For about a century we have been aware that ancient Persia was a major factor in the complex of populations that laid the foundations for the development of civilizations, but actual proof of this fact has been made available only through very recent discoveries. Now we know for certain that already in very ancient times this country played a leading role in the formulation and elaboration of technological and artistic progress. The recent archaeological excavations carried out in southeast Iran demonstrate that, at the dawn of urban civilization, the Persian plateau and Susiana were just as important as Mesopotamia.
Archaeological research still in progress in the Halil Rud Valley, south of Kerman, was first concerned with protecting the prehistoric necropolises from clandestine, large-scale looting on the part of the inhabitants of the region. Local people were systematically looting the tombs, and the stolen treasures were sent to the leading art markets in the Western world — London, Zürich, New York, etc. Taken out of their context, these objects lost their cultural importance and ended up having only commercial value, thereby becoming isolated and therefore ‘voiceless’ artifacts for historians, art historians and anthropologists. The official ban on plundering, together with the emergence of scientific surveys organized by Iranian archaeologists, have demonstrated that the region was the center of a culture and an art that developed around 3100 BC. The architectural and sculptural creations brought to light in the areas situated between Kerman and the Strait of Hormuz, at an altitude of 1968 ft (600 m) above sea level and in a region of palm orchards surrounded by mountains peaks over 13,000 ft (4000 m) high, are of the utmost importance and interest. The works unearthed by the archaeologists were contemporaneous with the flowering of Sumerian art at Ur, El Obeid, Uruk or Telloh (Lagash), and in certain respects rival the production of these famous sites.
In Southeast Persia there was a proto-Elamitic civilization that early on boasted a primitive form of writing, proof of which is provided by tablets brought to light at Tepe Sialk (north of Isfahan), Tepe Yahya and Susa. The largest city in Elam in that period Was in fact Susa, situated at the confluence of the valleys of the Kherka and Karun rivers, which are perennial and flow into the Tigris and Euphrates in Lower Mesopotamia and then empty into the Persian Gulf. However, the digs carried out in these Khuzistan lowlands from 1883 on by the French mission at Susa ruined this site so badly that it is now impossible to establish chronological data with any degree of certainty. The aim of the excavations at that time was to concentrate on gathering objects (pottery and sculpture) rather than attempting to establish dates on the basis of the stratigraphy.
Consequently archaeologists are now unable to provide precise dates for the superb pottery of Susa, which was unearthed over a century ago. The dates published by André Parrot in 1960 regarding these artifacts — the beginning of the IV millennium BC — must therefore be accepted with caution. In any case, we will return to this subject further on.
The Iranian archeologist Youssof Majidzadeh who is now in charge of the research at the site of Halil Rud (in particular Jiroft, a locality after which the art of the region was named) has accumulated a collection of hundreds of delicately decorated stone objects. The special quality of the local material — a type of chlorite —makes it particularly suitable for sculpture: vases, bowls, cylindrical bottles, statuettes, weights (in the shape of ‘purses’), and animal figures, all accompanied by various ceramic objects.
The research carried out at the tepes of Konar Sandal A and Konar Sandal B, carried out with stratigraphic excavations, has brought to light unfired brick ramparts that are 36 ft (11m) thick and has also unearthed terraces that crowned the uppermost part of the tepes. These summit platforms, which arc from 36 to 50 ft (11 to 15 m) above the ground, have a surface area of about 10 acres (4 hectares), for centuries people lived here, repeatedly rebuilding their dwellings made of unfired bricks and clayey earth compressed with straw and rubble. Since this material was brittle, it could not resist the climate and the onslaughts of neighboring peoples or nomads, so the inhabitants had to continuously build new constructions over the ruined ones. This led to the creation of artificial mounds known as tepes. Archaeologists identified 12, 15 or 18 superposed levels by digging carefully into these unique hillocks that dot the Iranian plateau, much like the tells in Mesopotamia.
One of the most amazing aspects of the culture that grew up in southeast Iran is the presence of a form of writing known as proto-Elamitic, which probably dates from the lVth millennium
BC and was discovered on tablets whose inscriptions are now being studied meticulously in order to find a key to decipherment. The first tablets, discovered in Susa in 1901, consisted of about 200 pieces and another 490 were found in 1923. In 1949 the specialists found 5,529 different signs.
