Archive for the 'Middle East' Category

Object: Carnelian Seal Stone

Carnelian Seal
Sassanian (Neo-Persian)
Middle East
224 CE – 651 CE
Materials: Stone

This small object is a carnelian seal from the Sassanian Empire. The hard orange or red-colored stone is only 0.75 inches tall, 0.56 inches long, and 0.19 inches wide. The four corners of the stone are cut to create an elongated octagon, with each of the eight sides cut slanted to the back. The back and sides have no carved inscriptions or detail. The front top half contains the design of a small bird (seen in profile) perched on a branch. A smaller branch with leaves is held in the beak of the bird. A small seal is carved (using intaglio) onto the bottom half with two characters surrounded by an oval ring representing either a rope or snake design. The carvings are highly detailed and have a faint black color in the carved portions. The rest of the surface of the seal is polished.

The Sassanian Empire was the last pre-Islamic empire in Iran, succeeding the Parthian Empire. It was ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty and was considered one of the main powers in the Middle East and Western Asia for more than four centuries (between 224 CE and 651 CE) during what was known as “Late Antiquity.” At its height, the Sassanian Empire encompassed modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and parts of Egypt, Turkey, Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

The Sassanian Empire was considered to have been one of the region’s most important and influential cultures. It witnessed what was considered the peak of ancient Iranian civilization, with an economic and cultural revival that resulted in huge advancements in art and science. The Sassanian Empire greatly influenced the Roman civilization as well as Western Europe, Africa, China, and India, and it played a significant role in the development of both European and Asian medieval art.

A seal stone such as this one from the Classics Collection would have functioned like a signature. It was a way to verify the authenticity of all written documents. Wet lumps of clay or wax were positioned on a document, and then the seal would have been pressed into it. The seal impression would then be left to dry; afterwards, it could be sent to its destination. When someone opened the document, the clay or wax seal would have been broken and removed. There were thousands of such seal stones made, as they needed to be unique for each individual or manufacturer.

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]


Object: Faience Necklace

Figure 1    Egyptian Faience blue beaded necklace from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Egyptian Faience blue beaded necklace from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Blue faience necklace
Africa: Egypt
Date: Modern
Materials: Faience (glass) beads on leather

This small blue beaded necklace is 12 inches long and comes from modern-day Egypt. The leather thong (or string) that holds the beads is tied together in one spot and can be adjusted to fit the person wearing it. The irregular shaped beads are made out of faience, a type of colored glass.

Faience (pronounced “fay-ahns”) has a long-standing history in many countries, especially Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used faience (known as tjehnet) beginning in 3500 BC to make beads, statues, amulets, bowls, and a variety of other objects. One theory is that faience was invented in Mesopotamia in 4000 BC and then brought to Egypt through trade.

Faience was originally developed by ancient Egyptians out of a desire to find a substitute for lapis lazuli, a highly valued dark blue stone. The royalty and nobles of ancient Egypt wanted to show how much power and wealth they had through the beautiful and expensive objects they put in their palaces, temples, and tombs. Lapis lazuli, however, was hard to come by. So, they developed faience, a much cheaper and easily manufactured material, as a substitute.

Faience, known as the “first high-tech ceramic” is made from finely ground quartz (or sand) mixed with lime, copper oxide, water, and a binder agent (such as gum arabic). When mixed together, these ingredients form a kind of paste that can then be put into a ceramic mold, dried, and fired in a kiln (or oven). Early on, it was discovered that adding different minerals (such as manganese) instead of copper oxide would result in different colors of faience including                                                           cobalt blue, purple, and yellow.

Today, the production of faience all around the world has expanded. Artists and scientists continue to experiment with and learn from this fascinating blue glass that experienced its beginnings in ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. This beautiful beaded necklace is only one example of how faience continues to be used today.

Take a look at this cool video that shows step-by-step out to make faience objects using ancient Egyptian molds from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Funerary plaque

Funerary plaque
Southern Arabian Peninsula
1st century BCE
Material: Alabaster

In ancient times the area of southern Arabia, in the modern countries of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman, was home to a number of kingdoms that prospered through caravan trade routes with the cultures of the Mediterranean. Some of these kingdoms include: Saba (referred to as Sheba in the Bible), Hadramawt, Himyar, Qataban and Ma’in. There was often warfare between them over control of frankincense and myrrh: highly prized aromatics burnt on altars all over the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world. The most important deity of these kingdoms was the Moon-god. This god was known by many names but was always shown in art as a bull. The Qatabanians called this deity Amm, and thought of him as their patron deity. Bull head plaques like this one were especially popular on funerary stele at Heid ibn Aqil, the cemetery at Tamna. A similar plaque can be found in the British Museum.

