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Vase en forme de taureau

© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Raphaël Chipault

Near Eastern Antiquities

Benoit Agnès

In the second half of the second millennium BC, the Marlik culture southwest of the Caspian Sea developed a very original art of vessels, in both ceramic and precious metals. Ceramic vases, often polished, represented humans or animals. Metal goblets, were in gold, silver, or electrum, were embossed with mythological scenes or figures.

The Marlik culture

The people of Marlik were nomadic horsemen whose way of life and art are known only through their necropolis in the fertile province of Gilan, southwest of the Caspian Sea. They did not use writing and no traces of their dwellings remain, but it is thought that they amassed their wealth as suppliers of raw materials to the neighboring great powers of Mesopotamia and Elam. Most of the Marlik artifacts date from Iron Age I, between the fourteenth and twelfth centuries BC. The art of Marlik is often attributed to those who were, strictly speaking, the first Iranians, that is, to an Indo-European population. Before this period, the population of Iran can be considered Elamite.

The importance of the horse and the bull

In the second half of the second millennium BC, horses began to be ridden and not simply used as draft animals. Horses evidently had a special status in Marlik, as they were sometimes buried in individual tombs, like humans. However, the craftsmen of Marlik favored representations of the hump-backed bull, perhaps a symbol of power and fertility, rather than the horse.
Five vases in the form of a humped bull were found arranged in a row in one of the princely tombs of the necropolis. According to Ezat O. Negahban, the archaeologist who conducted the excavation, the person buried in the sepulcher had a particular involvement with livestock. Humped bulls had already been a favorite motif a thousand years earlier on chlorite receptacles. The images must have represented a local breed.

A zoomorphic drinking vase

This zoomorphic vase in the shape of a humped bull is of a type well known in the Marlik culture. It was used as a rhyton, with the body of the animal designed to hold liquid. Most of the examples known, including the one seen here, are red or brownish red, with a polished surface. Several are of buff-colored ceramic, and they are sometimes painted. The breast of the animal is highlighted by a central vertical element corresponding to the dewlap; the hump is abnormally large and set farther towards the rear than it naturally would be. The frontal view gives an impression of power and strength. A pouring spout for liquid takes the place of the muzzle.
Leopards, deer, rams, and even bears and mules were also represented. A characteristic of the pottery is that the forms of the animals are very simplified. Only a few traits are marked: eyes, indicated by simple circles, and ears, sometimes perforated to receive rings.
A series of fairly large (circa 50 cm high) anthropomorphic vases also existed besides the zoomorphic series. The eight examples known are in the collections of the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran. The figures are always naked; the women scratch at their faces in a gesture of mourning and the men are warriors or make offerings.


Parrot André, "Acquisitions et inédits du Musée du Louvre", in Syria XL, 1963, p. 239, pl. XV 5-6.
Neghaban Ezat O., Marlik, the Complete Excavation Report, I, pp. 117-120, II, pl. 36-38.

Technical description

  • Vase en forme de taureau

  • Terre cuite rouge lustrée

    H. 21 cm; W. 25 cm

  • Don M. Foroughi, 1962 , 1962

    AO 21112

  • 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
    Vitrine 4 : La civilisation de Marlik (XIVe - XIe siècle avant J.-C.) céramique et bronze

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