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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Hasanlu in the Iron Age

Hasanlu is an ancient Near Eastern site of the late second to first millennium B.C. Situated on the southern shore of Lake Urmia in the Solduz Valley of northwest Iran, Hasanlu’s strategic position along trade routes through the Zagros Mountains connected the region with Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The remains discovered at Hasanlu demonstrate that it was a major local center of commerce and artistic production with close ties to other political and creative centers of the Near East during the early first millennium B.C. Hasanlu’s geographic location influenced its development, and may have been a factor in the site’s destruction by an invading army around 800 B.C.

Sir Aurel Stein, a British archaeologist, first investigated Hasanlu with a few small, exploratory soundings in 1936. In 1956, the Hasanlu Project was launched under the joint sponsorship of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Archaeological Service of Iran. Until 1977, the Hasanlu Project carried out its mission to investigate not only the site itself, but also the cultural and political developments in the surrounding region. While large-scale excavations of Hasanlu itself were ongoing, archaeological surveys and small-scale excavations were undertaken at a number of nearby settlements, such as the Neolithic sites of Pisdeli Tepe and Hajji Firuz, the Bronze Age and Iron Age sites of Ziwiye and Dinkha Tepe, and the Urartian sites of Qalatgah and Agrab Tepe. The findings have definitively shaped our understanding of cultural developments in northwest Iran from the Neolithic period through the Iron Age.

The earliest evidence for occupation at Hasanlu dates from the sixth millennium B.C., during the Neolithic era. The site was continuously occupied from the Bronze Age until around 800 B.C., when a devastating battle and fire destroyed its structures, burning abundant material wealth and hundreds of inhabitants. The attack that destroyed Hasanlu during the Iron Age is thought to have been perpetrated by Urartu, a powerful empire lying to the north.

The Assyrian empire, to the south of Hasanlu, influenced its political and artistic climate. We know from Assyrian royal annals that they conducted military and diplomatic campaigns in the Hasanlu area in the ninth to eighth centuries B.C. Local styles of art manufactured at Hasanlu frequently emulated the motifs and figural representations of Assyrian art, perhaps as a way to co-opt the power and authority conveyed in Assyrian depictions of hunting, military conquests, and courtly processions. In particular, locally manufactured carved ivories excavated from Hasanlu frequently depict scenes incorporating Assyrian motifs.

The Iron Age levels have been the most thoroughly investigated at Hasanlu. The remnants of material culture recovered there, especially the artifacts found inside the burned citadel buildings of Hasanlu IVB, includes thousands of ceramic, iron, bronze, stone, glass, ivory, and gold artifacts. The cemetery to the north of the citadel used during periods IV and V yielded hundreds of artifacts as well. Furthermore, the nature of the site’s destruction, in which buildings, artifacts, and some 240 inhabitants were entombed in the collapsed, fiery debris, has afforded a unique opportunity to excavate a particular moment in history, revealing valuable information about the everyday life and customs of the area.

Among the artifacts found in the destroyed buildings, one in particular is justly famous—the Hasanlu Gold Bowl (actually a beaker), now in the Bastan Museum in Iran. The bowl was discovered along with the remains of three men in Burned Building I. Whether these men, two of whom are armed, were rescuing the bowl from the invading army or stealing it is unknown. The bowl’s repoussé and chased decoration depicts several complex figural scenes, mostly mythological. The origin and precise meaning of the pictorial scenes have been the subject of scholarly debate. No written language is preserved from Hasanlu and archaeologists have yet to identify the ethnic background of the site’s inhabitants. Various interpretations of the mythological scenes place their origins in Urartian, Hurrian, and/or Indo-European traditions. But while its meaning remains elusive, the significance of the Hasanlu Gold Bowl cannot be overstated for elucidating the site’s prominence in the region and the cultural richness of northwestern Iran in the Early Iron Age.