The Habib Anavian Collection:
Iranian Art from the 5th Millennium B.C. to the 7th Century A.D.

Northwest Iranian Pottery Horse Ryton ca. 12th - 8th c. B.C


Iranian art is perhaps the most multifaceted in the world. From early Neolithic clay figurines to the Shahyad Tower, it is an art both native and foreign, endemic and exotic. In microcosm, it reflects much of the history of civilization. It is broadly divided into two segments with the line drawn at 651 A.D. when the last of the Sasanian kings died and the followers of Mohammed were victorious in Iran. The two divisions are called pre-Islamic and Islamic.

This catalogue presents pre-Islamic art amassed over a twenty-eight year period by Habib Anavian, the well-known Iranian art dealer and collector.

The Habib Anavian Collection has representative pieces of most of the cultural phases encompassed by the pre-Islamic period. It ranges from late Neolithic earthenware bowls of the 5th millennium B.C. to lively Sasanian stucco plaques of the 4th or 5th c. A.D.

A few notes about the history and culture of early Iran will be given in connection with the objects to provide background. And essential to the understanding of Iran is a knowledge of its geography.

Iran is a land of geographic extremes. The country is ringed by mountains-the Elburz on the north, the Zagros on the west, the Makran on the south, and minor ranges which dot the eastern border. These enclose the Iranian plateau, an arid and inhospitable desert. Fertile plains skirt the plateau, and many valleys within the mountain ranges also provide good soil. Such a configuration results, not unexpectedly, in pockets of development with little cultural unity and only occasional cross-pollination.

Passes through the mountains provide Iran with contacts and trade with adjoining Mesopotamia, Turkey and Russia, Afghanistan and I Pakistan. In the southwest, the Zagros range rises to the east of the Khuzistan plain which joins Iran to the riverine plains of southern Mesopotamia, a circumstance which linked this area, ancient Elam, closely with the cultures of its western neighbor. Elam also had access to the Persian Gulf and traded with its states, and probably through them, Egypt.

Around 10,000 B.C., hunters and food gatherers first became active in the more fertile regions of Iran. By the mid-6th millennium B.C., Iman was farming. But the extreme summer heat of the plains in many areas fostered a nomadic form of life, with people growing crops when weather permitted and leaving the plains in summer to gather food and find forage for their animals in the cooler hills.

Crude handmade earthenware vessels and figurines appear early in the 6th millennium B.C., and rapidly improve in both technique of manufacture and quality of decoration (Iranians have excelled at pottery throughout their history). Metalworking makes an early debut in Iran. Evidence for copper smelting at the site of Tall-i Iblis dates to the 5th millennium B.C. The nomadic life of many inhabitants shows in the development of portable objects such as pottery and metal tools and vessels, and the lack of monumental architecture in the early periods. In Mesopotamia, where there was fixed alluvial agriculture, large permanent settlements thrived.

The best of the early pottery comes from the north central region of Iran. It is a thin-walled red ware with black painted decoration (nos. 1-3) which has been found at Tepe Sialk, Chesm-i Ali, and Kara Tepe. It dates to the last half of the 5th millennium B.C. The partially red-slipped or painted buff ware bowl with blurred black serpentine lines (no. 4) is related to these but later in time.

The buff ware bowl with its solid and simplified dark-painted animals (no. 5) is an example of the next phase, the so-called Buff Ware Culture of Tepe Giyan and other 4th millennium B.C. sites.
At the opening of the 3rd millennium B.C., Elam and Mesopotamia shared a closely allied culture. The period from 3000-2900 B.C. is called the Jamdat Nasr period in Mesopotamia, and is part of the early Proto-Elamite period in Iran. The first form of writing in Iran, also called Proto-Elamite, has been found on tablets of this date at Susa, Elam's capital, and also at Tepe Sialk, Tepe Yahya, and Tall-i Malyan. The first cylinder seals come from the Proto-Elamite period, too.

The stone elephant (no. 30) and the small figurine of the ram and ewe (no. 31) and the lovely rock crystal rabbit amulet (no. 32) belong to this same phase. Animal forms were popular throughout Iranian
history, and the early ones of stone are among the most charming. Many were found during the 19th c. French excavations at Susa.

