Carved Chlorite Vessels

A Trade in Finished Commodities in the Mid-Third Millennium

Originally Published in 1975

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In 1987 a small survey team from the Peabody Museum, Harvard University located a large prehistoric mound. Tepe Yahya (or ‘Hill of John’), in southeastern Iran roughly halfway between the provincial capital of Kerman and the port city of Bandur Abbas. Excavations at the site commenced in 1968 and a cultural chronology for the area was slowly devised and refined over the succeeding five field seasons. The periodiza­tion at Yahya, which modified sequences from more limited excavations at Bampur, Tal-i Iblis, and Shah-dad, helped place the earlier surface discoveries of Sir Aurel Stein within a temporal framework and, through the establishment of rare diagnostic parallels with material from further west, linked the relative chronology of eastern Iran to the more precise, ‘absolute’ scale of southwestern Iran and Mesopotamia. We can summarize the periodization at Tepe Yahya as follows:

Two section drawings illustrate the critical subdivisions for the long and complex period IV. The first shows the main twenty-meter wide section from the south side of the mound; it was in this area that the initial step trenches were excavated and, when extended, that a large complex IVC structure containing early proto-Elamite tablets was unearthed. The second section shows the sequence obtained from the mound’s northern side; small (4×10 meter) trenches were opened in I his area during the summer of 1970 to verify the cultural sequence established during the first two seasons. The correspondences between the northern and southern sides of the mound were close, though there were significant differences in the earliest periods (VI, VC) and period IVA. The final season, scheduled to begin summer 1975, plans to connect the sides and establish precise stratigraphic correlations between them. For our present purposes, it is sufficient to note that the positioning and character of period IVB1 on both north and south sides, as well as from a limited sounding on the top of the mound excavated in 1973, are remarkably similar.

We are chiefly concerned with the oc­currence of elaborately carved stone vessels, produced in period IVB1 at Tepe Yahya. that have exact parallels to objects from Mesopotamia, southwestern Iran. the Persian Gulf, and east as far as the Indus Valley, but it is important to note that the dominant small find from every period at Yahya is made from the same soft, dark green stone, chlorite. Each period has its distinctive chlorite assemblage. En the earliest periods tiny, flat. circular beads, rough, open vessels, so-called ‘arrow-straighteners’ [probably used as braces for the manufacture of the beads). and stylized figurines are carved of chlorite. In the later periods, particularly spindle-whorls or buttons and lathe-turned vessels, frequently decorated by a series of partially drilled, dot-in-circle designs, characterize the chlorite assemblage. But if the breakdown of chlorite utilization is examined more precisely. it becomes apparent that chlorite was most extensively worked during period IVB1. The figure showing histograms representing the number of chlorite fragments/estimated area excavated through 1973 per period clearly illustrates the dominance of chlorite utiliza­tion during IVB1 times. Differences among the other periods can be detected and may be significant, but, in general, a pattern of the domestic utilization of a locally available resource, chlorite, characterizes the entire Yahya sequence with the exception of produc­tion in period IVB1. It is only during period IVB1 that countless waste chips and flakes have been found on the rough, unplastered surfaces characteristic of the period. Their occurrence conclusively demonstrates that the actual production of chlorite artifacts took place on the mound itself and their abundance suggests that this production was large-scale. The exceptional ‘take-off of the IVB1 chlorite industry must be explained as the result of a shift from production dominantly for use to the production of commodities primarily for purposes of exchange.

