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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

[From: Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]

1.Geography and History --- 2.Elam --- 3.Sumer --- 4.Sumer and Akkad --- 5.Syria & Palestine --- 6.Hurri & Hittites --- 7.Anatolia

The Art of The Middle East - Including
Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine

Chapter Two

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Elam Before the Coming of the Indo-Europeans


In our first chapter the al 'Ubaid people, the earliest settlers in the Euphrates delta, were described as 'newcomers from the east'. The statement derives a certain support from tradition; "as they jouneyed from the east they found a plain in the land of Shinar [ = Babylon] and they dwelt there" [Genesis XI, 2]; but it is based on the material evidence of the pottery of al 'Ubaid and of Susa respectively, and on that evidence it is generally agreed that the al 'Ubaid people were related, culturally and presumably ethnically, to the early inhabitants of Elam.

The Susa pottery does not stand alone. In the late neolithic and in the chalcolithic periods painted pottery was produced over a vast area of Asia. In a Stone Age site near Persepolis, at Nihavend and at Tepe Siyalk south of Teheran; at Tepe Hissar south of Astrabad; eastward, near Ashkhabad, at Anau and Ak-Tepe and at Namazgah-Tepe; on the edge of the Kara Kum desert at Jeitun and Chopan-Tepe; as far away as Baluchistan, where we have the Kulli painted wares, and up in Mongolia where the finest of all the decorative schemes were evolved; in all these and in many other intermediate sites excavation has produced painted pottery which is not indeed the same everywhere [different local schools can easily be distinguished], but shows a similarity of technique and parallels in design and motive which are sufficiently close to suggest, if not a common source, at least contacts and exchanges resulting in something like cultural uniformity. Naturally, in different areas development might follow independent lines. . . . .[p. 37]


Because of these local differences, and also because our knowledge of the various Iran schools of ceramics is still very imperfect, we cannot point to any one area from which the al 'Ubaid people migrated into the delta. We cannot even say that their pottery is derived from that of Susa - many authorities indeed hold that its early phases antedate the real Susa ware - but it is related; [p. 37] and since Elam is not only the nearest to Sumer of all the eastern painted pottery areas but also is geographically a branch of the Mesopotamian delta rather than a part of Iran the cultural connection of Sumer and Elam in the earliest days may safely be assumed. . . .[p. 38]

If on the political side Elam was so closely involved with Mesopotamia, economic connections were also close. Not only was Elam the channel through which passed much of the Mesopotamian trade with the east, but to some extent it was itself a source of supply; .... [p. 40]

The al 'Ubaid painted ware is at its best in its earliest phase, but even then it never approaches the quality of Susa. There we have a highly-stylized self-conscious art for which the decoration of a vessel must be conditioned by the vessel's form so as to create a real unity. Mrs. Groenewegen-Frankfort has analyzed particularly well such a goblet as is illustrated in the Plate on p. 28. [not included with this computer document] "The ibexes . . . are so superbly characterized by the taut curve of the resilient body, the tense contraction of the legs, the exuberant swing of the horns, that, though by no means projections of actual forms, they appear to have inner coherence and are not built up out of geometric abstractions. But they also form an intricate pattern which harmonizes with the decorative scheme and the essential forms of tall slender beakers and which on round bowls accentuates circumference and radius. The result is that these animals seem neither moving nor at rest: they are pure form, all temporal connotation is absent." [H. A. Groenewegen-Frankfort, Arrest and Movement, p. 6]

This is high praise, but almost as much might be given to the best examples of Namazgah III ware, and if the pottery of Tepe Siyalk and of Nihavend does not quite rise to such heights it at least shows more taste and more imagination than the al 'Ubaid potter ever possessed. Assuming as we must, that all alike started from the same humble level, we must realize that the Iranian peoples in the chalcolithic period had, at least so far as their pottery is concerned, and we have no other criterion, a finer artistic sense than had the settlers in Mesopotamia.

But in Elam or the neighbouring areas there is no sign of such cultural progress as was made by the Sumerians: the early promise does not seem to have been fulfilled.