The stone used to carve this plaque and many other pre-Islamic Southern Arabian sculptures is alabaster. This type of stone is sedimentary, which means it was formed when sediments were compressed together over time by water and/or other layers of sediment and cemented together by the combination of minerals and chemicals. Sedimentary rock tends to be softer and easier to carve than igneous or metamorphic types of rock. Alabaster was a popular stone for carving in ancient times and examples of it can be found in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian arts as well as those of Southern Arabia. These ancient artists would shape the stone using stone or metal drills, chisels, saws, and hammers. While the materials used to make these tools have changed over the centuries many of the tool forms used for sculpting stone remain the same today. Below you will find a video showing modern versions of these types of tools and how they are used.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Glass bottle

Glass bottle
Roman Syrio-Palestinian (?)
Workshop of Ennion, Sidon, (modern day) Lebanon
1st century CE
Materials: Glass

Glass was invented in Mesopotamia around 2500 BCE. The first glass containers were produced approximately one thousand years later. It is thought that glass was used as a substitute for semiprecious stones, and it remained a luxury item until the modern era. Most glass vessels in the ancient Mediterranean were used as perfume bottles and resembled shapes of Greek pottery.

The first glass vessels were formed using a core technique. This technique used a clay core attached to the end of a metal rod. The core was dipped into molten glass which was then marvered, or rolled, on a stone to smooth the surface. Glass blowing was not invented until the first century BCE. Shortly after the invention of glass blowing, the technique of mold blown glass emerged. Mold blown glass vessels, like this one, are formed by blowing a bubble of glass inside a form, or mold. The force of the air pushes the glass into the shape of the mold and allows the artist to create glass vessels in a wide variety of shapes.  A video showing how mold blown glass is made can be seen here.

It has been suggested that this vessel may have been made in the workshop of Ennion, one of the earliest known and most famous glass blowers. While this bottle is not signed by Ennion it is similar in shape, decoration, and dimensions to other bottles that have been connected to Ennion’s workshop. Ennion is believed to have worked in or near the city of Sidon, located in what is now Lebanon, and may have moved to Italy later in his career.

Similar glass vessels can be found in the Miho Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, and more. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Cuneiform cone

Cuneiform cone or nail
Isin-Larsa, Babylonia (modern day Tell es-Senkereh, Iraq)
ca. 1930 BCE
Materials: ceramic

This object is a baked clay cuneiform cone, or nail, from the “House of Justice” built by the Babylonian king Lipit-Ishtar near the ancient city of Isin-Larsa. Lipit-Ishtar is best known for writing a code of laws. This code was similar to the better known Code of Hammurabi, but written nearly 200 years earlier. The code of Lipit-Istar included laws on theft, inheritance, slave ownership, land ownership, and other topics. This code was studied and used for more than a hundred years after the death of Lipit-Istar but today only parts of the code are known and preserved.

Cuneiform cones, or nails, were commonly buried under the foundations, or built into the walls, of important public buildings and temples as ritual dedications. This type of inscription was mass produced, typically more than 100 cones were used for each structure. They were usually inscribed with the name of the person who commissioned the building, the name or purpose of the building, and sometimes a prayer or request for a divine blessing of the building. The translation of this cone (taken from Classical Antiquities: The Collection of the Stovall Museum of Science and History) says,  “I am Lipit-Ishtar, the humble shepherd of Nippur, the upright farmer (of Ur), the tireless one of Eridu, the fitting lord of Uruk, king of Isin, king of Sumer and Akkad, the favorite of Inanna. When he had established justice in Sumer and Akkad, in Namgarum, the eminent place of the gods, the house of justice, he built.”

Here is a video that shows how cuneiform tablets were made.

Today, cuneiform tablets and cones are sought after by collectors and museums alike. Unfortunately, their desirability, combined with the unstable political situation in the middle east has led to looting of ancient archaeological sites. The looting of ancient sites is a world wide problem and irreparably damages thousands of sites throughout the world each year.

