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IRANIAN POTTERY IN THE ORIENTAL INSTITUTE

By Peggy Horton Grant, Museum Volunteer
The Oriental Institute,
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 142, Summer 1994, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


As a volunteer for Registrar and Associate Curator Ray Tindel, I have had the great opportunity to register artifacts from prehistoric Iran. Hidden away in a basement storage area with an IBM computer, I first learned the registration procedures from Ray; then Research Associate Abbas Alizadeh introduced me to some of the wonders of Iranian prehistoric pottery.

The collection of Iranian pottery in the Oriental Institute encompasses material from several regions. My first assignment was to organize, classify, and register pottery sherds from Tall-e Bakun A, located a mile from Persepolis in Fars province, and then to do the same for the Gremliza Surface Collection from Susiana in southwestern Iran (see map). My next project will be to register the pottery from Chogha Mish on the Susiana plain, excavated for twelve seasons by the late Professors Pinhas Delougaz and Helene Kantor.

The painted pottery of prehistoric Iran is to me exciting evidence of the creativity and ingenuity of the early peoples of Iran. With the imminent and long-awaited publication of the first five seasons at Chogha Mish and the publication of the second and last season at Tall-e Bakun, it seems appropriate to give you an overview of the excavations, purchases and gifts that have made our collection such an important one. (The Oriental Institute has the largest collection of Iranian painted pottery sherds in the United States, and the Louvre has the largest collection in Europe.)

The Oriental Institute's ambitious program and considerable means in the 1930s ushered in a series of archaeological excavations in Iran and Mesopotamia. One of the first sites chosen by the Oriental Institute for archaeological excavation was Persepolis, in the highland province of Fars. In 1928, Ernst Herzfeld, the first field director of the Persepolis project, dug a trial trench at the small prehistoric site of Tall-e Bakun A. In 1932 Herzfeld appointed Alexander Langsdorff and Donald McCown to conduct systematic excavations at the site. When Erich Schmidt succeeded Herzfeld in 1935, McCown continued the excavations at Bakun for another season in 1937. The results of this last, important season are not published, but Alizadeh studied them for his doctoral thesis, and published some of the data that pertain to the presence of administrative technology at the site.

The next addition to our collection arrived in 1945, through the purchase of part of the Herzfeld Collection, which had been offered for sale by the Field Museum of Natural History. Kantor and Delougaz made a selection of the most important and valuable pieces; regrettably, financial considerations did not allow the Institute to purchase the entire collection. Most of these pieces are whole painted pottery vessels ranging in date from the sixth to the second millennium B.C. Examples from this collection may be seen in display cases 4, 6, and 7 in the Iranian Gallery. Many of these vessels come from Tepe Giyan in Lurestan and from the Iranian central plateau.

For the next addition to our collection, and perhaps our most important one, we must travel over the rugged mountains from the highlands of Fars to the Susiana plain in Khuzestan, in the lowlands of southwestern Iran. It was here in 1961 that Delougaz and Kantor began their twelve-season excavation at Chogha Mish under the auspices of the Oriental Institute (later co-sponsored by the University of California-Los Angeles). The death of Delougaz at Chogha Mish at the end of the ninth season in 1975 was a great loss, but Miss Kantor carried on in the field until 1978, when the Iranian revolution put an end to all American expeditions in Iran.

The importance of Chogha Mish and its place in Near Eastern archaeology is described in the accounts published in the Oriental Institute Annual Reports 1962-1978. The cultural levels of prehistoric Chogha Mish are delineated by the characteristics of the painted pottery. Archaic Susiana was the earliest period discovered there, dated to ca. 6000 B.C., although at the nearby site of Chogha Banut pottery was found that antedated Archaic Susiana pottery from Chogha Mish; this pottery represents the Formative Susiana period.

Some designs of the Archaic Susiana sequence are characterized by zigzag parallel lines in a rickrack arrangement (no. 1); a wide bowl with alternating zones of parallel wavy lines and vertical bands (no. 2) represents the Painted-burnished ware, one of the earliest wares in the Archaic Susiana sequence. Another typical early example is a bowl with cross-hatched squares in a checkerboard pattern (no. 3).

