The mystery of the Luristan Bronzes still puzzles archaeologists

Iron Age artefacts from the Zagros Mountains of Iran began to capture the world's attention in the 1930s, but scholars today are still debating who crafted them.

By Antonio Ratti
Published 7 Jan 2022, 11:39 GMT
A horned figure
A horned figure tames mythical beasts in this elaborate cheekpiece from a horse’s bit, produced in Luristan in about 700 B.C.
Photograph by Artokoloro, Alamy

When exquisite bronze figures be­gan flood­ing the antiquities market in the late 1920s, nobody knew much about them. Artworks of people and ani­mals, embossed bronze cups, and delicate pins thrilled dealers, who were awed by their beauty. Inquiries were made about their origins, but answers were somewhat vague. Rather than name a specific settlement or civi­lization, dealers would only indicate a region in the Zag­ros Mountains: Luristan (located in western Iran and known today as Lorestan).

The deluge of Luristan bronzes began in fall 1928 in the sleepy town of Harsin, some 20 miles east of Kermanshah. A local farmer uncovered several beautiful bronze objects in his fields and sold them. Word of his finds spread, and soon the town filled with dealers who bought these works of art and then sold them on to museums and private collec­tions. It was a profitable ar­rangement that suited many parties, and very little was done to stop it.

Great interest in exca­vating these bronzes arose among both academics and locals. André Godard, the di­rector of the Iranian Archae­ological Service in 1928, de­scribed the method used by the locals to detect a site to excavate. First they found a spring. Once that was locat­ed, there was a high proba­bility of finding a settlement nearby with a cemetery. The formula was simple and effective: Look for a water source, and an ancient ne­cropolis will not be far away.

(History's first superpower sprang from ancient Iran.)

Archaeologists in the air

The first Western archae­ologist to investigate the bronzes was German­-born archaeologist Erich Schmidt, who first began explor­ing Luristan in 1935. His work at the site was inno­vative thanks to his wife, Mary ­Helen. The two shared a passion for archae­ology: They first met when visiting the site of Tepe His­sar in Iran.

Mary­ Helen advocated using airplanes to scope out the sites from above, and she bought one for the missions. Named the Friend of Iran, the plane surveyed Luristan and other Iranian sites, including Persepolis (ancient capital of the Persian Empire), that Schmidt would be studying. After permission was se­cured from Iran, reconnaissance flights flew in 1935­-36 and again in 1937. Schmidt’s aerial photography would prove valuable not only for documenting the sites but also for methodically planning out the excavations.

In June 1938 Schmidt’s team explored Surkh Dum, a settlement site in Luristan. Prior to this dig, unautho­rised excavations in the ar­ea resulted in the removal of many bronzes, resulting in the loss of valuable in­ formation about the site’s history. Local authorities finally put a stop to the loot­ing, and Schmidt focused his efforts on uncovering what remained.

Despite the damage and looting, Schmidt’s team was able to recover bronze, ivory, and ceramic items, objects that revealed similar artis­tic techniques and styles to the bronzes that were being unearthed and sold in the 1920s. Much of the exploratory work at Surkh Dum centred around a multi-chambered structure that was believed to have been a temple or place of worship. Schmidt also re­covered items from chambered tombs with stones placed vertically as walls and larger slabs as ceilings.

Panorama of the Kermanshah plain in western Iran, part of the historical region of Luristan, with its characteristic alternation of valleys and mountain ranges.
Photograph by Georg Gerster, AGE Fotostock

Establishing a strong chronology for the Luristan bronzes has been challeng­ing. The extensive loot­ing destroyed much of the surrounding soil layers, or stratigraphy, that archae­ologists rely on to establish occupation dates.

Only in recent decades has it been possible to pin­point dates for the Luristan bronzes. Stylistic and icono­graphic analysis was com­plemented by a series of archaeological digs during the 1960s and 1970s. The excavations, carried out between 1965 and 1979 in western Luristan by Ghent University and the Royal Museums of Brussels, made it possible to locate a large number of collective tombs full of finds. Thanks to in­tact stratigraphy, these can be dated. Based on these studies, scholars can more accurately calculate when the Luristan bronzes were made, a timescale that is fixed at some point between the 11th century B.C. and the mid-­seventh century B.C.— the so­-called Late Iron Age of Luristan.

The identity of the people who fashioned these beauti­ful pieces remains uncertain. Candidates include the ear­ly Medes, an Indo­-European group who lived in the area, while others advocate for the Cimmerians, a nomad­ic people who originated in southern Russia and may have moved into Luristan in the eighth century B.C.

Cuneiform inscriptions on swords found in the re­gion suggest the Kassites, a people who settled in Luristan around the 16th century B.C. and then occu­pied central and southern Mesopotamia until some­ time in the early 12th cen­tury B.C., were responsible.

(Flooding in 2001 revealed a 4,000-year-old lost civilisation in Iran.)

Rich images

Male and female figures have been featured in “Master of Animals” artworks, like this circa 1000-650 B.C. openwork bronze pin from Luristan.
Photograph by Akg, Album

An incredible variety of ar­tefacts was discovered in Luristan, most falling into three major categories: the standards (or finials), met­alwork from horse harness­es, and pins. Different kinds of bronze pieces have also been found—including weapons like daggers, spears, and axes—but not in the same abundance.

The standards are objects that were once fixed to the top of a staff. What makes them unique is their com­plex iconography taken from the animal world, in which the ibex (a species of moun­tain goat) is common. One of the best-known and most fascinating variants is the so­-called Master of Animals, which depicts a human fig­ure (typically male, but fe­male versions have been found) holding wild animals by the neck.

The kinds of animals vary, ranging from big cats or birds of prey to myth­ological beasts like griffins and sphinxes. The motif is common to other an­cient civilisations: Master of Animals artworks have been found in Mesopota­mian art as well as Sumerian. The motif is believed to symbolise human dominion over nature.

Magnificent horse-­bit cheekpieces confirm the no­madic lifestyle of the peo­ple who fashioned them. As the archaeologist Paolo Matthiae has written: “The most frequently found item is the bit, decorated with two cheekpieces made of perfo­rated plates with pictures of animals that had a large hole in their bellies, pierced by the bar of the bit.” The iconographic repertoire can include bulls, lions, and ibexes; in others, griffins and sphinxes.

There are also everyday objects. The best known are the pins, whose purpose is still debated. Some scholars think they were votive of­ferings, while others suggest a more practical purpose and they were used to fasten clothing. The pins feature a variety of subjects: god­desses, animals, and also the Master of Animals motif.

A final category are bea­kers, cylindrical vessels with a small nub on the base. The decoration, made in relief on the outside, includes scenes such as ritual banquets, with important figures flanked by servants or musicians.

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