This brings up the subject of the archaeological problems encountered in Iran. The Susa excavations, done before better methods were devised, used meter levels to place objects. In other words, all found between 12 and 13 meters below the surface, for example, was grouped together, regardless of soil configuration or the presence of architecture or graves. The soil could not be 'read" as it is today, making more accurate levels possible. Susa, a very large and important city from the late 4th millennium B.C. on, is therefore little understood today, although current excavations at the site may change this.

Other problems exist with Tepe Giyan and Tepe Sialk. Tepe Giyan , has almost no architecture, only graves and pot sherds and seal impressions. Thus levels are hard to establish. Pre-historic Tepe Sialk
has three "levels" which are, in fact, three entirely separate mounds of occupation, and whether they followed one another consecutively cannot be ascertained.

A further difficulty is that since the development of Iranian art is inclined to be localized and sporadic, less definitive knowledge is gained from excavations. In Mesopotamia, where there was much cultural unity, one excavation tends to confirm another, adding and enlarging on what was already known or surmised. But often in Iran one site does not relate to others, or does so in such a tenuous way that cross-currents and contemporaneity cannot be firmly established. Thus we know certain local cultures, but not how they fit into others. In some areas and for some periods, quite a bit is known, but there are tremendous gaps, stretches of time in different places about which almost nothing has, as yet, been learned.

Throughout the 3rd millennium B.C., the inhabitants of Elam continued to be much involved with the affairs of the city states of Sumer in southern Iraq, either as allies or enemies in their various wars. Tablets in Sumerian cuneiform are found along with those in Proto-Elamite. From this period comes the jar with the ridged shoulder (no. 6).

Around 2370 B.C., the Akkadians conquered Mesopotamia and Elam as well. Then tribes from the Zagros mountains, the Lullubi and the Guti, swept down upon the Akkadians in both countries. Little is known about these tribes except their names and something of their battles from rock relief inscriptions and texts.

The bronze cudgel with projecting spikes and animals (no. 36) comes, appropriately, from this period of unrest. The veined calcite vessel (no. 33), perhaps an import from Egypt, could be of the Proto-Elamite period or later.

The Old Elamite period opens the 2nd millennium B.C. when the native inhabitants again took control of their country and also conquered parts of Mesopotamia which they held until defeated by Hammurabi of Babylon in the 18th c. B.C. From this period or the following one come a number of bronze weapons (nos. 37-44) and a staff handle (no. 45), perhaps made for the Elamites by the nomadic tribes of Luristan, or by the Elamites themselves. Few metal objects of 2nd millennium B.C. date have been found at Susa itself, no doubt because of looting by invaders.

Among the finest examples of 2nd millennium B.C. metalwork is the three-faced macehead from the Anavian Collection (no. 39). It is a unique piece and is either from the Old or Middle Elamite period.

During the Middle Elamite period, 1500-1100 B.C., the Elamites once again became an important power. Under the kings Untash-dGAL, Shutruk-Nahunte and Shilhak-inshushinak, Elam amassed an empire that included most of Mesopotamia and western Iran. A revitalized Babylon under Nebuchadrezzar I finally put an end to the empire, taking Susa at the end of the 12th c. B.C.

Excellent metalwork exists from this period, such as the impressive bronze statue of Queen Napirasu, wife of Untash-dGAL, and the model of a sunrise ritual, both in the Musee du Louvre, Paris. The fascinating bronze snake with his human prey in his mouth (no. 47) is also a Middle Elamite work. Snakes abound in Elamite art, in reliefs, seals and bronzes, but this one is unique in displaying his half-swallowed meal. The purpose is as enigmatic as the theme. A clasp seems to be the best guess, with the triangular hole next to the curled tail passing through a metal rod, and a pin through the hole between the man's hands to secure it to the top or side of a wooden chest.

