Luristan Bronzes in the University Museum

By: Leon Legrain

Originally Published in 1934

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A small but choice collection of Persian bronzes from Luristan was acquired in 1930 by the University Museum through Mr. Arthur Upham Pope. They include sixty bronze—and some iron—pieces, and along with them eight seal cylinders, a few glass beads and three flint arrow heads. A horse-bit in bronze, number 53, was bought from Mr. R. J. Mottabedeh. Some of the best pieces were loaned to the Exhibition of Persian Art in London in 1932, and with the rest of the larger collections they have attracted a good deal of attention, not only for the beauty of the objects, their wonderful preservation—most of the bronzes are covered with a delightful jade green patina—and the strange and subtle forms of a decorative art both naturalistic and conventional, but also because of the age and historical meaning of those two thousand pieces, the oldest examples of the native art recovered of late in Persia.

The Museum collection includes:
6 Bronze ornaments, mascots or idols, numbers 1-6.
3 Bronze bottle-shaped bases of the mascots, numbers 7-9.
3 Bronze tubes connecting bases and ornaments, numbers 10-12.
12 Bronze pins—pin number 20 is of iron—with ornamental heads, probably used in connection with the mascots, numbers 13-24.
1 Bronze cap for the hub of a wheel, number 25.
2 Bronze harness pieces, numbers 26 and 59.
3 Bronze mountings of whetstones, one still with the stone, numbers 27-29.
1 Bronze brace, number 30.
3 Bronze amulets, numbers 31-33.
6 Bronze bracelets, numbers 34-39.
1 Iron ring for pugilist, number 40.
3 Daggers, two of bronze, one of iron, numbers 41-43.
1 Bronze pick-axe, number 44.
1 Bronze adze with a lion in the round, number 45.
2 Bronze axes with triangular blades, numbers 46-47.
1 Bronze axe handle, number 48.
8 Bronze horse-bits, numbers 49-54; 57-58.
2 Bronze cheek pieces of horse-bits, numbers 55-56.
1 Bronze bell, number 60.
1 Bronze (?) hemispherical bowl with a cuneiform inscription to Shargali-sharri King of Agade in Mesopotamia about 2600 A. c., number 61.
8 Cylinder seals of glazed pottery, numbers 62-69.
1 Bugle bead of glazed pottery, number 70.
4 Glass beads, number 71.
3 Arrow heads of flint or red chert, numbers 72-74.

The bronze is chiefly copper bronze. The bracelet, number 38, is of white bronze or speculum, rich in tin.

The iron objects are a dagger, number 43; a pugilist ring, number 40; a pin, number 20; and the tang inside a whetstone with bronze head mounting, number 29. Bronze and pottery vases are unfortunately not represented in the collection.

All the bronzes and seals come from Luristan. They were discovered between 1927 and 1930 by the Lur tribesmen in four or five different ruined cities and cemeteries of their wild mountain country. They were brought and sold in the bazaars of Kermanshah, from which they found their way to Europe and America. The land of the Lurs is the highland of Persia on the border of Mesopotamia between Hamadan and Shushan, ‘the Palace,’ on both banks of the Kercha river. The Lurs, cousins of the Kurds, are ancient native mountaineers, probably descending from the old Cassites, and preserving up to the present day, despite so many invasions, their language and independence. The great importance of their district is that it lies astride two great historic roads: the road from Baghdad to Hamadan and Teheran towards India and China, and the road from Shushan to Ispahan and Persepolis.

E. Herzfeld1 first called attention to the Luristan bronzes in 1928. A more extensive report was published by Arthur Upham Pope in the Illustrated London News—September 6 and 13, 1930. R. Dussaud, in Syria XI, 3, 1930, studied the socketed axes from Luristan and gave more information about the finds. A complete volume on Les Bronzes du Luristan by Andre Godard, Directeur du Service Archeologique de la Perse, was published in 1931.

This is what we are told by Mr. Pope—adviser in Art to the Persian Government and to many American museums:

The Luristan bronzes, remarkable for their beauty and their historical importance, constitute the link between the various early arts of Western Asia. A few isolated specimens are already in the British Museum, the Berlin Museum, the Louvre, the Musée Guimet—and we may add the Gullistan Museum, at Teheran, the Jildiz Kiosk at Stambul, the treasury of Catherine of Russia, the Bruxelles Museum, and some American museums.

