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Bushel with ibex motifs

Ancient Susa, located in modern-day Iran, is home to beautiful clay vessels dating back 6,000 years. One such beaker features animal forms and geometric patterns, including a stylized mountain goat and other animals like greyhounds and wading birds. The vessel's design reflects its shape, and while its meaning remains unknown, it showcases the artistic skills of prehistoric Susa inhabitants. Bushel with ibex motifs, 4200--3500 B.C.E., Susa I period, necropolis, acropolis mound, Susa, Iran, painted terra-cotta, 28.90 x 16.40 cm, excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1906-08 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Voiceover: We're in the Louvre in Paris that holds one of the most important collections of clay vessels from Ancient Susa. Voiceover: Ancient Susa is in modern day Iran, going back about 6,000 years to 4,000 B.C.E., and we're looking at a beautiful beaker decorated with animal forms and geometric patterns. Voiceover: 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. Voiceover: In fact, this area at certain moments in history becomes politically part of southern Mesopotamia, the cities of Uruk and Ur, but at this point, 4,000 B.C.E, this is still prehistoric. We are looking at people who lived in a very fertile river valley who painted beautiful vessels and buried them in their cemetaries. Voiceover: At about 4,000 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, but when we dig all the way down, we get to this pot and pots like it. Voiceover: And because this is prehistoric, this is before writing and we have no records of why they bury their dead with the pots, what they believe, what their religion was, the gods or goddesses they were worshiping on that temple mount, but we do have extraordinarily beautiful pots. Voiceover: It's handmade, it's clay, and it's painted. It's quite thin and it doesn't have the perfection you get from something that's made on a wheel, though some archaeologists have conjectured it was perhaps made on a slow wheel, although others think it was completely handmade. In any case, it was clearly hand-painted. Voiceover: The circular forms balanced by forms that are linear, balanced by geometric, hard-edged forms, like rectangles. Voiceover: They mentioned animals but the most obvious is the mountain goat. The mountain goat occupies the large rectangle, and the body is actually made out of two arcs to create this very geometric form. Voiceover: But it's mostly his horns that take up the... (laughs) Voiceover: (laughs) Yeah. Voiceover: So, this is not a naturalistic image of a mountain goat. His body is reduced to triangles. So, very stylized images of these natural forms. Voiceover: Nevertheless, there is 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, and we see that kind of detail in the other animals that are represented here. 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. Voiceover: Very thin and elongated, perhaps it's reclining, perhaps it's running, and then above that we see wading birds with elongated necks. Voiceover: 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. Voiceover: 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 criss-cross pattern with these angular forms in the center almost looks like stitching on a baseball. We see that shape repeated on other vessels, so perhaps it has 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. Voiceover: Right, but we don't know if those meanings are in play here in Susa. Voiceover: 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 [Esusa], or sometimes Shushan. Voiceover: And 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 cemetary. (piano music)