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Animals in the ancient Near East

28 June 2017 by Scott Smith

Jug in the form of a kneeling bull

Jug in the form of a kneeling cow or bull

The ancient Near East was a region that roughly corresponds to the modern Middle East (including Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria). World Museum’s Ancient Near East collection contains antiquities from the pre-classical civilisations of the ancient Near East and a selection of highlights from the collections is now available to view online for the first time…

For the people of the ancient Near East, animals were intertwined with their way of life. They rode horses and travelled long distances with pack animals, shepherded their flocks, guarded against wild and dangerous animals and hunted for both subsidence and sport. Therefore, it’s no surprise that animals were one of the main themes throughout ancient Near Eastern art.

Images of animals took on many forms, including pottery, sculptures, carvings and metalwork. Many animals, including cattle, sheep and dogs, were first domesticated in the Near East and some of the highlights available to view online in our collection reflect this, such as our animal shaped pottery.

Pottery shaped vessels like this jug in the form of a kneeling cow or bull (above) were produced during the Late Bronze Age (1700 – 1200 BC) in the area of north-west Iran known as Amlash and showed the pride of the cattle-rearing people of this area. These types of pots were intended to contain liquids and probably had some ritual role in funerary practices.

Bull amulet

White stone amulet carved in the form of a bull.

Ferocious animals, such as bulls and lions were often linked with the gods whose qualities they shared. The storm god Hadad was linked to the bull because of the similarity between the rumble of thunder and the roar of a mighty bull. Therefore the imagery of fierce animals were also often used to express authority. This white stone amulet carved in the form of a couchant bull is decorated with a drilled design on the underside. When pressed in clay or wax it would leave an impression which may have been used to mark ownership or guarantee authenticity.

Master of Animals standard

The ‘master of animals’ standard.

Conflict between two or more powerful creatures is also a recurring theme in ancient Near Eastern imagery.

This standard depicts a scene of long-standing significance in ancient Near Eastern art – that of the ‘master of animals.’ The figure wrestles a pair of stylised felines with smaller felines on their backs. The exact purpose of this object remains a little bit of a mystery, however it’s thought that it must have played a major role in the religious culture, due to several examples of similar objects having been excavated at burial sites.

Find out more about World Museum’s ancient Near East collection and view the rest of the highlights online now.

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