The majority of the bronzes in the Habib Anavian Collection fall under the designation "Luristan," (nos. 46, 48-53, 57-58, 60-70), a term that is not especially meaningful, as P. R. S. Moorey has pointed out in a recent article ("Towards a Chronology for the 'Luristan Bronzes,' " Iran IX, 1971, pp. 113-129). Works of this type first appeared on the market in the 1920's and were said to come from Luristan. Only in recent years have bronzes and other objects been excavated from that area of the Zagros. Until more evidence is available clarifying the place these weapons, tools, horse trappings and demonic figures hold chronologically and geographically, the term will no doubt continue to be used.

The metalworking techniques used in the Luristan and other bronzes are very complex. Surfaces are done in repousse work, or chased or engraved. Vessels are hammered and shaped from sheet bronze (as no. 51 ). Casting is done with one or two-piece molds, or by the lost wax process. This involved modeling the figure in wax (in the case of the finials, the wax was probably modeled over a clay core that made the tube when the casting was finished). The wax figure would be covered with clay, and when the clay hardened, the wax would be melted and poured out; and molten bronze poured in. The mold was then broken, and the bronze figure was complete. The use of the "lost wax" process means that no bronzes have duplicates, as each figure is melted and the mold destroyed to remove the metal.

Especially noteworthy among the Luristan bronzes in the Anavian Collection is the "master of animals" cheekpiece with the small horned animals on the base curled in Scythian style (no. 49), the goat in flying gallop for use as a closing device (no. 60), and the handle or finial in the form of a horned animal's head accompanied by two small felines (no. 62).

Achaemenid Veined Calcite Dish ca. 6th-4th c. B.C. (shown top and bottom)

One piece that is clearly not part of the luristan group is the tripod vessel (no. 59). The spool-like bodies of the animals perched on the rim are found in rhyta and other objects from the southwestern Caspian, and this unusual vessel is no doubt from the same location.

The Collection includes a group of these earthenware animal rhyta modeled in strong, simplified forms (nos. 7,9-15, 17-20, 22, 24). They come not only from the western Caspian in the Elburz region, but also from Azarbaijan. The sites of Marlik, Kalardasht and Khurvin have produced excavated examples, but unfortunately little help in dating them more closely than the six-century spread between 1200 and 600 B.C. On the basis of external evidence, however, they are more likely to have been made in the earlier part of that period. They are often given the designation ., Amlash," the name of a town in the area where earthenware animals and other objects were purchased from the inhabitants.

The term "rhyton" is applied here to describe a vessel in animal form with two or more spouts, a large primary one and smaller secondary or tertiary ones. The exact use of these objects is not known, but it is surmised that they played a role in funerary ritual. Filled with a liquid, they may have been used to pour a libation over an open grave and then were buried with the deceased.

Outstanding among the rhyta are the stag with its graceful flowing lines (no. 7), and the dark grey seated horse with three stemmed pots projecting from its back, an exceedingly rare piece (no. 24). The lively grey hedgehog with clay pellets inside (no. 9) served double duty as a rhyton and rattle.

1200 B.C. marks the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. It also marks a period of restless migration throughout the ancient world, with the "Sea Peoples" invading the eastern mediterranean and Egypt, the Dorians taking Greece, Thraco-Phrygians sweeping through Anatolia, and in Iran, Scythian invasion in the north and a westward push by Aryan tribes into the Zagros region. The names of many of these tribes are known only through the annals of the Assyrian kings, and exactly where they settled and what their fates were is often obscure. The Scythians, Cimmerians, Manneans, and the related tribes of Madai or Media and Parsua or Persia are among those recorded.

The Scythians or another nomadic tribe may have been responsible for the geometricized horse plaque (no. 71). If Hasanlu was, as surmised, a Mannean settlement, the lion pin finial (no. 72) may be Mannean. And the bronze ram's head (no. 74), the horse trapping (no. 73) and grey ware bull's head (no. 23) could be Median or Achaemenid.

The term "Achaemenid" comes from King Achaemenes, founder of the Persian dynasty which eventually ruled much of the ancient world. The Medes, having defeated the Scythians and the Manneans, joined with the Babylonians against the Assyrians and sacked their capital, Nineveh, in 612 B.C. By 550 B.C., Cyrus II of the Achaemenid line of kings defeated the Median king, and the Persian Empire began.

