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Work Rein ring decorated with a bull figurine

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Passe-guides orné d'une figurine de taureau

© 1999 Musée du Louvre / Christian Larrieu

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Demange Françoise

This harness fitting would have been attached to the shaft of a chariot. The reins of the draught animals went through the two rings, which prevented them from tangling and facilitated the charioteer's task. Rein rings of this sort are rare; only about twenty pieces are known. Some were found in the tombs of warriors buried with their chariots in the royal cemeteries of Ur and Kish. The most refined pieces are decorated with animal figurines.

A rare Sumerian harness fitting

This harness fitting was used to collect the reins of the draught animals and guide them towards the charioteer. The curved base was tied firmly to the shaft of the chariot by leather thongs. The three vertical bars held the two rings high above the backs of the animals; the reins ran through the rings, which prevented them from tangling and helped the charioteer drive his team more easily and accurately. A little statuette of a bull tops the whole.
Several Sumerian documents, such as the Ur Standard or the Stele of the Vultures, explicitly depict rein rings in use. Few have survived: only about twenty are known in museums and large private collections. Some were discovered during the excavation of the royal cemeteries of the cities of Kish and Ur, in Mesopotamia, in the tombs of warriors who had been buried with their chariots. This object is very similar to the rein rings found at Kish. It can be dated to about 2650-2600 BC. A similar piece is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

The bull, a symbol of strength and vigor

Rein rings were often decorated with a figurine of an animal - equids such as onagers, which pulled the chariots, as depicted on the Ur Standard (horses were not used in chariot teams in Mesopotamia until the 2nd millennium BC); stags or bulls are also found.
Cast by the lost-wax technique, the bull figurine is standing on a rectangular plate welded to the join between the two rings. The sturdy animal is shown walking; his genitals are visible; his long tail is separate from the body and falls to the ground. The thick layer of rust that covers the piece blurs its shape but does not detract from the elegance of the long curved horns, typical of representations of bulls in the Sumerian period. They recall the horns on the bulls' heads decorating the resonance chambers of the large lyres found in Telloh and Ur of the same period.
The bull has a highly symbolic significance in Sumerian mythology. It represents the order of the civilized world as opposed to the chaos of the natural world. The symbol of vigor and dash, qualities expected of a warrior, it also evokes the life force and fecundity, the source of fertility.

A series of similar objects

The Oriental Antiquities department has two other rein rings, which feature more complex decoration. One, which is decorated with a scene of allegiance, is traditionally believed to come from Luristan, but it may have been made in Mesopotamia as - apart from its decoration - it is similar to others found in excavation sites. The second, which depicts a man bringing an equid under control, is in a different style and probably comes from Anatolia. Most of these harness fittings are made of copper, but some more precious items are made of silver or electrum; a small bronze statuette of a bull inlaid with silver, now in the Louvre, could have decorated a ceremonial rein ring.

Technical description

  • Passe-guides orné d'une figurine de taureau

    Dynasties archaïques II, vers 2650 - 2600 avant J.-C.

    Mésopotamie

  • Cuivre

    W. 10.4 cm; H. 28.3 cm

  • Don de la Société des Amis du Louvre, 1999 , 1999

    AO 31534

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Ancient Mesopotamia, 3rd millennium BC
    Room 235
    Vitrine 9 : Epoque des dynasties archaïques de Sumer, vers 2900 - 2340 avant J.-C. Antiquités mésopotamiennes de diverses provenances.

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