There are historical reasons for this. We have seen how and why civilization developed in Sumer, and in Elam the same operative conditions did not exist. If, as the Aratta legend implies, Elam was [p. 38] under the suzerainty of the kings of Erech it was already but an appanage of Sumer, and certainly in later days it was subjected by the Akkadian dynasty of Sargon and again reduced to provincial status by the Third Dynasty of Ur. Elam did indeed take its revenge when it overthrew that dynasty by force of arms and set up at Isin and afterwards at Larsa an Elamite government over the whole of southern Mesopotamia; but this was a military and political success which does not connote any artistic accomplishment; and when at length Hammurabi of Babylon suppressed the Elamite kingdom there followed a brief respite before the Indo-European invaders seized Elam and all Iran. [p. 39]

If on the political side Elam was so closely involved with Mesopotamia, economic connections were also close. Not only was Elam the channel through which passed much of the Mesopotamian trade with the east, but to some extent it was itself a source of supply; where such a relation exists between neighbours the supplier is prone to adopt the fashions of his client rather than vice versa. It is therefore not surprising that in art Elam should have been content to copy Mesopotamia rather than to initiate anything of her own. In the third millennium B.C. the Elamite scribes invented a hieroglyphic script for business purposes; but nearly all Elamite texts are written in cuneiform and in the Akkadian language. Monuments of art are so few and far between that we have to call in evidence some which are not Elamite at all but the work of Elam's northern neighbours; one of these, a rock-cut relief celebrating a victory by a king of the Lullubi, would seem to be a lamentable pastiche of the stela of Naram-Sin; the second, also a rock carving, shows the victorious king Annubanini with the goddesses Ninni holding in leash eight naked prisoners; in composition and in style it frankly imitates the Sumerian, the king wears the Sumerian kaunakes kilt, and most of the gods invoked in the cuneiform inscription are Akkadian. It is fair to assume that the art of Elam proper was equally unoriginal. When we do have, in the fourteenth century B.C., an authentic Elamite work, a bronze statue of queen Napir-asu [the head and one arm are lacking], it is in Mesopotamian style: the figure is conceived, as in Sumerian sculpture, in terms of a cone supported by a cylinder; the drapery is a mere sheath unrelated to the bodily form beneath it, but the modelling of the flesh is excellent and the statue must have been a really fine thing. But without the inscription giving the queen's name we should have had no reason to think that it was an Elamite statue.

At Tchoga-Zambil, not far from Susa, there are the well-preserved remains of a brick ziggurat. [Cf. E. Parada, Ancient Iran [Art of The World]. It dates from the thirteenth century B.C., the 'golden age' of Elam, when king Shutruk-Nahhunte overthrew the kassite dynasty of Babylon and carried off the statue of Marduk to Susa: the ziggurat as such belongs, of course, to ancient Sumerian architecture, and to that extent Elam is here following the experiment with modifications of the original design, and the Elamite ziggurat, tough it is conventional in having the seven stages which characterize the ziggurat at Ur of Late Babylonian times, is in some respects unlike any other known to us. Instead of the triple stairway against the façade of the building, its three flights converging at the [p. 40] centre, the Elamite ziggurat has single stairways on three of its faces, and these have monumental vaulted gate-towers behind which the flights run through vaulted passages contrived inside the brick mass of the building. Here, apparently, we have evidence of originality on the part of Elamite architects; but even so their originality does not go beyond playing a variation on an old theme.

It might be urged that if there is indeed so little of Elamite art to be discussed, and that little is imitative, any discussion is otiose and unnecessary to a history of art. But for the history of art Elam is essential.

The creative imagination which was manifest in the prehistoric pottery of Susa may have lain dormant for many centuries, or may have found adequate expression in the art of the kindred but more advanced civilization of the Euphrates valley; but it was not dead. Revitalized by the incoming of the Indo-Euorpeans that imagination was to find expression in Achaemenid art, and subsequently in the art of Persia. What we find most admirable in Persian art is the perfect harmony of decoration and form: the decorative motives may have been borrowed, the forms too may claim no originality, but they are combined with such unerring taste that each seems indispensable to the other: it is the quality which had distinguished the clay vessels of prehistoric Susa. [p. 41]

The earliest settlers [in the Euphrates delta] were possessed of a neolithic culture of no mean order. As farmers, they were breeders of domestic cattle and growers of domesticated grain; their pottery was excellent, and their hand-modelled clay figurines, the only free works of art of the period that are known to us, have distinct merit. . . . . These minor arts are characteristic of the al 'Ubaid period only and, so far as we can see, had no direct influence upon later ages, though they do bear witness to an artistic sense without which Sumerian art would not have come to fruition. It was to architecture that the al 'Ubaid people made an immediate and a lasting contribution. In a land with no stone and no hard timber the only building materials supplied by nature were mud and reeds. Such might seem a poor basis for a school of architecture. The immigrants into the delta appear to have brought with them the knowledge of the making of mud bricks--crude mud bricks were used for the earliest of the sixteen superimposed al 'Ubaid temples excavated at Eridu --and had they employed only those they might well never have progressed beyond the primitive hut. But a nimble-minded people took advantage of the immensely tall and stout reeds that cover the Mesopotamian marshlands, and most of their building was done with those . . .[p. 43]


[Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]




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