Analogous tablets found at Tepe Sialk, near Kashan, have allowed scholars to consider the Iranian plateau the center of this early form of writing. Later on, the discovery of other tablets at
Tepe Yahya, in the heart of the Jjroft site, proved that the cradle of this writing — like that of the chlorite sculpture — might very well be the Haul Rud region, south of Kerman.
The Artistic Vocabulary
The interest the sculpted objects found in the Halil Rud Valley gave rise to lies in the decoration, which is highly original. The representative procedure renders everyday life in an allusive and vigorous manner: wild animals and livestock, human figures and gods, and even monuments such as ziggurats and building façades. These works also evoke a world of monsters and demons. The motifs cover the surface of finely chiseled objects that derive from a coherent and rigorous system, revealing a solid and secure aesthetic sensibility. A study of these works helps us to better understand the human condition and universe of that epoch; it is an indispensable key that allows scholars to interpret the societies that flourished in southeast Persia between the IVth and IIIrd millennia BC.
The great virtuosity of the craftsmen in the province of Kashan stem mccl from years and years of experience ¡n working the material at their disposal: chlorite is a dense, homogeneous stone that lends itself to relief sculpture as well as to dressing. The persistent quest for perfection attested to by the thousands of pieces that have been found is truly admirable. Discovered in the tombs at Jiroft, Konar Sandal and Tepe Yahya, as well as in the cemeteries in the innumerable inhabited sites in the valley, where this ‘funerary’ art not only flourished but became a veritable industry, these objects reveal the precocious interest of the southern Persian populations in artistic expression.
In general, the Halil Rud Valley creations in chlorite stone are rather small: they consist of vases with a base, conical vases with an open neck, cylindrical bowls, weights (known as ‘purses’ or Jiroft Handbag because of their semicircular handle), portraits carved in stone, animal figures (lions, eagles, scorpions), disks with relief decoration, rectangular plaques and tablets, and cubic receptacles covered with recurrent motifs.
There are extremely different types of decoration in the true sense of the word: often this consists of simple undulating lines, rows of dotted lines, crosses, spirals or recurrent motifs much like wool ringlets with curls that are more or less developed. This last-mentioned type, which represents ram or goat fleece, is rendered with a technique that calls to mind the dress of the Sumerian statues of the priests and rulers of Mari that Parrot brought to light, or the dress of the goddesses of Susa, or again the mosaics of the so called standards of Ur.
Spirals in the shape of undulating ribbons represent the Halil Rud River, while the small superposed protuberances, which look like heaps of earth pushed up by moles, represent the mountain chains that constitute the natural environment of the valley. The vegetation also presents interesting variations: there are date palms with a host of roots that sink into the ground, large palm trees that rise up and then bend down, as well as thorny plants typical of the steppes, and even acacias and conifers. The surfaces of these objects may also be covered with intaglio cavities in which polychrome stones are mounted: by incrusting white lime stone, alabaster, cornelian or lapis lazuli (from Afghanistan) the artisans have created colored compositions that add a touch of glamour to their works.
An entire repertory is given over the motif of architecture, which is another amazing subject in the artistic production of this time. On cylindrical bowls there are images of regular facades, with pilasters that form tall plinths. The chambers with doors and windows are surmounted by flexed architraves, whose curves seem to be produced by the weight of the structure on rather feeble palm-tree trunks. However, the most striking motifs are the images of constructions in the shape of ziggurats. Many cylindrical vases have representations of an edifice with three or four gradually receding stories, which reflect the concept of the classical Mesopotamian ziggurat. This type of object is often surmounted by a pole or ‘horn,’ which according to later Babylonian texts indicates their sacred nature. Now while the decorated vases at Jiroft have been dated at 3100-2600 BC, these small ziggurats from the Persian steppes seem to be more ancient than the structures built in the Mesopotamian plain, which are similar in some respects but much more impressive.
This fact alone means that Persia was the wellspring of these ‘artificial mountains,’ the enormous stepped bases of the temples that dotted the Land of Two Rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates).
It is even possible that the storied tower originally crowned the tall terrace of the tepes, thus becoming the top part of a city as well as its religious symbol and insignia of power
At this stage mention should be made of the votive or emblematic pieces representing tall perforated images of animals (eagles, scorpions, and even men-scorpions). These objects, which were carved tablets, have engraved guilloche decoration (interlaced bands with openings containing round devices) that is animated by polychrome stones. In this case, only a function connected to power — a ‘royal’ insignia or sacred symbol of a priest — would explain the motive behind such creations, which are from 12 to 15 inches (30 to 40 cm) high and may have been used as scepters.