The succeeding Early Susiana period (ca. 5500 B.C.) developed more sophisticated arrangements of painted motifs. A lid is painted with geometric zigzags and birds with outstretched wings. An Early Susiana bowl has painted decorations on the exterior and a set of what appears to be four canines on the interior (no. 4). Another bowl shows the characteristic use of zigzags, squares, and cross-hatchings (no. 5), a pattern that remained a favorite throughout the prehistoric Susiana sequence.

In the following Middle Susiana period (ca. 5000 B.C.), Chogha Mish became the largest population center in Susiana. The repertory of painted motifs expanded greatly, while the previous artistic traditions continued. One example from the earliest phase of the Middle Susiana period shows a series of broad zigzags on the exterior and a circular design filled with "butterflies" or a checkerboard pattern on the interior (no. 6). Mask-like human faces with pigtails decorate an elegant bowl (no. 7). A snake crawling up the side of a tall, graceful beaker (no. 8) reminds us of the later beakers found at Susa.

Many examples from Chogha Mish can be found in the Iranian Gallery in display cases 14 and 15. Here one notices examples of mountain sheep/goats, simply yet elegantly rendered with a few sweeping curves to indicate the body and horns.

Until the end of the Middle Susiana period, Chogha Mish was the most important center in Susiana, but as the site declined in population, nearby Susa grew rapidly and replaced Chogha Mish as the regional center in the succeeding Late Susiana period (ca. 4000 B.C.).

Before leaving Chogha Mish it is well to recall other Oriental Institute projects in southwestern Iran. In 1970 Hans Nissen and Charles Redman surveyed the Behbahan region (southeast of Susiana) and conducted trial excavations at Tappeh Sohz and Do Tulan for the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology and the Oriental Institute (see Oriental Institute Annual Report 1970/71). Elizabeth Carter also contributed to the collection through her 1968-69 surveys in both the Behbahan and Susiana plains (Iran, volume 8). The materials from the excavations at the important site of Tall-e Ghazir (still unpublished), conducted by McCown and Caldwell in the late 1940s, further enhance our collections from this region.

In addition to the Herzfeld materials from the Zagros mountains, we have materials from two excavations conducted by Robert Braidwood in the late 1950s and early 1960s at Tappeh Sarab and Tappeh Asiab, as well as the materials from the excavations at Sorkh Dum, conducted by Erich Schmidt and published recently by Maurits van Loon. Our last addition to the Iranian prehistoric collection at the Oriental Institute came in 1988 as a gift of almost 10,000 sherds, as well as some complete vessels and small objects. The story behind the gift is interesting. Dr. F. G. L. Gremliza, a native of Munich, Germany, worked for seventeen years as a public health doctor in Khuzestan. He traveled from village to village in a wide area on the Susiana plain and became a good and helpful friend of Delougaz and Kantor in the early 1960s.

In his travels Dr. Gremliza picked up painted pottery sherds from forty-three prehistoric mounds, many of which have never been mentioned in other surveys and which now may have fallen victim to bulldozers. Dr. Gremliza was aware of the importance of his collection and had been looking for a suitable person to publish it. When Helene Kantor mentioned the importance of the material to Alizadeh, he traveled to Munich to meet with Dr. Gremliza and to see the material. Three years later, in 1990, the material was published as a Technical Report of the Museum of Anthropology of the University of Michigan.

The survey shows the area was sparsely settled in the Archaic Susiana period, and very few sherds can be dated with any certainty to this early period; this is not unusual as Archaic Susiana material is often buried deep under the deposits of later periods. Sherd 9 is a possible example of late Archaic Susiana period motif. Sherds 10-11 are characteristic examples of the Early Susiana period designs. A band of parallel wavy lines in reverse add movement to the rim of a broad bowl (no. 10); a band of reverse parallel wavy lines is shown on the diagonal of a pottery stand with bands of cross-hatching on either side (no. 11).

The Middle Susiana period is represented by many more sites and a greater number of sherds, indicating a large increase in the size of the population in the area. A later Middle Susiana tortoise-shaped vessel is decorated by a row of ibexes painted with a few masterful, sweeping lines (no. 12). A row of hedgehogs framed in scallops enlivens another Middle Susiana bowl (no. 13).

