A Neo-Elamite Bitumen Relief
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Categories: Ancient

A Neo-Elamite Bitumen Relief

A bitumen relief of a woman sitting cross-leged on a stool in front of a tripod with a fish. A child in the background fans her
“The spinning woman.” Bitumen relief from Susa, c. 800-600 BCE. Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, SB 2834 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010176914 – https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

We don’t have many pictures of clothed women from the middle of the first millennium BCE in the Near East. Most of the local peoples did not paint scenes of daily life on their pottery, and their stone-carvings show a man’s world or a heavenly world. The Assyrian palace reliefs show some queens and deported women, and one Achaemenid seal shows a wealthy woman seated on a throne. One other picture of a clothed woman is a Neo-Elamite bitumen relief in the Louvre. Its 9.3 cm high, so five times larger than most of the little seals.

Notice the patterned bands on her shawl, and the patterns on the child’s girdle. Her cross-legged posture reminds me of art from the early empires of Central America. The short sleeves are typical of Mesopotamian clothing in the first millennium BCE.

a digital drawing of a woman sitting cross-leged on a stool in front of a brazier with a fish while a girl fans her
An interpretative drawing of the relief by artist and Iranologist Maria ‘Yarami’ Bazhatarnik of https://nitter.eu/yarami_sh/status/1462338306881073153#m or https://twitter.com/yarami_sh/status/1462338306881073153

Over on corporate social media, Maria Bazhatarnik (vkontakt https://vk.com/yarami) has interpreted this relief as a digital drawing. One good thing about turning ancient art into your own drawing or reconstruction is that you have to make choices. You can’t just say “we don’t know” or avoid the issue, and if you prefer a different interpretation, you have to bring it forward. Maria Bazhatarnik chose to give the woman a round neckhole since the relief does not show where the tunic ends and the neck begins. New clothing from Iberia to India in this period was probably woven to shape not woven in long narrow pieces, cut up and sewed back together. The simplest way to make the neck opening was to weave it with a slit in the weave and pin it closed, but other solutions are possible, including cutting out some of the cloth.

two girls sit on a cart full of sacks while an adult walks and two soldiers pull it by the yoke
A Neo-Assyrian relief of deportees in the Louvre. Note how Assyrian soldiers humbly pull the chariots to carry these noncombatants away. Neo-Assyrian art shows spectacular violence against men of fighting age, but its much more reluctant to show the King hurting women or children. Photo by Sean Manning, 2019.

The (?Elamite?) deportees riding the chariot are dressed similarly to the women, and one of them seems to have a round neckhole in her shawl. On the other hand, the man on the right seems to have a rectangular neckhole. In a Bronze Age relief in the Louvre, the neck hole even seems to have a point centered in front. So as I figure out Near Eastern clothing from 700 to 300 BCE, I am going to have to think about the shape of the neck opening as well as about which simple geometric shapes it is wrapped or sewed from. It won’t be easy, and the best possible outcome is that I inspire someone to do better and erase my name and achievements. But if I don’t do anything, there will be no progress at all.

a warrior with a socketed ax strikes a falling opponent in the head
A famous Bronze Age relief in the Louvre showing a socket-hole axe. Note the tassels and borders on the garments. Photo by Sean Manning, 2019.

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(post scheduled 16 December 2021)

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