In the summers of 1971 and 1973 explored the mountains ringing the Soghun Valley. My reconnaissances were aided by geological maps, kindly provided by the Geological Survey of Iran, and the invaluable directions and information obtained from native guides. Large zones of serpentine and glaucophane schist containing numerous chlorite outcrops surround the valley to the north and west and in three separate areas extensive surface quarrying of chlorite was evident. Unfortunately, there was no way to date these strip or surface ‘mines’, and tombstones in the valley had been carved from chlorite as recently as thirty years ago. A careful examination of the geological map of the area also confirmed that two small serpentinized zones of ultrabasic rocks oc­curred immediately west of the Soghun Valley within a roughly 20-25 minute walk from Tape Yahya. A small limestone cave adjacent to these zones contained numerous worked chlorite chips, but no evidence for pit or shaft mines was discovered in the area during a brief exploration in 1973. It is hypothesized that during period IVB1 when a constant supply of chlorite was needed to meet production demands, chlorite was mined in the zones near the site and, having been reduced for transport, was brought to the large workshop on the mound. In other periods extensive mining activities were not necessary to satisfy the local requirements. Prospectors simply trekked into the moun­tains, obtained the chlorite they needed fur their immediate purposes from the abundant surface outcrops, and returned home.Efforts were made to reconstruct the stages of the production of the elaborately carved stone vessels that were manufactured exclusively during period IVB1. Examination of partially worked fragments. together with experimental attempts at smoothing rough chlorite and the microscopic analysis of wear patterns on IVB1 flints, helped us distinguish five steps in the production of the vessels. First, the raw material was brought directly to the site. No standardized stone blanks have been found during IVB1, and the negative evidence implies that the material was only broken down to portable size and then carried from the mines to the workshop. The rough chunks apparently were cut by flint tools to the approximate dimensions of the finished vessels and then painstakingly hollowed out by individually directed blows of sharp metal points that occur throughout the IVB1 levels. The shallow vertical gouges, which appear on unfinished fragments, are struck to different depths and at different angles; they clearly show the limitations of the lapidaries’ technology and underscore the fact that handcrafted, not mass-produced, vessels were fashioned at the Yahya workshop, After shaping the vessel, the exterior and interior surfaces were smoothed by wetting and randomly rubbing small serpentine flakes across the gouges. In this process the artisan directly modified and altered the half-formed stone objects. No lathe, even one turned by a simple bow-drill, was used to facilitate the process. Production short-cuts were neither desired nor devised for the ‘profit’ of these craft goods was not related to maximizing output by minimizing production time; the value of the vessels varied directly with the expenditure of labor employed in their manufacture. Finally, the smoothed vessels were laboriously carved, probably with metal tools, and certain designs were then colored and inlaid.

The production of the carved vessels at Tepe Yahya sharply contrasts with the modern mass-production of black-and-white lacquered soft stone vessels from Meshed in northeastern Iran. There, stone blanks are piled outside each small work area. The blanks are quickly hollowed by a heavy pounding implement set with several sharp parallel metal teelh and then mounted on H rudimentary lathe and smoothed. The stationary tool held against the revolving vessel leaves thin parallel scratches on the vessel’s exterior and interior surfaces. Work is sharply divided among those who bring the raw material, form the blanks, hollow-out the vessels, smooth them, and paint them. The division of labor for the handicraft industry at Yahya was less sharply demarcated. Even if we assume that the artisans [lid not procure the raw materials themselves and that some division separated those who formed, hollowed, and smoothed the vessels from those who carved the intricate designs, the production at Yahya was still incomparably slower than at Meshed. The striking difference between the third millennium and modern industries relates both to their distinctive means of production and con­trastive transport facilities for the distribu­tion of their products, on the one hand, and I he nature of the demand, the market. fur the vessels, on the other. The vessels from the Meshed workshop are purchased as decorative items by upper and middle classes, wealthy foreign tourists, and indigent pilgrims anxious to leave the Holy City with sonic memento of their visit; on the basis of their discovery in ‘royal graves’ and ‘temples’. the third millennium vessels appear to have been acquired only by the upper ruling strata of the early urban centers.

The products of the IVBI workshop, the elaborately carved vessels, have aroused interest in Southwest Asian archaeology since Ernest MacKay in 1932 compared a design on a carved fragment from the lower levels at Mohenjo-daro with that on one-half of a conjoined vessel from Susa. Other parallels were soon documented and gradual­ly a corpus of interrelated material carved from soft green stone, distributed throughout Southwest Asia was recognized and at­tributed to various archaeological cultures or ethnic groups. Sir Leonard Woolley felt that the style was distinctly non-Sumerian and postulated an ‘Elamite’ or Iranian origin, while Henri Frankfort was equally confident that the majority of the vessels carved with the intricate designs characteristic of the style were produced by Sumerian craftsmen. The most ingenious and imaginative thesis was that of Stuart Piggott who believed that the vessels were produced by Kulli merchant-venturers, an obscure folk whom he quickened from the tantalizing material Stein had collected in Baluchistan. The discoveries at Tepe Yahya conclusively demonstrated that at least some of the vessels were produced in southeastern Iran, but questions still remained as to whether other centers were also engaged in this production, the dating of the vessels, and their significance, if any. For understanding the momentous cultural developments that occurred in Southwest Asia throughout the third millennium. To answer these problems a detailed comparative study and physical-chemical analyses of the soft stone vessels were undertaken.

