawn with such a degree of stylization that only their heads and tails are recognizable. Parallel lines suggest their long wooly coats, an element emphasized at a time when goats were not only used for their meat but also for their milk and wool. Flocks were specifically selected to meet these new demands. On either side of the "comb-animal" motifs are the figures of three birds and a scorpion, also highly stylized. At the top and bottom, within the frame formed by a group of three broken lines, interpreted by some scholars as irrigation channels, are two spade-shaped emblems, apparently references to work on the land. The male figure with a highly geometrical body stands, arms spread, in the position of master of the animals. He may personify a spirit of agriculture and livestock breeding. In this life-giving world, death is not absent, for the scorpion figure is there to bring it. If this interpretation is correct, this is a unique representation of man in the painted ceramics of Susa, in which only four human images have been found: contrary to the others, this is not a hunter but a figure related to a primitive mythology of the domestication of nature.


Amiet Pierre, Elam, Auvers-sur-Oise, Archée, 1966, n 15, p. 43.
Hole Frank, The royal City of Susa, catalogue de l'exposition du Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1992, n 2, p. 33.

Technical description

  • k

    Coupe à décor humain, animalier et géométrique : homme schématisé entre signes-bêches, oiseaux, scorpion, croix de Malte et lignes brisées

  • Terre cuite peinte

    10.6 H ; 22.3 D

  • Sb 3157

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Iran, Susiana, and the Iranian plateau
    Room 232
    Vitrine 2 : Suse I (4200 - 3800 avant J.-C.). Nécropole du tell de l'Acropole. Fouilles Jacques de Morgan.

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