Credit: John Russell

The photo at the left was taken at the site of Isin-Larsa around 2003 and shows the devastating effect of looting on archaeological sites. In order to discourage looting the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has put together a “Red List” for highly volatile areas like Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, and others. The Red List describes the general types of artifacts that are thought to be most at risk for looting, so that these may be identified and detained wherever they surface. These objects are protected by legislation, through UNESCO, UNIDROIT, and others. As a result they are  banned from export and may under no circumstances be imported or put on sale. An appeal is being made to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors not to acquire them. If you would like to see cuneiform tablets or cones in person please visit one of the many museums around the world that have legally collected examples for you to enjoy. For instance, cuneiform tablets are part of the permanent collections of: the Sam Noble Museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Arizona State Museum, the Oriental Institute, and the Kelsey Museum, just to name a few. Additionally, a digital library of cuneiform inscriptions is currently being developed by the University of California to help make cuneiform more accessible to everyone. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Bronze Pin

Luristan: Bronze Pin
ca. 1400-700 BC
Middle East
Materials : Bronze

The Luristan bronzes are well known among the artifacts of ancient Persia, in modern day Iran. The earliest bronzes date back to the fourth millennium BCE and extend through the Bronze Age, ending about 650 BCE. Unlike their contemporaries of Mesopotamia, Luristans did not have written records. They did, however, develop techniques for fashioning objects from bronze. It is unclear exactly how bronze production developed in Luristan, but most likely the technique originated in the Mediterranean and expanded to the Middle Eastern region through three phases.

The Lusristan bronzes are usually decorated in distinct styles including animal, human, and anthropomorphic figures. Many objects are fashioned in wax forms and cast in bronze as seen here. The objects range from decorative sacred items to utilitarian items. The object pictured above is a bronze pin. Pins are not particularly uncommon, as many have been found in excavations of Luristan sites. The pins were used for decoration in hair styles and fastening clothes. In addition to using bronze for bowls, drinking vessels, and decorative items, the Luristans also used it for weaponry. The British Museum has a great example of a bronze ax head that was found in a grave and mostly likely used as an offering because it is too curved for practical use. Bronze is found even in the poorest of Luristan graves, which has led to looting over time. In the early 20th century, many tombs and archaeological sites were looted and bronze objects appeared in European and Middle Eastern markets.

[Eileen Schaumleffle]

Object: Religious Text

Persian: Page from the Qur’an
Levantine Area
ca. 11th century
Materias: Paper, ink

This page of the Qur’an includes verses 72-75 of sura 39 and verses 2-7 of sura 40 and is representative of many hand-written Qur’an manuscripts. Composed in the cursive style, the Arabic calligraphy serves as ornamentation itself, in addition to beautiful illumination.

The Qur’an is considered divine speech to adherent Muslims around the world, and its poetic, literary beauty is understood to be miraculous by believers and the supreme work of Arabic literature by scholars. This aesthetic value of the Qur’an is often overlooked, but is of utmost importance both religiously and historically. Indeed, Islamic art derives almost all of its inspiration from the beauty of the Qur’an, as exemplified by the prolific use of Arabic calligraphy – often verses from the Qur’an, the name of the Prophet Muhammad, or Allah – to decorate mosques and in visual art.

The illumination of Qur’an manuscripts is intended to reflect the beauty of the Arabic itself, the beauty of the content of each verse, and the visual beauty of the calligraphy. The written composition and illumination of Qur’an manuscripts, then, is understood to be a religious art, conducted not only by the most masterful calligraphers and artists, but also the most pious. Since the Qur’an is considered unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, in beauty by Muslims, simply to reproduce the words of the Qur’an is the highest artistic achievement. Indeed, given the skill required to produce these incredibly ornate manuscripts, it is not surprising that the epitome of Islamic art is Qur’anic manuscripts such as this one (see picture on right).

The verbal, or spoken, Qur’an also has an aesthetic value of its own. Prayer in the mosque, or outside the mosque, consists exclusively of Qur’anic recitation. The recitation of the Qur’an in prayer is very structured, with prescribed rules for every detail of the performance from the length of the verses to the pronunciation of vowel sounds. The rhythm of Qur’an recitation is quite musical, though Muslims are adamant regarding the non-musicality of recitation. This rhythmic quality is produced in part due to the complex rhyme structure of the Qur’an itself, but also due to the regulations for how Arabic sounds are to be produced during the recitation. To hear a prayer recitation click here.

[Allana Taylor]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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