Since the design elements are widely distributed across several `cultural’ regions and share a characteristic mode of presenta­tion or style, we shall refer to the corpus of elaborately carved vessels as the Inter­cultural Style. Vessels in the Intercultural Style are distinguished by designs which tend to completely cover the vessel’s surface, lack a firm base or ground line for naturalistic representations, and employ similar stylistic conventions, such as handing beneath the rim or above the base. An effect of vitality or motion is achieved through patterning and an emphasis on curvilinear lines. The corpus of Intercultural Style vessels can be established by interrelating motives that occur together on the same vessel and listing the fragments which share the design. Proceeding in this fashion, it is possible to distinguish twelve major design elements or motives which occur on at least 292 examples from twenty-eight different sites or areas in Southwest Asia. The largest single collection comes from Tepe Yahya where sixty-nine fragments have been found from the following stratigraphic con­texts:

IVB2 …………………………………………………………  1(?)

IVB1 ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..  46

IVA ………………………………………………………….. 8

III-II ………………………………………………………….

I ………………………………………………………………..  1

Surface…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 12, 69

The earliest example from period IVB2 is not a vessel but a peculiar perforated instru­ment apparently carved with a guilloche design typical of some later vessels. The bulk of Intercultural Style fragments from Yahya were found in the chlorite-laden workshop levels of period IVB1 while later stratified examples probably represent heirlooms or material brought up from earlier levels during construction.

Space does not permit us to detail the distribution of examples for each major motif, but we will briefly illustrate some examples characteristic of three major designs of the Intercultural Style. The combatant snake motif shows a stylized serpent confronting another fearsome animal, normally a second monstrous snake, but sometimes a feline or eagle. Most vessels decorated with the combatant snake design were colored with various pastes and inlaid with semi-precious material. The most spectacular example of a colored and inlaid vase was found in level VIIB of the Inanna Temple at Nippur; it was intriguingly inscribed “Inanna and the Ser­pent.” The base of a similar snake-Feline fragment from Yahya is set off from the design in almost precisely the same fashion as another chlorite vessel from Nippur depicting a snake confronting an eagle. The holes drilled in the animals’ bodies on both vessels suggest that they were inlaid, but additional examples from Yahya and other sites show that the snakes’ scales could be represented in various fashions. Page 26, no. 4 in particular. illustrates the variety inherent in the design: two snakes have their mouths open but touching and their bodies decorated by small punctate impressions.

Another famous representational design depicts both animal and human figures. We illustrate examples from Yahya, the Diyala Valley, and Tarut Island in the Persian Gulf that show a humped bull or zebu. Frankfort believed that the design on the vessel from Agrab reflected an Indian or eastern influence but categorically insisted that the vase was locally produced. The bull on the Tarut vessel is set with holes for inlay, while the fragments from Yahya and Agrab show scorpions, placed horizontally in the example from Yahya and vertically in that from the Diyala Valley, above the back of the bull. The grammar or meaning of the juxtaposition of these motives apparently was unaffected by the placement of the scorpion. The variation evident in all examples of the Intercultural Style relates primarily to the production process itself; that is, each vessel, even those found together in the single workshop at Yahya, is unique because each is carved separately by hand. Design elements are standardized and, no doubt, have significance which we can only dimly perceive, but within this standardization there is tremendous variety, a tribute to the playful imagination of skilled craftsmen. Examples from Yahya and other sites show that the snakes’ scales could be represented in various fashions. Page 26, no. 4 in particular, illustrates the variety inherent in the design: two snakes have their mouths open but touching and their bodies decorated by small punctate impressions.

The same theme of variety within uniformity once more is apparent in examples decorated with the simple, closely set im­bricate design. The fragments from Shahr-i Sokhta and the Dasht Valley have lines incised within semi-circular or rounded patterns: those from Khafajeh and the first two from Tarot (cf. also the imbricates above the humped bull From Tarot) are cut deeply within more angular designs. The lines on the eastern vessels are not symmetrical, nor do they form a perfect pattern of superimposed triangles; more tines slant upwards to the left than to the right. Such variation, in this case, may have geographical or chronological significance or may again, as I believe, reflect the diversity inherent in handicraft produc­tion.