A lot of twenty-five pieces was found by one man in 1927. They were insufficient to establish the meaning or the date of such works of art. But in March,

The bronzes come not from one but from a number of centers scattered through a wide area. The most important are Harsin, Karkarand, Awlad Qubad, Mumivand and Tarhan. At Harsin there are many springs and traces of an important city and a fortress with heavy walls. At Awlad Qubad and Mumivand there are many tombs and indications of smaller settlements. Tarhan seems to have been originally the largest city of all and it was there that the most important finds were made, especially of fine vessels and statuettes, including one of silver. Karkarand shows only the black tents of the wild mountaineers who grow a little barley at the bottom of the valley. At a distance of thirty-six kilometers, there are forty tepes from two to four meters high. The tombs are not in the tepes but on the sides of the mountain. They are stone built of rectangular or circular form. The first have four walls and a roof made of natural slabs and so shallow that they often could be traced above ground. They measure about 2 meters by 0.80 up to 1.20. The diameter of the circular tombs varies from 1. to 1.20. They are less numerous than the rectangular.1930, new examples appeared in the bazaars of Kermanshah, and by about the middle of June over 1200 pieces bad been delivered.

Most of the bodies are doubled up, lying on the side. In some cases they are sitting up with hands on the knees. There may be two or three in a single grave. In a few cases horses were buried with their riders, and decked with bits and harness ornaments. These graves were double size, but had no partitions between the bodies. In a number of them the horse’s head lay on the man’s arm, or the arm embraced the head. A few graves included also chariot fittings.

The women’s bodies were crowded into large terra-cotta jars. In addition to the bronzes, in some graves there was pottery of various forms, often with painted animal figures. In a few graves there were still traces of textiles, disintegrated shreds, which the native digger could not remove. A few stone objects were also found, for example a small carving of a bird in hard black stone, a crouching bear in soap stone, an egg of highly polished agate—now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The weapons include daggers of various shapes, a few entirely of iron; battle axes of widely varying forms, all cast with a socket and spikes projecting at the back; adzes and picks which may have been decorative more than working tools; whetstone handles occasionally with the original stones in them.

Personal ornaments consist of a large number of bracelets, some delicate, some heavy, mostly decorated with animal forms; a very few twisted neck rings; long pins, some decorated with animals, some with knobs, one with a carnelian bead; many earrings, and other rings possibly for the fingers.

Among the horse trappings, the outstanding objects are very ornate bits. Many of these were actually found in the horse’s mouth. They are of three forms, with a straight mouth bar, with a mouth bar curved in the middle, or linked in the middle. Most of them are very heavy, but they are provided with two rings on each cheek plaque for straps to pass over the horse’s nose. There are also pegs on the inside intended to hold a lining. The rings for the reins are turned in opposite directions as on Scythian bits. There are innumerable harness rings of different types and sizes and some bells large and small, and one quite elaborate frontal. The chariot fittings are primarily long pins or spikes with decorative ends, and there are a few hub caps.

In addition to this there is a series of decorative objects composed principally of confronted animals on either side of a victorious hero, that fit on the top of a bottle-shaped base. The figures are bored through and fixed on the base by a bronze tube or a bronze pin driven from above and not unlike a woman’s ornament. They are vaguely classed by Pope as ‘ceremonial objects.’ Dussaud calls them idols, deposited in each tomb behind the head of the dead, and refuses to assimilate them to the chariot ornaments found in Cappadocia. We prefer to call them mascots. The hero fighting animals rampant has never been considered as a divinity. The bottomless bottle which serves as a base was probably carried at the top of a wooden shaft, as an emblem.

