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Work The Spinner

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Bas-relief fragment, called "The Spinner"

© 2010 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities

Annie Caubet

This votive or commemorative relief shows a woman squatting on a stool holding a spindle. Behind her, a servant cools her with a fan; before her stands a pedestal table laden with food. Another figure formerly stood facing her. This figure of a spinner is one of the rare images of a woman in her personal domestic environment in the ancient Orient.

The image of women in the ancient Orient

Women appear in many ancient Oriental texts, always in the background of a predominant male figure. With the exception of goddesses, they feature more rarely in images pertaining to fertility. In this domestic scene, the woman is seated in an informal manner, with one leg folded under her. With her arms full of bracelets, she turns the spindle: the flower-shaped tip is visible above her left hand, and the thread accumulates below the conical spinning whorl serving as a pulley. No skein is visible, perhaps because the scene may not represent the act of spinning so much as the spinner's satisfied presentation of her work to an important figure who is just visible on the other side of the table. She is dressed in a sleeveless tunic; her decorated veil, which does not cover her head - probably because she is an intimate setting - reveals her long hair, pulled back in a bun and held in place with a headscarf crossed around her head. Her face is calm but smiling, her body plump and stocky.

A royal interior

Behind the spinner stands a figure, as large as the seated figure, either because it is a child, or rather because the artist is indicating a social hierarchy. The standing figure has large round curls, wears a short-sleeved tunic and jewelry on his or her wrists, and is shown fanning the spinner with a square fan on a long handle, whose parallel grooves suggest wickework. The spinner's stool is covered with a fabric whose fringed edges hide the upper part of the seat; an ornament protruding at the back, probably an animal's head, remains visible. The feet, joined together by a triple brace, are sculpted in the shape of thick lion claws. This decoration is also visible on the table, a low pedestal table with a thick top resting on molded capitals. This highly ornate style of furniture resembles that depicted on certain Assyrian stone reliefs, at Khorsabad (Louvre), and on the "Banquet under the Arbor" relief from Nineveh (British Museum), featuring a similar scene. Excavations at Ugarit, Nimrud and Arslan Tash (Louvre) produced similar ornamentations in ivory. In the ancient Orient, only gods and sovereigns received such furnishings, a privilege reflected in the inventories of royal trousseaux and lists of booty drawn up by Assyrian scribes. Ordinary people ate and slept on the floor. This scene therefore probably takes place in the divine world or in the palace at Susa, at the court of a Neo-Elamite sovereign, perhaps the figure on the right now completely lost.

A Susian material

The material used to sculpt this relief is highly characteristic of Susa: a bituminous stone, a matte, black sedimentary rock. Deposits of bitumen, a thick hydrocarbon, are relatively numerous in Mesopotamia and in western Iran, an area of abundant oil resources, but the bituminous stone deposit in the Susa region seems to have been unique and the Susians were the only ones to use it from the 4th millennium. The fine grain of the stone permitted a high level of precision in the details. If heated slightly, the stone could be coated with gold or silver leaf or receive incrustatations of various materials, for the making of luxury objects typical of Susa.


Amiet Pierre, Elam, Auvers-sur-Oise, Archée, 1966, p. 413.
Amiet Pierre, Suse : 6000 ans d'histoire, Éditions de la Réunion des Musées nationaux, coll. "monographies des Musées de France", 1988, p. 112, fig. 69.
The Royal City of Susa. Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre, catalogue de l'exposition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992, pp. 200-201, cat. n 141.
Connan Jacques , Deschesne Odile, Le bitume à Suse : collection du Musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des Musées nationaux, Elf Aquitaine Production, 1996, p. 227, fig. 34 ; pp. 339-340, cat. n 431.
Herrmann Georgina (éd.), Furniture in Ancient Orient, Mainz, Philipp von Zabern.
Roaf Mickhaël, Atlas de la Mésopotamie et du Proche Orient antique, Brepols, 1991, p. 130.

Technical description

  • Bas-relief fragment, called "The Spinner"

  • Bitumen

  • J. de Morgan excavations

    Sb 2834

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Iran in the Iron Age (14th–mid-6th century BC) and during the Neo-Elamite dynasties
    Room 306
    Display case 6 b: Susiana in the Neo-Elamite period (8th century–middle 6th century BC). Goldwork, sculpture, and glyptics

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