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The peacock in Old Elamite art -- 'mystery' solved

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  • Francesco Brighenti
    ... After doing some additional research, I can declare that the mystery of B. Brentjes claim about some standard poles from Susa bearing the peacock
    Message 1 of 10 , Mar 15, 2011
      Trudy Kawami wrote:

      > We have strayed quite a bit from the Elamite aspect that you first
      > raised. If the "standard pole" that you mentioned came from Susa,
      > it should be in the Louvre. Their ANE collection is quite
      > searchable. Perhaps you could at least find its acc. no. (should be
      > Sb & then some digits) so I could look at it.

      After doing some additional research, I can declare that the 'mystery' of B. Brentjes' claim about some "standard poles" from Susa bearing the peacock motif is solved.

      Actually, the English translation "standard-pole", chosen to designate one of such objects in an article of Brentjes', is mistaken. What the German scholar means by that term is, in case, 'a standard top (made of metal)'. Indeed, in a German article of his he calls that same artifact either "Hammer" or "Standartenkopf".

      The pieces Brentjes refers to in a number of publications of his in order to show that Old Elamite art knew (before 2100 BCE) of the "peacock motif", are just two. One is a silver socketed hammer preserved in the National Museum of Iran, and the other, a bronze shaft-hole hammer preserved in the Louvre Museum. Both these ceremonial weapons can, in fact, be broadly defined as 'standard
      tops'. They are illustrated with drawings in French archaeologist R. de Mecquenem's article "Têtes de cannes susiennes en métal" (_Revue d'Assyriologie et d'Archéologie orientale_ 47 [1953], pp. 79-82), which is available online at

      (silver socketed hammer: Fig. 2.3; bronze shaft-hole hammer: Fig. 2.4a)

      These two drawings by de Mecquenem are reproduced in some publications of Brentjes' to visually support his own ideas on the presence of a "peacock motif" in Old Elamite art. As one can easily show, however, there is no support for Brentjes' alleged discovery of a "peacock motif" on these two metal pieces recovered during excavations at Susa.


      1) Brentjes' "proto-Sênmurw" (as he interprets what he opines to be a mixed mythical animal represented on the silver socketed hammer from Susa, Fig. 2.3 in de Mecquenem's article):

      Excerpt from B. Brentjes _Der Tierstil in Eurasien_, Leipzig, E.A. Seemann, 1982, p. 58:

      "Ein ähnlicher Hammer mit Pfauenschwanz trägt einen Schlangenkopf und erinnert damit an den späteren iranischen Senmurv, den Pfauendrachen der Sasaniden."

      My tentative English translation of the above passage:

      "[A] hammer with peacock's tail carries a snake head, and because of that it is reminiscent of the later Iranian Senmurv, the peacock-dragon of the Sassanians."

      However, in an English article published by Brentjes just one year later, the "snake" has become a "mammal":

      "[T]he oldest form [of the Sênmurw] was found in old-Elamite art. A 'standard'-pole from Susa [...] combines the head of a mammal with the tail of a peacock" (B. Brentjes, "Contributions to the Iconography of Some Picture-Motifs of Central Asia", in G. Barthel and L. Rathmann, [eds.], _The Arab world and Asia between Development and Change_, Berlin, Akademie, 1983, p. 283. Here it may be noted that Brentjes erroneously adds that "an inscription refers [this artifact] into the time of king Shulgi", whereas it is *the other* artifact from Susa he discusses, i.e. the bronze shaft-hole hammer in the Louvre, that bears that inscription!).

      It must also be noticed that de Mecquenem, at p. 80 of his article linked to above, tentatively identifies the extremely stylized animal-head forming the curved portion of the hammer in question as a bird's (raptor's or gallinacean's) head. Therefore, there appears to be total uncertainty as to what animal the head belongs to. But what I want to specially stress here is that the "peacock's tail" mentioned by Brentjes is identified as such by him on the basis of no objective evidence. Indeed, according to de Mecquenem this is not the artistic rendering of a bird's (not to say a peacock's) tail, but rather a "wing placed by the side of the [hammer's] socket, [...] identified by some ribs [and] ending in four simulacra of curls" (p. 80; translation from French mine). The "peacock's tail" -- and, together with it, the inference that this is a representation of a "proto-Sênmurw" -- is merely a speculation of Brentjes'.

      1) Brentjes' "peacock-hammer" (as he interprets the bronze shaft-hole hammer from Susa, Fig. 2.4a in de Mecquenem's article):

      See also the two pictures of this artifact in the Louvre's website at

      (the caption at the Louvre recites: "Marteau orné de deux têtes et d'un plumage d'oiseau. Inscription du roi Shulgi 'héros puissant, roi d'Ur, roi de Sumer et d'Akkad'.")

      De Mecquenem (p. 80 in the article) states that what Brentjes would have later interpreted, also in this case, as a hanging tail decorated with "eyes" that would therefore be likely to again have the peacock as a model ("einem hängenden Schwanz, der mit »Augen« geschmückt ist, also wahrscheinlich wieder den Pfau als Vorbild hat", p. 58 in Brentjes' book _Der Tierstil in Eurasien_ cited above), is a wing analogous to that of the silver socketed hammer from Susa described above on account of its being decorated on both faces by three series of triple ribs ending in three buttons or curls (p. 80 in de Mecquenem's article). Even the two bird's heads do not resemble peacock's heads at all -- they may respectively belong to a raptor and a gallinacean instead, yet this, too, is speculative.

      According to a more recent study, "[this] weapon is of a type closely related to votive axes or tops of standards from eastern Iran and Bronze Age Bactria in western Central Asia. The long plumes on [sic -- FB] the bird's heads suggest that they may belong to supernatural birds, probably double-headed bird-demons -- a type of fantastic animal that may have had its origins in eastern Iran" (E. Carter et al., "The Old Elamite Period, circa 2700-1500 B.C.", in P.O. Harper, J. Aruz & F. Tallon [eds.], _The Royal City of Susa: Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre_, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 92). Also archaeologist T.F. Potts (_Mesopotamia and the East: An Archaeological and Historical Study of Foreign Relations ca. 3400-2000 B.C._, Oxford Committee for Archaeology, 1994, p. 176) says this bronze hammer is typologically Bactrian with plume-like extensions at the back ending in curls and birds' heads rising from the top, and is surely an exotic item. A very similar hammer of purer stylization and finer workmanship, dated to the same period (ca. 2000 BCE), is also said to be from Bactria (G. Ortiz, _In Pursuit of the Absolute: Art of the Ancient World from the George Ortiz Collection_, London, Royal Academy, 1994, p. 15) -- see picture at


      It remains to see whether the other artifact too -- namely, the above referred silver socketed hammer from Susa -- can have originated in Bactria. This is not impossible if one considers that the plume-like extensions at its back, rendered by means of ribs ending in lock- or button-like curls, are typologically almost identical to those observable in the bronze shaft-hole hammer preserved in the Louvre, which, as we have seen, is currently thought to be of Bactrian origin. If this were the case, Brentjes' theory about the appearance of a "peacock motif" in Old Elamite art before 2100 BCE would simply crumble, given that the two metal objects he attempts to base it on would, in this case, prove to be two non-Elamite artifacts. Anyway, even if one or both of those two artifacts could be shown to have been produced in Elam, Brentjes' assertion that they display "tail"-extensions decorated with peacock-"eyes" would remain unsubstantiated, being merely a personal *opinion* of his not shared, so far as I could ascertain, by any other ANE specialist.


      Francesco Brighenti
      Venice, Italy
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