Now Luristan must not be confused with the region of Nihavand, and the antiquities discovered in one place, with those of the other place, so we are told by Dussaud and Godard. Nihavand like Luristan is located in the Zagros mountains, but in a different valley from that of Harsin and Karkarand. The parallel valleys which constitute such a striking feature of the Zagros system communicate only through passes six to nine thousand feet high. They are even divided into separate basins by nearly impassable gorges. Loftus in his Travels in Susiana very aptly describes them: ‘Whenever the highlands of Persia are approached from the plains of Mesopotamia, the same formidable barrier of mountains presents itself. To attain the high level of that garden of roses, it is necessary to climb the successive ridges by roads scarcely better than goat tracks, which regular gradation of ascents is appropriately described by the Greek historians as κλξμακες or ladders.’

Nihavand, where the Arabs won the famous victory which opened to them Persia and the road to India, is a city on a branch of the main road from Bagh- dad to Hamadan. After passing Bisutun and the great rock inscription of Darius, the traveller turns on the right toward Ispahan and Persepolis over Nihavand and Burudjird. The plain of the Mahi-dasht in which is situated the castle of Harsîn, is an excellent pasture land well watered from the neighboring hills. It is part of Luristan. It opens towards Karind in the north, at the head of the Hulwan pass between the ‘Zagros Gates’ and Kirmanshah, but it is entirely cut from the Nihavand valley Kirmanshah is its natural outlet, where the Lur tribesmen naturally disposed of their finds.

Many old bronzes have been found in the numerous tepes near Nihavand, especially at Tepe Giyan excavated by the natives. We are told, somewhat dogmatically, that the Nihavand bronzes belong to the bronze age, and the Luristan bronzes to the iron age—whatever this may be. Also that the Lurs descend from the old Cassites, are nomads and independent; while the Nihavand people are farmers, and are successors of the Paractacenes of Strabon; that the so-called Nihavand axe, a cross breed between the ancient Sumerian and Akkadian axe, is the ancestor of the Syrian axes of Beisan and Ras-Shamra, and also of the Hittite axe of Boghaz-Keui. All have in common the socket, and the projecting points at the back. They may be dated about 1500 or 1200 B. C. and are in fact a product of the old Median art, not to be confused with the Luristan axes with triangular curved blades, which are somewhat decorative, useless weapons de luxe of much more recent date, near the time of the Achaemenid kings.

An inventory of the finds will show the differences between the two regions and the two periods. From Nihavand come finely painted pottery; terra cotta figurines and animals; necklaces of grey pearls of the Susa I style; flat button seals and cylinder seals decorated with geometrical pattern roughly designed men and animals and no writing—except on one cylinder according to Herzfeld —few metal objects, daggers, axes of the Naram-Sin style, spear heads and arrow heads all in bronze (?), which correspond to the copper age of Mesopotamia and Susiana about or before 3000 B. C.

From Luristan come objects of bronze, iron, gold, silver, but little pottery, roughly made, painted or decorated with geometrical patterns which copy metal originals. There is a wealth of horse-bits, fibulae, highly decorated mascots or idols, bells, amulets, harness-rings, hub caps, daggers, axes, long spouted vases, all found in tombs, evidently the graves of horsemen, buried with their arms and insignia, at times even with their horse. The women’s tombs give the usual toilet objects—pins with large heads, disks, round balls, ram’s heads, bulls, and various animals—also rings and bracelets of bronze and iron.

The Luristan axe, with its large hollowed blade strongly inclined, beautifully decorated with low reliefs, is apart from all earlier Nihavand or Median axes. It is a socketed axe, pick axe or adze, too weak to be of practical use—so we are told—a sort of votive axe, or weapon of honour. The style of decoration of the Luristan axes, also of the horse-bits, and other bronze ornaments discovered in the same graves has led to curious conclusions. We hear that it resembles the Scythian2 art, or the Han art; that the favorite design of the lion’s mask is stylized after Chinese fashion; that the semi-circular axe of Hamadan with its double curve like a halbert, is also found on Kuban weapons on the Caspian; that the exaggerated, distorted, especially dismembered figures of the lion, are to be traced to Chinese or Scythian influence.