Nos. 26-28,34-35, and 73-76 come from the Achaemenid period which lasted until the Persian defeat by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. The bull protome (no. 73) has the elegant cyma curve from nose to shoulder so often found in Persian animal depictions. The gilding on the naturalistically rendered mouflon (no. 76) hints at the vast wealth of the Achaemenids. Strong but static animal stylization was typical and can be seen in both the buff ware ram (no. 26) and bull's head (no. 27). Glazing was widely used in architectural plaques and bricks and in vessels (no. 28). Beautifully finished stonework plentiful as demonstrated by the architectural carving and small stone objects from Persepolis, and shown here in a petaled dish (no. 34) and small lion's head (no. 35).

Seleucid rule in Iran was short-lived and constantly harassed by the Parthians, a tribe of probable Scythian origin from the eastern regions. Many parts of the country experienced little or no Hellenistic influence, and the ram rhyton (no. 29) may be from one of them. The small bronze eagle (no. 77) however is realistically modeled in western style. More provincial are the stucco roundel (no. 106) and capital (no. 107) which could be either Seleucid or Parthian.

From beyond the eastern border is a seated stucco Buddha (no. 108). The use of Hellenistic drapery folds, facial features and expressions, seen here on a minor scale, culminated in the delights of Gandharan sculpture and relief.

By the 2nd c. B.C., Parthian control was established in Iran and Mesopotamia as well. Parthian objects in the Habib Anavian Collection are largely of bronze and, as might be expected of a people of nomadic origin, include both stocky horse figurines (nos. 80-81) and a horse trapping (no. 79). The lovely elongated cheetah (no. 83) is indicative of Parthian interest in the hunt. The belt plaque (no. 82) and buckle (no. 84) may be Parthian, too.

The two small horse plaques of faience (no. 85), a material closely related to glass, show Parthian familiarity with that compound. It was during this period that glass manufacture became a leading industry in Syria and Palestine, then largely under Roman rule. Nos. 86-105 are examples found in Iran but made in the levant. Those labeled "Roman" are of Roman type, but probably from the Near East. The small, colorful containers were used for cosmetics, and some have been found with small metal spatulae inside.

The blue glass amphora (no. 103) is probably of the Sasanian period, and nos. 104-105 may belong there too or be early Islamic.

The Sasanians, like the Achaemenids, toke their name from a dynasty, in this case a real or legendary King Sasan. Under Ardashir I they routed the Parthians in 224 A.D. and controlled Iran and many parts of the Near East until the murder of their last king in 651 A.D. when the rule of Islam was established.

The most impressive Sasanian works are the great rock reliefs, notably those of Naqsh-i Rustam and Taq-i Bustan. They were great builders, and much of their architecture is known from standing ruins or excavated remains. Stucco decoration was used extensively on the architectural members of important palace rooms. Three such plaques (nos. 109-111) are in the Anavian Collection.

lastly, a small footed sliver bowl (no. 112) shows the delicate touch and skill of the Sasanian metalworkers, brought to its height in the rich decorative plates of silver, gilt and niello.

For further reading, l. Vanden Berghe, Archeologie de I'lran ancien, leiden 1959, has an extensive bibliography by region and site, pp. 140-198, and by chronology, pp. 205-248 passim. E. Porada, The Art of Ancient Iran, New York 1965, has a less complete but later bibliography arranged by period and subdivided by material, pp. 262-267. The most recent listing can be found in M. Mellink et al., Propylaen Kunstgeschichte, 13, Fruhe Stufen der Kunst, Berlin 1974, pp. 350-352, and W. Orthmann, et al., ibid., 14, Der alte Orient, Berlin 1975, pp. 550-551.

The catalogue is arranged according to material, and is generally in chronological order within sections. It begins with pottery, then continues with stone, bronze, glass, faience, stucco and silver. In most cases, the place of origin, period and date follow the title. Measurements are in both inches and centimeters, and the greatest dimension is given; where diameter is given, it is the greatest diameter, not necessarily that of the opening. A short description of the object follows, and where there is a second paragraph, comparative material and references are provided.

Joyce Geary Volk
New York, 1977

Early Luristan Bronze Cheekpiece, 1st millennium B.C.


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