In his monograph based on the Gremliza material, Alizadeh argues for the presence of a phase between the destruction and desertion of Chogha Mish in ca. 5,000 B.C. (Middle Susiana) and the establishment of Susa. He calls this phase Late Susiana 1 as the antecedent to Late Susiana 2 or Susa A, which is traditionally known as the last phase of the prehistoric Susiana sequence. The Late Susiana 1 phase is characterized by bold motifs and the use of dots. Two characteristic Late Susiana 1 vessels have parallel horizontal rows of dots, bands, and stripes (no. 14); and rows of dots create a panel for an abstract design, possibly representing a lizard, frog, or a beetle (no. 15). Another tall vessel has a striking design of parallel zigzags and a series of vertical wiggly lines in reverse bands (no. 16).

In the final phase of the Late Susiana period, the creative power and artistic sophistication of the Susiana potters blossomed. This development can also be seen in the Chogha Mish sequence in the Iranian Gallery. The Gremliza Collection includes a particularly fine example from this phase (no. 17). This shallow, open bowl is decorated by abstract representations of shaggy goats arranged around a scalloped circle containing a pinwheel. Each pair of goats is separated from another by highly stylized flying birds. Here is an excellent example of symmetry, rhythm, and motion.

I would like to return now to my principal project, which was briefly mentioned at the beginning. In 1942 Alexander Langsdorff and Donald E. McCown published a complete report of the 1932 season at Bakun as an Oriental Institute Publication (volume 59). This handsome volume is illustrated with some eighty plates of Bakun painted pottery. McCown analyzes the design patterns into twenty different categories and discusses methods of composition. He emphasizes that "rhythm is the quality common to most of the designs," and that symmetry is an integral part of their composition.

Animal motifs such as a bull with a pinwheel floating between its horns (no. 18), lively rabbits (no. 19), birds, and snakes were favorite subjects of the artists from Bakun. Flocks of birds are shown both flying (no. 20) and wading (no. 21). Fish are sometimes enclosed in ovals suggestive of nets (no. 22). The pottery and small objects from Tall-e Bakun are on view in display case 11 in the Iranian Gallery. The shapes of the vessels and the arrangement of decorative motifs create a harmonious and pleasing effect. The conical bowls are decorated with tremendously enlarged mouflon horns that fill the sides of the bowl in a rhythmic pattern (no. 23). On a tall beaker the contrast between the rim band of reverse triangles and the diagonal swirls of opposed stacked dashes provides tension and movement (no. 24). Another sherd from our collection, not on display, shows a design combining enlarged horns decorated with blossoms with fills of reverse circles surrounded by cross-hatched shapes (no. 25).

At Bakun human figures rarely occur on the sherds, and when they do, they are usually rendered in a highly stylized and abstract form (nos. 26-27). Lizards are more frequent and resemble human figures (nos. 28-29). But notice the pair of lizards (no. 30, top view) skillfully drawn on the shoulder of a jar. Such naturalistic drawing is rarely seen in prehistoric art, but this vessel, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibits the movement, symmetry, and harmony of the art of the period.

The second and last season at Bakun in 1937 extended the area previously excavated and provided a better picture of the site. The materials from the second season, as well as those unpublished or poorly published from the first season, were analyzed by Alizadeh for his doctoral thesis. In 1988, he published some of his results in Iran, volume 26. In this article he argues that Bakun was not just a simple farming community, but an important center for manufacturing pottery and other goods with an incipient administrative technology. He also shows that Bakun exhibits the early stages of those socio-economic processes that culminated in state organizations in Iran.

The importance of the Bakun material in this light calls for the final publication of the archaeological materials in our archives. Most of the initial preparation, such as sorting, classifying, registering, and drawing of objects is already completed. The Oriental Institute is now looking into possibilities of obtaining financial support for the publication of Bakun materials and has established a fund for Iranian studies that gratefully accepts financial assistance towards the publication of this important material from Bakun.


Peggy Horton Grant has been a volunteer at the Oriental Institute for over twenty years. A former Docent Coordinator, she is also a member of the Visiting Committee and the James Henry Breasted Society. She holds degrees in Philosophy from Wellesley College and Columbia University.

Revised: July 30, 2007

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