Bushel with ibex motifs

This beautiful pot was created over 5,000 years ago, and its decoration echoes its shape.

Bushel with ibex (mountain goat) motifs, 4200–3500 B.C.E., painted terra-cotta, 28.90 x 16.40 cm, necropolis, Susa I period, from the acropolis mound, Susa, Iran (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Louvre in Paris, [which] holds one of the most important collections of clay vessels from ancient Susa.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] Ancient Susa is in modern-day Iran, going back about 6,000 years to 4000 B.C.E., and we’re looking at a beautiful beaker decorated with animal forms and geometric patterns.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] So 6,000 years ago, this is right at the cusp of the Neolithic and the historical era, just before the great cities of Mesopotamia rise.

Dr. Harris: [0:36] In fact, this area, at certain moments in history, becomes politically part of southern Mesopotamia, the cities of Uruk and Ur. At this point — 4000 B.C.E. — this is still prehistoric, we’re looking at people who lived in a very fertile river valley, who painted beautiful vessels and buried them in their cemeteries.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] At about 4000 B.C., we believe that they built a raised mound and had a temple on top, and the whole area was continuously occupied for about 5,000 years, so we have this extraordinary accumulation. When we dig all the way down, we get to this pot and pots like it.

Dr. Harris: [1:10] Because this is prehistoric, this is before writing, we have no records of why they buried their dead with the pots, what they believed, what their religion was, the gods or goddesses that they were worshiping on that temple mound, but we do have extraordinarily beautiful pots.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] It’s handmade. It’s clay and it’s painted. It’s quite thin. It doesn’t have the perfection you get from something that’s made on a wheel. Though some archaeologists have conjectured that it was perhaps made on a slow wheel, although others think it was completely handmade. In any case, it was clearly hand-painted.

Dr. Harris: [1:42] The circular forms balanced by forms that are linear, balanced by geometric hard-edged forms like rectangles.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] You mentioned animals. The most obvious is the mountain goat. The mountain goat occupies the large rectangle. The body is actually made out of two arcs to create this very geometric form.

Dr. Harris: [2:00] It’s mostly his horns that take up the space. This is not a naturalistic image of a mountain goat. His body is reduced to triangles, so, very stylized images of these natural forms.

Dr. Zucker: [2:11] Nevertheless, there’s real detail here. We can make out the goat’s beard, his ears. We can make out his nose, where his eyes would be. We can see the bush of his tail. We see that kind of detail in the other animals that are represented here.

[2:22] Just above the rectangle that holds the goat, we see a band that wraps around the vessel, that has a kind of dog that’s rather like a greyhound.

Dr. Harris: [2:30] Very thin and elongated, perhaps it’s reclining, perhaps it’s running. And then above that, we see wading birds with elongated necks.

Dr. Zucker: [2:39] The necks speak to the verticality of the vessel, and the roundness of the horns speak to the cylindrical shape of the vessel. It’s wonderful the way these geometric elements reflect the shape of the object itself. There’s this beautiful integration between the pictorial and the actual body of the pot.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] Look at how the tails of the dogs spin back in the opposite direction of the horns of the mountain goat, of the ibex. But then we have these things we can’t identify. This crisscross pattern with these angular forms in the center almost looks like stitching on a baseball.

[3:11] We see that shape repeated on other vessels, so perhaps it had some meaning. In fact, perhaps the animals themselves had meaning and were associated with different ideas, perhaps fertility or water, because we know that those associations were made later on in ancient Mesopotamia.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] Right, but we don’t know if those meanings are in play here in Susa.

Dr. Harris: [3:31] The name Susa may be familiar because, later on, it figures in the prophecy of Daniel, and it also figures in the Book of Esther, variously as Susa or sometimes Shushan.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] In fact, the reason that these pots were found is because an archaeologist was looking for the Tomb of Daniel and came upon this extraordinary cemetery.

[3:49] [music]

Pottery from Susa

Because of its nearly indestructible nature, pottery is a critical class of material evidence about the ancient world. Some of the earliest and most beautiful pottery from the Ancient Near East comes from the site of Susa, first settled 6,000 years ago, located in the lower Zagros Mountains about 250 km (160 miles) east of the Tigris river in modern Iran.