Now China is far away from Persia and Luristan. The Scythians, if they can claim any original art, are not historically known much before 600 B.C. They claimed some traditional knowledge of their kings back to 1500 B. C. They were nomads, without a city, rolling in their chariots along the immense steppes of Siberia, the Aral, the Caspian, and South Russia. They passed as a torrent in 606 B. C. over Media and Syria, and were bought for a prize from invading Egypt. During twenty-eight years, they were nominal rulers and plunderers of Persia, till the drunken body of mad riders were driven out by Kyaxares. During those twenty-eight years they may have learned something from the local smiths. Luristan has always been reputed for its fine metal workers. The Kerrindis follow the profession of their deity, a certain Dawud, who is said to have been a blacksmith. A rock-hewn tomb near Zohab, after crossing the Hulwan is called David’s smithy, Dukhân-i-Dâud, to which pilgrims resort from all parts of Kurdistan.

The lion, a native of Persia and Mesopotamia, does not exist in the Scythian regions. The Scythian smiths borrowed the model from the south, whatever style was adopted in the treatment of the figures.

Medea and Persians are just as famous riders as the Scythians. The horse was known as the ‘mountain ass’ on the border land of Mesopotamia before 2000 B.C. Persian children were educated in three things: riding, shooting and speak- ing the truth. Kyaxares, the Mede, arrayed his troops in three divisions: spearmen, archers and horse-men. The Parthians spent their life on horse-back. ‘Equis omni tempore vectantur; illis bella, illis publica et privata negotia obeunt.’

It seems unnecessary to look so far afield as Scythia and China to explain the art of the Luristan bronzes. As far back as 4000 B. C. Luristan must have been alive to the world of trade and in close contact with the neighboring cultures and arts of Elam and Sumer, and later of Babylon and Assyria. The bronze bowl of Shargali-sharri, number 61, is a fine instance of it. Mr. Pope writes from Teheran, May 16, 1931: ‘Your bowl came from Piravand, about five miles due north from Tak-i-Bostan. It is politically Kurdistan, but it is occupied by a mixed population, at least half Lur. Culturally it is Luristan. In a small area around Piravand, more than two thousand of the so-called Luristan bronzes have been brought out within nine months. One man got over one thousand. There is a large dagger in the Museum here that also came from Piravand and it has a cuneiform inscription.’

And further: ‘The Luristan finds are practically through. Nothing has come out for nearly two months. At least five thousands have been searching steadily, except for a few months, for over a year. Their methods of locating the finds are clever and they have poked their rods into about every foot of Luristan territory.’ Native digging however will have to be controlled by more scientific methods.

In the third millenium B. C. the inhabitants of Mesopotamia always referred to the highlands of Persia on the eastern border as the country of Shushan and Anshan. A native art, language and writing existed in Elam as far back as 4000 B. c.; and the language of Anshan never died out; it has been called the Anzanite language. It is used along with Babylonian and old Persian on the trilingual inscriptions of Darius.

The Cassites also, another powerful tribe of the Zagros mountains who ruled Mesopotamia for centuries after 1500 B. c., had their own language. But their art—as examplified in the boundary stones—is not very different from the con- temporary Babylonian style. The Lurs may be their descendants. But the Luristan bronzes are probably a survival of the local Anzanite art, heir to the ancient pre-Elamite art, strongly influenced by Sumerian traditions, and more directly by the Assyrian art of the Sargonids. It would be tempting to place them be- tween 700 and 400 B. c., at the time of the growth of the Median power, and shortly before the great expansion of the Persian Empire under Darius and his successors. Most of the pieces—bits, frontals, rosettes, harness and chariot ornaments—belong to horse riders, as could be expected in that age. But some of the weapons show an earlier tradition, connecting the Lur highlands and Sumer. One bronze dagger is a copy of the gold dagger—with lapis handle fixed by gold rivets and adorned with gold nails—from the Predynastic Royal Cemetery at Ur; and the gold adze from the same cemetery, with its socket reinforced by a projecting ridge is the ancestor of many Luristan socketed axes and adzes. Even the so-called Hamadan semi-circular halbert is represented on the Sargon stela from Susa and on the Kish inlaid plaques, and two examples of it, with their gold binding, were actually found in the same Ur cemetery.

