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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Archive : Intercultural Style steatite lock-shaped weight
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Intercultural Style steatite lock-shaped weight - LO.624 W
Origin: Mesopotamia
Circa: 3000 BC to 2000 BC

Collection: Near Eastern
Medium: Chlorite

Location: Great Britain
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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. It was utilized during antiquity for the fabrication of luxurious containers and ceremonial weights, such as the present, in the greater Gulf region as well as southern Iran. Excavations at the archeological site of Tepe Yaya, dated to the mid-third millennium B.C., in Iran unearthed the ruins of workshops where such vessels were discovered. As well, raw materials used for their manufacture and quarried from the nearby hills were also present. 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 steatite works were created by various cultures, each adorning the piece with their own distinct aesthetic style. Many examples were discovered in the ruins of palace and temple structures or entombed in the graves of the nobility, including Sumerian Mesopotamia. Clearly these vessels and weights were among the most precious luxury items that could only be afforded by the ruling elite.

This type of stone sculpture is commonly referred to as a “lock” due to its form. Carved from a large slab of steatitic stone, with sculpted images rendered in low relief decorating both sides, this work probably originally functioned as some sort of ceremonial weight. On one side of the weight, a mythological scene has been carved depicting a central figure with the upper torso of a man and the legs of a bull or horse. In his hands, he holds the tails of two spotted panthers that flank him on either side. He pulls their hind quarters in the air as they stand on their front legs looking up towards him. Their mysterious composite creature is cleary in control of these powerful felines, thereby earning the label, “Master of the Beasts” which is applied to this theme.

Such iconography seems to originate in eastern Iran and Central Asia, where the theme of man dominating over the animals appeared to be quite popular. Two scorpions frame this grouping, placed underneath the join of the handle to the body of the lock. According to some scholars, the wild beasts represent chaos and are contrasted to the humans, who display control over nature and the promise of fertility. At one time, the spots of the leopards and the figure’s eyes would have been filled with inlaid shell or bone. It is possible that these scenes are related to the epic legend of Gilgamesh. - (LO.624 W)


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