The Zagros regions seems to have been occupied at a very remote time by peoples whose origin is still unknown. It is probable that as early as the pre-historic groups of these people inhabited villages near the sources of rivers and that, and even if they mainly subsisted by hunting, they gradually became farmers and stock raisers. They had domesticated some species of animals, including various sorts of sheep and oxen, and the large number of spindle-whorls of sun-backed clay found on the site of their first settlements is adequate proof that they had already mastered the art of weaving. They used the sling and the club rather than the bow, when hunting, and hoes of chipped stone and flint knives for farming. Metal had not yet made its appearance. Without a potter’s wheel they made very simple vases which they baked in the open air on brush-wool fires. At least that is what we have learned from the archaeological excavations carried out in Iran over the past decades.
Little primitive villages of sun-baked developed gradually as the inhabitants of the country themselves increasingly to agriculture and the need for a larger supply of manpower was felt. The hunters who had become comparatively settled built kilns and discovered a method of molding bricks, which considerably altered the aspect of their houses. Their taste improved and this was particularly obvious in the art of pottery. The shapes of their pots became more elegant. At first the decoration imitated basket-work, but later fights of birds and files of ibexes, depicted in a way which was at the same time naturalistic and schematic, were also used to ornament the vases.
Then metal-working appeared, although it only developed slowly among these villagers. Copper points begun to replace carved bones as the heads of weapons, although flint and obsidian implements and stone clubs and axes were still in more or less general use. Tombs have yielded small pieces of jewelry made of copper, shells from the Persian Gulf, and cornelian and turquoise beads from the eastern regions bearing witness to a system of barter which was already highly developed.
These simple facts sum up several centuries of material evolution in the life of an agricultural race, which passed slowly from the stone to the bronze age, and did so alone without any outside contributions.
In the following period – still part of the fourth millennium BC – the progress of this rudimentary civilization became more rapid and more significant, but can still be considered as the result of normal local development. Ceramics are now richer and more varied. (Fig 1 to 3)
In the decoration use is made of further kinds of animals, chasing one another or fighting (Fig 4 and 5) , and of skillful geometry which, in the highly original workshops at Susa, Tall-e Bakun, Tapeh Sialk, etc., transforms basically animal shapes into virtually abstract patches and lines. The latter are more closely connected with the strange world of superstitions than simple decorative art. (Fig 6 to 10)
For ancient man, living a wretched and precarious existence, attributed the untoward events of his hard life to the action of eveil powers, very much as Middle Ages accused the Devil of being the author of all its evils. He feared the “evil eye”, the fate which the baleful powers capriciously inflicted on humanity, and tried to protect himself against it with all sorts of talismans. Even nowadays some Iranians claim to preserve themselves from selfsame terrors by fully carefully chosen amulets. These objects had – as they still have today – to accompany man throughout this daily existence, to surround him, so to speak, with their protection, and that is how we may explain primitive man’s taste for representing the sun, for example, by its rays and its animal attributes: the eagle, the lion, the bull, different sorts of goat, and the various symbols with which he decorated his pottery.
No doubt the need for protective divinities also made itself felt, for at any early stage the storm, the river and the wild beasts which threatened man, his flock and his crops were adored, and the tree, symbol of the forest, was defied. Even today almost every village in Iran preserves and looks piously after a large plane-tree which is looked upon as a kind of guardian angel. Sometimes a traveler sees an isolated tree right in the middle od the desert. Since trees normally only grow in naturally humid or artificially irrigated places, a tree which grows in the most arid place of all – miraculously as it seems – becomes sacred. On seeing it the man makes a wish, ties a nondescript rag to its branches, perhaps a reminder of ancient libations and ancient sacrifices, and goes on his way with his mind more at ease.
It was not surprising, therefore, that these primitive amulets underwent a gradual transformation into works of art. This was the case with idols (Fig 11) which remained amorphous for a long time. These were the representation, in varying degrees of crudity, of a female personage, and have been found on a great number of archaeological sites. Nearly every religion has preserved the memory of the mother goddess in whose person people venerated the very principle of existence, the symbol of fertility and abundance and which this naïve image represents. Her cult was subsequently displaced by that of male deities, of whom she remained both wife and mother.
The decorative repertory of the pottery of the fourth millennium is made up of these various elements or parts of them: the horns of a bull or an ibex, a bird’s wing, the lion’s head and the foot of some wading bird, to name a few examples. The energy and continuity of this art led to its diffusion over the whole of the high plateau and even beyond.
During this period metal-working even more rapidly, no doubt encouraged by the type of life which the possession of numerous flocks began to impose on section of the population. In fact, it developed so rapidly and in such a way that perhaps we are justified in situating the home of metal-working in the range of mountains bordering the Iranian plateau. Metal-working that vital discovery, could only have been the result of fortunate circumstances exploited by peoples who had rich mineral deposits and vast forests near their settlements. Now we know that the Iranian mountains dwellers had, within easy reach, vast quantities of the ores they had learnt to smelt and also of the firewood which they used to stoke their pottery kilns.