The inscribed bowl of Shargali-sharri, simply confirms that traditional connection of trade and art between the high and low lands of Persia and Mesopotamia. Whether the bowl was inscribed and deposited in the local shrine by a Semite servant of the great king of Akkad, perhaps his representative in the mountain district, or was a spoil of war brought back after a raid in the plain, as the code of Hammurabi and the stela of Naram-Sin were brought back from Sippara to Susa, does not alter the question. It is only a new link in the chain of evidences of traditional relations. Another instance of it is found in the colony of Semitic merchants established in Asia Minor in the days of Sargon, on another post of the trading road from Mesopotamia to the West.

The relations between the Luristan bronzes and Assyrian art are still more obvious. The winged bulls, goats, ibexes, rams, dragons and griffons, the affronted figures, the running lions so cleverly adapted to decorative art are found again on the stone reliefs of Calah and Nineveh. The Gilgamesh motive of the hero fighter between two rampant animals is clearly the inspiration of the bronze mascots or idols long before Zoroaster and his theories on the eternal fight of good and evil.

The eight cylinder seals discovered with the Luristan bronzes are of great interest and importance, on fixing almost certainly their date to the period of 700 to 400 B. c. They all are in glazed pottery, uninscribed. Their shape, material, style of engraved figures all belong to the Neo-Babylonian period, when the seal of cylinder form slowly vanished, to be replaced by the cone seals and the ring stones of the Achaemenid period, also when glazed pottery became a substitute for more expensive, semi-precious stones. A comparison with over sixty seals of the same time in the Nippur3 collection will remove any doubt on this special point.

A last word must be said about the technique of the Luristan artists. Their art is first a decorative art. The figures of men or animals, traditional or not, are not reproduced as a true imitation of nature but according to their value as ornaments. The natural proportions are not respected, but exaggerated, distorted, or even the whole figure is dismembered, but always with a strong rhythmic and decorative effect. The details are often finely modelled and charming. The stereotyped heads of dragons or lions resemble the products of Chinese art of the Hans, and dismembered figures are also a favorite device among the Scythians. The frequent use of the battle axe is common to Scythian and Persian riders. But the question of priority is still unsolved.

An exact catalogue of the Luristan bronzes in the Museum collection is a first step toward a more complete and comprehensive study of their historical and artistic value.

NOTE—Since this report on the Luristan Bronzes in the Museum was written —October, 1931—a paper by Freya Stark on The Bronzes of Luristan has appeared in the Geographical Journal, December, 1932, pages 498-505. It is an account of her journey in the valleys where so many bronzes were reported found in various graves. We need only quote her own words, page 504.

‘After the appearance of Professor Godard’s authoritative book on the Luristan Bronzes I was in some doubt whether to publish this acount of my own journey in that country. I have been induced to do so by the very fact that, complete as Professor Godard’s investigations were, they were carried out (as far as I can judge in the absence of any maps in his volume) in the very north- west corner of Luristan, not far from Harsin; and as my journey took me farther east and south, I thought that some useful data might be found in the gossip gleaned from tribes unvisited by Europeans since the discovery of the bronzes. The spear-head from Duliskan and the little Greek bronze figure from Sari Kasha, both described above, are new additions to the Luristan finds. I am aware that much of what I heard must be inaccurate, but I have not altered anything . . . thinking that . . . it is better to transcribe the reports of the tribes- men as closely as possible.’

Also the British Museum Quarterly, VI, 3 (1931), reports the acquisition of more Luristan Bronzes like ours, and in volume vu, 2 (1932), two interest- ing Luristan daggers are published. One belongs to Shamash-Killanni, officer of the King, probably a member of the Second Dynasty of Isin. The second belongs to Marduk-nadin-akhe, king of Babylon, in the twelfth century E. C. All of which is helping to fix the history of our bronzes.

L. L., February, 1933.


1Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran, I-II (1929-1930); also, Illustrated London News, June, 1929.

2M.I. Rostovtzeff, Iranians and Greeks, 1922; The Animal Style in South Russia and China. 1929; R. Grommet, Les Civilisations de l’Orient, III, La Chine.

3Compare Culture of the Babylonians, in Publications of the Babylonian Section of the University Museum, XIV, numbers 615 to 670.

Cite This Article

Legrain, Leon. "Luristan Bronzes in the University Museum." The Museum Journal Supplement , no. 1934 (June, 1934): 3-11. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/13302/


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