Treasures of Elam, civilization gone but not forgotten

A digital record of artifacts collected by Macquarie University’s Authority on Near Eastern Art and Archeology puts the ancient Elam civilization back on the map.

From the ancient civilization of Elam arose an explosion of social engagement that would, with many twists and turns, see some of the world’s first cities evolve into complex societies, kingdoms and empires.

Impressive: Lady silver fish from the two elite female tombs of Jubaji (c. 575 BC), seated on the handle of a saucepan. National Museum of Iran, Tehran. Copyright: Javier lvarez-Mon

Broadly encompassing the southwestern region of Iran where the provinces of Khuzestan and Fars are today located, Elam and neighboring Mesopotamia laid the institutional and ideological foundations that we have come to associate with civilization. .

Yet Elam (c. 4200-525 BC) remains one of the least known societies of the ancient Near East.

Javier Álvarez-Mon, professor of Near Eastern archeology and art in the Department of History and Archeology at Macquarie University, is working to change that.

His final volume of 582 pages, The art of elam (circa 4200-525 BC.

As a result of this work, Álvarez-Mon has assembled the largest digital collection of Elamite art and objects in the world. It includes 50,000 images, including monumental reliefs carved in open-air sanctuaries.

Rock the cradle of civilization

“Elam art conveys a visual account of the achievements of one of the most enduring cultures of the ancient world, with an emphasis on the religious, political and socio-cultural contexts in which art was created and used, ”says lvarez-Mon.

Treasures of Elam

Golden Age: Painted pottery from the city of Susa (circa 4000 BC National Museum of the Louvre and Iran, Paris and Tehran. Copyright: Javier lvarez-Mon

Elam’s strategic position as a revolving door between Mesopotamia, “the cradle of civilization”, and the Iranian plateau shaped the character of Elamite art and society and conditioned its longevity.

“Some unique features of Elamite art are the monumental highland reliefs carved next to caves, waterfalls and atop mountain peaks and the showcase of female religious and political elites,” he says.

Some of the expert’s favorite examples of Elamite art include painted pottery, limestone and terracotta sculptures, elite gold “rings” and silver “mermaids”.

Prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran’s rich cultural heritage, a gold mine for ancient historians, was one of the most promising and prolific areas of archaeological research.

Today, the Elamite art collections are shared between the Louvre in Paris, various museums and storage facilities in Iran.

But in the aftermath of the revolution, a large number of as yet unclassified Elamite material from excavations was largely unobtainable in the storage vaults of the National Museum of Iran in Tehran and scattered across other museums and storerooms.

The ensuing invasion of southwestern Iran by Iraqi troops during the Iran-Iraq War (1981-1989) forced the urgent removal of many objects.

This phenomenal digital collection has therefore been assembled against the backdrop of modern Iranian politics and the looting and destruction of world cultural heritage in neighboring Iraq and Syria. Today, the Elamite art collections are shared between the Louvre in Paris, various museums and storage facilities in Iran.

Access all areas

Javier Álvarez-Mon, born in Spain, was introduced to the Elamite world by Professor Pierre Amiet while he was a student of art history at the École du Louvre in Paris. Elam presented himself at his door again, under the aegis of Professor Emeritus David Stronach of the University of California at Berkeley, an expert in archeology of Achaemenid Persia and a pupil of the famous Max Mallowan, husband of the writer Agatha Christie.

Treasures of Elam

Dynamic Civilization: Pair of female portraits in painted terracotta (circa 1400 BC), featuring a characteristic sophisticated Elamite headdress. Susa Museum, Iran. Copyright: Javier lvarez-Mon

Álvarez-Mon explains the enduring appeal: “Elam differed from the contemporary cultures that emerged in the Nile Valley and the lands of Mesopotamia in that its physical configuration consisted of low-lying urban centers rich in agriculture and thriving highland pastoral communities with access to resources such as timber, stone and metals.

“It was a territorial makeup that fostered a diverse, vibrant and resilient civilization.”

How do you go about amassing such an innovative treasure trove of works of art? Three research grants helped!

Álvarez-Mon received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship in 2003 while a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. The first stops were the Louvre and Iranian museums to study more than 3,500 years of material culture inaccessible to most scholars.

It is thanks to his erudition, the personal networks he developed in Iran and his Spanish origins that he was able to access the collections.

Its goal was to establish a digital catalog to track, study and protect the precious cultural heritage of ancient Iran.

Treasures of Elam

Set in stone: monumental relief from Shekaft-e Salman cave (c. 1200-800 BC) depicting the royal family and members of the elite. Izeh, Iran. Copyright: Javier lvarez-Mon

In 2006, Álvarez-Mon moved to Australia to continue his research with a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sydney, and in 2014 he received a Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council (2014-18) and an invitation to join the academic staff of Macquarie University.

The most important “finds” in the collection, he says, are a group of monumental Highland reliefs (featured in his 2019 monograph, The Monumental Reliefs of the Elamite Highlands) and other impressive materials such as a ” golden ring ”and a silver“ mermaid ”found inside two elite tombs, which, dated to around 600-550 BC, promote an understanding of the genesis and development of the arts of the Persian Empire .

Álvarez-Mon would like to better understand the relationship between the Elam civilization (c. 4200-525 BC) and the Persian Empire (c. 550-323 BC). Was Persia the heiress of Elam? He wishes to explore the artistic continuity between the Elamite and Iranian populations, and the radical idea that the genesis of the Persian Empire was a local and indigenous phenomenon.

Tanks, wars and backflips

In the meantime, Elam delivers secrets beyond art. Álvarez-Mon has recently turned his attention to the military foundations and entertainment traditions of Elam.

Treasures of Elam

Rich traditions: gold “ring” from the elite burial of Arjan (circa 600 BC), bearing the name of “Kiddin-Hutran son of Kurlush”. National Museum of Iran, Tehran. Copyright: Javier lvarez-Mon

The collaborative research with Macquarie University researcher Dr Yasmina Wicks was featured this year in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies at the University of Chicago Press and, last month in The Conversation, a review of early professional acrobats in the world, traveling the Middle East 4000 years since!

Write lvarez-Mon and Wicks: “War chariots made their appearance in the ancient Near East around 1700 BC and by 1500 BC they had transformed the history of war. Using a combination of administrative tablets written in cuneiform text and war paraphernalia preserved in archaeological records, our article unveils a state-controlled arsenal of war tanks and weapons circa 1400 BC. in the 13e century BC

As the two researchers explain in their article, Elamite War Chariots and Military Equipment at Ancient Kabnak (ca 1400 BC defensive functions on and off the battlefield.

“Since the advantage gained from the light tank resulted primarily from its use as a mobile firing platform, armies that were already proficient with the (composite) bow in combat – like the Elamite armies – were in excellent position to improve their already formidable firepower.

Elamite culture has also developed a rich tradition of entertainment. One of the earliest depictions of a troop of acrobats bending over their backs, on stilts, marching by hand, and an ensemble of musicians playing together is engraved inside a southern Elamite bronze bowl -western Iran around 600 BC. This bowl was chosen as the official national emblem of Iran for the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games.

Driven by the thrill of discovery and inspired both by a father who was a mountain guide in Spain, the love and preservation of the natural world, and by art, Professor Álvarez-Mon seeks to showcase his collection of Elamite art to the general public in an online museum dedicated to the preservation, study and promotion of Elamite civilization.

Javier Álvarez-Mon is Professor in the Department of History and Archeology at Macquarie University.

Digital copies as well as hard copies ($ 400) of The Art of Elam (c. 4200-525 BC) is published by Routledge.

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