Steatite (also known as Soapstone, or soaprock)
is a mineral schist, largely composed of the
mineral talc and is thus rich in magnesium. It has
been a medium for carving for thousands of
years. Steatite is relatively soft because of its
high talc content, with a surface which may feel
similar to soap when touched, hence the name.
Excavations at the archaeological site of Tepe
Yaya in the Kerman Province of Iran, dated to the
mid-third millennium B.C., unearthed the ruins of
workshops where such vessels were discovered.
Around 2800 BC, chlorite or steatite stone bowls
were manufactured in considerable numbers in
that area, though at a distance of around a
thousand kilometres from the Mesopotamian
centers of commerce of the time. The fact that
such vessels turn up in archaeological
excavations at a greater number than they
appear near their respective centers of
productions is a clear testimony of the florid
commercial trade at the time and the evidence
suggests a regular production for export, in order
to meet the economic demand in Mesopotamia.
Other excavations on Iranian soil help illuminate
further such patterns of long-distance trade in
these preliterate centuries.
On the island of Tarut, in the Gulf close to the
Arabian coast, over six hundred complete and
fragmentary vessels and weights have been
unearthed. Because many partially formed
objects found on Tarut were discovered next to
chunks of unworked chlorite, it has been
surmised that this island was once a center of
production for these works.
Found throughout the ancient Near East, from
Syria to the Indus Valley, revealing the extensive
trade routes of the time, these works are
classified by modern historians as belonging to
the “Intercultural Style,” called so because they
derive iconographical elements from both Near
Eastern and Harappan traditions.
Much like the written cuneiform alphabet was
used by several distinct cultures throughout the
ancient Near East to dictate their individual
spoken languages, so such vessels were created
by various cultures, each adorning the works
with their own distinct aesthetic style. Many
examples were discovered in the ruins of palatial
and temple structures or entombed in the graves
of the nobility, including Sumerian Mesopotamia.
Clearly these vessels were among the most
precious luxury items that could only be afforded
by the ruling elite.