Pre-Achaemenid Silver Compound Zoomorphic Vessel. Silver, 8th-6th century B.C.E. H. 24.2 cm. © Miho Museum.
This unusual vessel features a pair of rampant lions, interlocked forelegs on each other's shoulders, standing on a prone bull. The lions are identical, not mirror images, each with its head turned to the right and its right hind leg up on the bull. The lion that treads on the bull's head has a round opening in the back of its snarling mouth that serves as a spout. The gaping mouth of the second lion is solid, but a small, carefully finished circular hole in its head provides the opening through which the vessel can be filled. A narrow depressed rim around this hole suggests that a stopper once sealed it. Each lion's body is formed in two pieces, upper and lower cylinders whose joining is marked by a narrow rib. The two pieces of each cylinder fit together; no solder is visible. The hollow forelegs of the lions are formed of open tubes that fit one into the other, allowing fluid to run from the filling hole to the spout. The bull, whose cylindrical body is also hollow, serves as a base; there is no internal connection between the lions and the bull.
Reputed to be part of a silver treasure found in a cave in western Iran some years ago,1 this remarkable piece presents a puzzle not easily solved. The orthography of Akkadian inscriptions found on some pieces of the supposed hoard show Elamite influence suggestive of a date in the second quarter of the first millennium B.C.2 If this vessel was part of that so-called Cave Treasure, it should have a similar date and place of origin. While this association cannot be documented, the imagery of the piece supports a date in the second quarter of the millennium.
Triangular compositions featuring two rampant wild animals over a third creature, often a domesticated one, occur on Mesopotamian cylinder seals of the thirteenth century B.C.,3 one of which shows two rampant lions sparring over a bull.4 The motif is uncommon in later Mesopotamian art but appears in the art of western Iran between the ninth and the seventh centuries B.C. A small iron plaque excavated in Burned Building III at Hasanlu in northwestern Iran depicts a pair of rampant lions, their forelegs engaged, over a small bull.5 Rampant lions whose forelegs touch also appear on fragmentary ivories from the same site,6 which burned at the end of the ninth century B.C. A further excavated example of the motif comes from Sorkh Dum-i Luri to the south of Hasanlu in Luristan.7 The now-damaged head of a large bronze disk pin worked in repouss shows two lions over an upended bull.8 Excavated from a level dated to the first half of the seventh century B.C.,9 the relief could have been made well before it was deposited in the shrine. However, cylinder seals of Late or Neo-Elamite date and style with pairs of rampant lions also excavated from Sorkh Dum-i Luri and nearby Chiga Sabz10 demonstrate that the motif was relatively widespread in that region of western Iran. A bronze quiver plaque from northwestern Iran now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents another version of the scene.11
The distinctive concentration of related images in northwestern Iran before the Achaemenid period (559-330 B.C.), the unique translation of an image better known in glyptic into three-dimensional form, and the technically straightforward manner in which the piece was made suggest that the Shumei lions-and-bull vessel may have been a unique creation, made for a specific reason, and perhaps for a specific person. The absence of any clear religious imagery also suggests that it was a political or dynastic reason. The visual equality of the two lions and their unity in dominating the bull suggests an alliance or treaty agreement to overcome a mutual enemy.
It is tempting to search among the swiftly changing alliances of various tribes, clans, and regional groupings of western Iran-who are known only imperfectly from Assyrian annals-for a suitable possibility. The term "Median" has been applied to items from the supposed hoard, linking them to the pre-Achaemenid rulers of western Iran. Unfortunately "Median" as a historical period is poorly documented; the Medes themselves are difficult, if not impossible, to identify in the archaeological record,12 the geographical extent of their control is uncertain;13 and no excavated work of art can be definitively linked to the Median ruling elite. It would be foolhardy at present to claim a specific ethnic, dynastic, or political association for this remarkable work.
Nonetheless, it is clear that any meaning carried by this image lost its significance in the Achaemenid period. Images of lions attacking bulls are uncommon in Iranian art after the middle of the first millennium B.C. The motif of a single lion attacking a bull whose forelegs splay out like the bull of the Shumei vessel appears at Persepolis only on buildings built in the first half of the fifth century B.C.14 and is not known at all from Susa. The Persepolis reliefs mark the end of the motif's appearance, and apparently its relevance.