Vase with Divine Figures

  • Eastern Iran
  • Late 3rd - early 2nd millennium
  • Chlorite schist, turquoise
  • H-23.5 D-8.6 W-12.9
Catalogue Entry(Bac#001)

3rd millennium B.C.
Chlorite schist, turquoise
H. 23.5 cm, Mouth dia. 8.6 cm, Base dia. 12.9 cm
This soapstone vessel has a tall thin cylindrical shape that flares a bit in the upper section. The sides of this jar are carved with relief images including human figures wearing bull horns. These figures have long hair and muscular torsos, and wear short kilts with thick belts. One figure is seen kneeling on a leopard with both hands grasping the tail and horns of a bull (see the rendering of entire composition on vase, p. 13). Another figure is seen grasping a snake in both hands. The upper section of this jar shows a smaller figure crouching on a bull, and this figure reappears near the mouth of the jar, with a bird of prey with wings spread shown next to the small figure.
The holes cut into the surface of the jar would have held inlaid work, and a few stones remain inlaid on the piece.
From the beginning to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC there were a great many soapstone vessels made in Eastern Iran or western Central Asia (Bactria), and in addition to abstract figures, their surfaces were carved with relief images of plants, bulls, leopards, lions, birds of prey, scorpions, buildings, human figures and astronomical bodies. These relief images would then be inlaid with either turquoise or carnelian stones. This type of glittering vessel was used as a trade item throughout Asia. Thus we can say that the style of these vessels was a inter-cultural style. The soapstone vessel which was excavated at Khafaje, Iraq, said to come from Eastern Iran, has figural designs like those seen here, but those figures are thought to represent constellations as they are shown accompanied by a snake and water.
A bull is shown grasped by a figure on this jar, while the Khafaje vessel shows a lion devouring a bull as a bird of prey aims for the same prey. These figures could possibly represent the water which is the source of all life in the beliefs of the later fire worshipping religions, and the bull whose death gives life to all things, or the bull which is seen as the messenger of the heavenly gods in west Asian traditions. Recent excavations have shown that temple structures with elements common to the fire worshiping religions already existed by the Central Asian Bronze Age. These human figures supporting water, bulls or snakes are thought to be expressions of god spirits, with the bull constellation seen as the symbol of winter (the rainy season), the leopard the symbol of summer. Thus we can see the desires of the people of this region who had been involved with agriculture since antiquity.