The determination of the number of centers producing the elaborately carved vessels could not rely on detailed art historical or attribute analysis for two reasons: the total number of examples of any design motif was too small and distributed over too many sites to permit statistically significant results: and the variety evident in the examples from the single undisputed workshop at Yahya precluded such fine analysis. With the assistance of Dr. Sayre and Dr. Harbottle at Brookhaven National Laboratory, I employed numerous physical and chemical techniques for the purpose of distinguishing separate centers of production. Over three hundred and fifty geological and archaeological soft stone samples from Southwest Asia, including 109 Intercultural Style samples [roughly 37% of the known corpus) were obtained and analyzed by X-ray diffraction. Sixteen (ca 15%) of the tested Intercultural Style samples were not carved from chlorite but from steatite. Thirteen of these steatites were from the Sumerian city of Adab, while one each came from Mari, Kish, and Tarut. The distribution cannot be ac­cidental and must imply a separate workshop either centered at or mainly serving Adab. The remaining chlorite Intercultural Style samples were further broken down by measuring the relative intensity of the basal plane peak reflections for each sample and grouping them statistically on this crude measure of heavy atom content. Four groups were formed which seemed to have geographical significance:

1)    A separate chlorite source was posited for samples from Sumerian city-states (n=21). The group includes one sample from Tepe Yahya, but correspondences with uncarved material from Damin, Bampur, and the one carved fragment from Shahr-i Sokhta, included in this group, suggest that Sumer may have obtained its chlorite from sources east of Yahya.

2)    Samples from Yahya, Susa, and Mari formed a close group (n=20). Presumably, material in this group was produced in the workshop at Yahya. Also noteworthy is the fact that two chlorite samples from Adab are included.

3)    Samples from Susa and Mari were again associated in a close group (n=19). Large chlorite deposits are known to exist in the western Zagros south of Sanandaj, and examples from this group may have come from a separate source in this general area. Alternatively, this group which con­tains three samples from Yahya may simply represent vessels produced at the Yahya workshop, as in group 2 above.

4)    Material from the Persian Gulf, Susa. and Adab forms a final distinctive group (n=20). Samples from this group may have come from a source in the Arabian penin­sula (western Oman ?).

These analyses confirmed the existence of several separate production centers for vessels carved in the Intercultural Style, detected a correspondence between material from Susa, Yahya, and Mari, on the one hand, and Sumerian city-states, on the other, and discovered the unexpected unique role of Adab in the exchange of these vessels. Commodities carved to very specific stan­dards were produced or originated in at least four widely separate regions for consumption in the urban centers of Sumer and Khuzestan.

When did the local production and long-distance trade of these vessels occur? The stylistic arguments are complex with most art historians today preferring an early date within the Early Dynastic Period (ca 2900­2350 B.C.). For example. figured musicians on a famous vessel from Adab wear headdresses made of feathers. Their attire has been compared to that on the famous “Personnage aux Plumes” relief from Tello which has been dated on palaeographic grounds to the First Early Dynastic Period (ca 2900-2750 B.C.). Another vessel, however, carved with human figures was found in a “Sargonid stratum” (ca 2350-2200 B.C. ?) at Ur and inscribed “Rimush, King of All, smiter of Elam and Barakhsi” in honor of the second king of the Akkadian dynasty. Is this latter fragment from Ur an heirloom kept and inscribed centuries after it was produced or were these vessels, so remarkably similar in subject matter and style, carved continuously for seven hundred or more years? The stratigraphic evidence from Yahya as well as a detailed examination of the context of stratified examples from Mesopotamia suggests a slightly different answer. Although the material from Yahya, which is largely limited to the scruffy IVB1 workshop levels, provides little help in dating the style absolutely, it does suggest that most vessels were produced at approximately the same time, that the Intercultural Style represents an archaeological horizon. In addition, the Yahya fragments show that at least some of the examples in the Intercultural Style were traded in finished form to urban centers far to the west. It is inherently improbable that such long-distance trade could continue without interruption throughout the greater part of the third millennium. Seventeen of twenty (ca 85%) well-stratified examples from Ur, Khafajeh, Nippur, and Mari have been found in contexts dated Early Dynastic II-III (ca 2600-2500 B.C.); similarly, over 80% of the stratified Yahya Intercultural Style fragments occur in IVB1 context in levels well separated from the major architectural con­struction in IVC (Jemdet Nasr—Early Dynastic I?) and above the smaller building levels characteristic of IVB2 (E.D. I?). This agreement is remarkably close and tends to minimize the problem of heirlooms or objects discovered in contexts later than their time of manufacture. Moreover, some scholars, studying the Sumerian king list, have reconstructed a brief proto-Elamite (Iranian) hegemony over Mesopotamia at the end of the second Early Dynastic period which was broken by the powerful Lugalannemundu of Adab. This ruler is said to have “restored Sumer” and become “king of the four quarters.” Our analytical evidence suggests that the city-state Adab played a central role in the distribution of these carved vessels. Stratigraphic, analytical. and historical evidence combine to delineate a rough sketch of Adab’s power and wealth and help us date the enigmatic vessels to the mid-third millen­nium.

