01. Global Prehistory, Art & Humanities

#5. Beaker with ibex motifs. Susa, Iran. 4200–3500 BCE. Painted terra cotta.

#5. Beaker with ibex motifs. Susa, Iran. 4200–3500 BCE. Painted terra cotta.

Art Historical Background

When I first look at this piece I immediately see one large animal and I can begin to identify it as a very, very stylized goat (aka an ibex, hence the title). However the other two animals are a little more elusive. “I spy with my little eye a…canine!” Do you see it? There are running dogs along the band on top of the goat 🙂
Ok the second one is a little bit harder, “I spy with my little eye…a bird with a long neck!” On the topmost band you can see little ovals with short lines coming from the bottom and a tall vertical line coming from the top. It is believe that these are styled herons or other type of bird with long, skinny necks. I know, I know, speculation! But once those animal images were suggested to me, I can’t unseen them (hence why I prefer my students get to those conclusions the hard way).

So why do we care that there are birds, and dogs, and goats…oh my! 🙂 Let’s think back to some of the other animal-centered pieces we have seen: The Hall of the Bulls from Lascaux and Apollo 11 Stones. Both of those were Paleolithic and had heavy emphasis on animals that were wild for hunting. These animals however, represent domesticated species in the case of the goats and dogs. This piece is a great introduction to how the invention of agriculture changed Prehistoric man’s view of the world and art.

Read more: The Prehistoric Natural World


Also, notice how the animals on the beaker are all “contained;” they are set in their neat little boxes (that remind me of pens to be honest) and think of the contrast to the running wild animals of Lascaux.

Also, do not forget the material: terra-cotta. Pottery requires people to be stationary. This piece would have certainly broken while on the move as a hunter-gatherer group. Once we start looking at the material we can also discuss function. Most of us would think pots were for daily use but there are a few items that jump out at us that scream ritual object:

  1. The walls of this beaker are so incredibly thin that it would not have been very useful for storing food or cooking
  2. We do not find any evidence of vegetal matter inside the beaker
  3. The time and energy it took to decorate the beaker lends itself to ceremonial (fancy) use rather than every day where it may be damage (think of your fine china)
  4. This piece was found in a burial site…the dead don’t cook

I want to address the last point for a second because funerary objects are abundant in art history and archeology. These pieces come up a lot because they were the few pieces that were intended to stand the test of time and protected to do just that, while other everyday objects were used and abused until they were discarded. Another reason funerary objects are so interesting to me is that they clearly show that a culture has a form of religion – a belief in an afterlife is a cornerstone of most world religions. Why bother burying people with things if you do not think about the hereafter? Do they have a concept of a Paradise after they are dead? Although we do not know anything about their religious traditions or understand, we know they must have one.

Oh AAAANNNDDD the site this was found, Susa, is a UNESCO Site 🙂

All of these disjointed pieces of information paint a vibrant picture of Neolithic life and serves as a great comparison to the Paleolithic Period.



Next Time: #6. Anthropomorphic stele. Arabian Peninsula. Fourth millennium B.C.E. Sandstone.


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