Location of ancient Susa (underlying map © Google)

Location of ancient Susa (underlying map © Google)

The most important area of the first settlement at Susa was a monumental platform upon which a temple was built. Around the base of the platform, over a thousand graves were dug in a tightly packed cemetery dating to the last half of the 5th millennium. In these graves, thousands of examples of a remarkable type of pottery have been found that archaeologists refer to as Susa I (most are in the Louvre museum). The burials in the cemetery were nearly all secondary, meaning that the bones of the deceased were buried after the skin and soft tissue had decomposed, either in a first, or primary burial, or having been laid out to decompose. What makes this cemetery at Susa unusual is that it would appear that all the graves were dug and filled more or less simultaneously, possibly as the result of some social and/or environmental stress. There is some evidence for the latter, including for increased rain and rising sea levels at that time.

Vessels, 4200–3500 B.C.E., Susa I period, necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran, painted terra-cotta, 28.9 x 16.4 cm, excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906–08 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Vessels, 4200–3500 B.C.E., Susa I period, necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran, painted terra-cotta, 28.9 x 16.4 cm, excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906–08 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Susa I pottery was likely only made for burial and not for daily use; we know this because excavations of homes and archaeological surveys of surrounding lands find very few examples of it. Although, interestingly, there are faint signs of wear on some vessels, possibly meaning that they were used just before being deposited for burial.

Susa I pottery was mostly built by hand, although some pieces seem to exhibit the use of a slow potter’s wheel. The painting on the pots is asymmetrical and exhibits subtle irregularities which indicate that the decoration was added free hand. The most common shapes were drinking goblets or beakers, serving plates and small jars, possibly a specific set of dishes for a meal in the afterlife. Although a quick look at Susa I pottery might make one think it is all very similar, in fact, each vessel has a motif or combination of motifs that is unique. This variety likely means a large class of artisans produced them over a period of only a couple of generations.

Wading birds and dog (detail), Vessel, 4200–3500 B.C.E., Susa I period, necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran, painted terra-cotta, 28.9 x 16.4 cm, excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906–08 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Wading birds and dog (detail), Vessel, 4200–3500 B.C.E., Susa I period, necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran, painted terra-cotta, 28.9 x 16.4 cm, excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906–08 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Beaker with Ibex Motifs

Beaker with Ibex Motifs is one of the finest examples of the Susa I type, delicate and finely painted. It is also quite large, at 28.9 cm in height and with a diameter of 16.4 cm. The vessel can hold almost one gallon of liquid making it an unwieldy cup therefore it was most likely only existed for display.

Like so much art of the Ancient Near East, the images on the exterior of the beaker are divided into bands or registers. The top band is filled with highly repetitive abstract drawings of long-necked birds, likely wading water birds often seen on the Susiana plain in winter. The next band beneath that contains abstracted images of dogs, one after another, likely a saluki, or Persian gazelle hound (a slender greyhound hunting type typical of desert regions and still prized pets today).

The next and largest band, which takes up the central field of the beaker, illustrates an ibex, or mountain goat, whose horns curve in a wide arch to surround a cross-hatched and chevron motif (this motif is commonly found on the open bowls of the Susa I type). This ibex was a native to the Zagros Mountains and is the wild ancestor of the domestic goat still herded today. Ninety-one tall Susa I beakers excavated at the cemetery have a similar design but only ten include the ibex with the arching horns. Beneath this middle register the base of the beaker is painted with very thin lines then at the base a very thick band.

Beaker with ibex motifs, 4200–3500 B.C.E., Susa I period, necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran, painted terra-cotta, 28.9 x 16.4 cm, excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906–08 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Beaker with ibex motifs, 4200–3500 B.C.E., Susa I period, necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran, painted terra-cotta, 28.9 x 16.4 cm, excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906–08 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The meaning of the Beaker with Ibex is difficult to know; it might just be an unusual and unusually beautiful vessel which was needed for a proper burial. What is striking, however, is the pride of place given to the animals of the region around Susa in its decoration. Two of these animals—the hunting dog and ibex—are actors in the mixed substance strategy (traditional hunting and gathering together with new plant and animal domestication) which is thought to have been newly practiced in the 5th millennium. The Beaker with Ibex is an elegant testament to the new lifeways of those in the Susan plain at the very beginning of the long history of the Ancient Near East.

Bushel with ibex motifs at the Louvre

Royal City of Susa: Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre (Met publication online)

Susa from UNESCO

Ancient Near East: cradle of civilization

David Stronach, “EXCAVATIONS i. In Persia,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, volume IX, number 1 (originally published December 15, 1998), pp. 88–94.

Robert H. Dyson, Jr., “Early Works on the Acropolis at Susa,” Expedition Magazine , volume10, number 4 (1968).

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Cite this page as: Dr. Senta German, "Bushel with ibex motifs," in Smarthistory, July 2, 2023, accessed June 17, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/bushel-with-ibex-motifs/.