Granting this, we still must explain a trade in finished products that linked a remote mountain valley in eastern Iran to large urban centers in Khuzestan and Mesopotamia. The trade is puzzling for the carved vessels, which were painstakingly produced by craftsmen and, presumably, highly valued as a result of the time and skill that went into their manufacture, were extremely fragile. Many must have been broken during transport. Skilled Sumerian craftsmen could have carved equally elegant vessels just as cheaply without this risk of damage. If the trade was as extensive and large-scale as the archaeological evidence suggests, it would have made more sense to ship the raw material or, reducing the bulk considerably, half-finished or roughly formed vessels directly to craftsmen in the urban centers. Yet these ‘economic’ considerations were not followed. Intricate and elaborate handicrafts, fashioned from precious raw materials, were not only imported to the urban centers, but also removed from circula­tion when they were buried in opulent royal cemeteries, as at Ur. More efficient, cost reducing techniques were not employed because they were not desired. Rather, the fact that luxury articles, like the carved chlorite vessels, were produced in far-distant lands increased their value and made such trade all the more attractive.

This long-distance trade did not simply reinforce the pre-existing status of ruling elites by embellishing the temples they controlled or decorating their graves. Organized trade, as opposed to other forms of the spatial redistribution of material goods with which the archaeologist must deal—such as tribute, booty, or gift-exchange—is always a two-way process. One must determine what goods were being exported from the urban centers in exchange for handicrafts, like the carved vessels. From later texts we can extrapolate that Mesopotamian staples—grain, textiles, and possibly fish—were shipped or transported overland to small settlements like Yahya. These highland communities, which had formerly been self-sufficient, became increasingly dependent upon these lowland ‘necessities’ as their economies became specialized in the produc­tion of luxury commodities. The socio­economic structure of the lowland centers, in turn, demanded markets in which to dump the staples that they produced in excess of their own internal needs. An irreversible, mutually reinforcing web of relations was established which fundamentally altered the structure of the autonomous highland cultures and accelerated the consolidation of social classes, the economic infrastructure, of the earliest urban societies.

The process is best illustrated by the famous Sumerian epic “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.” Enmerkar, the ruler of Uruk, wants to procure the valued raw materials and goods of Aratta so that he can build a more beautiful temple to his favorite deity, Inanna. The Lord of Aratta, no doubt bargain­ing for better terms, refuses to accept Enmerkar’s offer of Mesopotamian grain until his city is faced with a severe drought. All the participants share a central core of religious beliefs (possibly reflected in the marked symbolism of the Intercultural Style designs?) and attribute the drought to Man­na’s displeasure at the Lord of Aratta’s intransigeance. The poem ends with Aratta capitulating to Enmerkar’s request. At an earlier stage of its development, Aratta could have adjusted to such a crisis by a series of internal self-regulating mechanisms: some people would have migrated from the town, others adopted a more nomadic way of life, and still others stayed and toughed it out. However, as crafts developed, specialists emerged, and the city grew, thus becoming enmeshed in a world of exchange relations far larger than itself, Aratta could no longer cope with periodic crises. It came to depend upon the lowland staples and was forced to accept terms unfavorable to itself.

This long-distance commodity exchange was not long-lived. As the social structure of workshop centers, like Tepe Yahya, became more highly differentiated and the lowland centers ceased to expand as rapidly, the balance of trading power shifted. The resource-rich communities, like their twen­tieth century descendants, soon realized that they could bargain more effectively to their own advantage. The golden age of Sumer passed, and the response of Mesopotamia’s new rulers, the Akkadians, was to substitute conquest for peaceful exchange. In this they were only partly successful; luxury articles from Akkadian times palely reflect the earlier era of long-distance trade in finished hand­icrafts, an era when ‘culture’—admittedly that of ruling minorities—advanced by the com­plementary development of densely pop­ulated urban centers and more sparsely settled highland communities. Relations between superior and backward areas con­stantly changed during the third millennium, and ages of affluence and extravagant waste were followed by more difficult and unstable times.


Cite This Article

"Carved Chlorite Vessels." Expedition Magazine 18, no. 1 (September, 1975): -. Accessed April 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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