This beautiful pot was created over 5,000 years ago, and its decoration echoes its shape.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
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