Loristan Bronzes: a glimpse into their mystery

Soaked in history and culture, the western Iranian province of Lorestan is one of the lesser-known travel destinations in Iran, which mainly acts as a gateway to the sweltering plains below in adjoining Khuzestan province.


Most travelers just pass through on their way to the UNESCO sites of Susa, Tchogha Zanbil, and Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System. Lorestan is also a region of raw beauty that an avid nature lover could spend weeks exploring.

However, of ancient highlights of the under-the-radar destination are the Luristan Bronzes that comprise small cast objects decorated with bronze sculptures from the Early Iron Age, found in large numbers in Lorestan and its neighboring Kermanshah province.

Lorestan was inhabited by Iranian Indo-European peoples, including the Medes, c. 1000 BC. Cimmerians and Scythians intermittently ruled the region from about 700 to 625 BC. The Luristan Bronzes noted for their eclectic array of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Iranian artistic motifs, date from this turbulent period.

Lorestan was incorporated into the growing Achaemenid Empire in about 540 BC and successively was part of the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanid dynasties.

As reported in a recent National Geographic article, Iron Age artifacts from the Zagros Mountains of Iran began to capture the world’s attention in the 1930s, but scholars today are still debating who crafted them.

When exquisite bronze figures began flooding the antiquities market in the late 1920s, nobody knew much about them. Artworks of people and animals, embossed bronze cups, and delicate pins thrilled dealers, who were awed by their beauty. Inquiries were made about their origins, but answers were somewhat vague. Rather than name a specific settlement or civilization, dealers would only indicate a region in the Zagros Mountains: Luristan (located in western Iran and known today as Lorestan).

The first Western archaeologist to investigate the bronzes was German-born archaeologist Erich Schmidt, who first began exploring Luristan in 1935. His work at the site was innovative thanks to his wife, Mary-Helen. The two shared a passion for archaeology: They first met when visiting the site of Tepe Hissar in Iran.

Mary-Helen advocated using airplanes to scope out the sites from above, and she bought one for the missions. Named the Friend of Iran, the plane surveyed Luristan and other Iranian sites, including Persepolis (the ancient capital of the Persian Empire), that Schmidt would be studying. After permission was secured from Iran, reconnaissance flights flew in 1935-36 and again in 1937. Schmidt’s aerial photography would prove valuable not only for documenting the sites but also for methodically planning out the excavations.

In June 1938 Schmidt’s team explored Surkh Dum, a settlement site in Luristan. Prior to this dig, unauthorized excavations in the area resulted in the removal of many bronzes, resulting in the loss of valuable information about the site’s history. Local authorities finally put a stop to the looting, and Schmidt focused his efforts on uncovering what remained.

Despite the damage and looting, Schmidt’s team was able to recover bronze, ivory, and ceramic items, objects that revealed similar artistic techniques and styles to the bronzes that were being unearthed and sold in the 1920s. Much of the exploratory work at Surkh Dum centered on a multi-chambered structure that was believed to have been a temple or place of worship. Schmidt also recovered items from chambered tombs with stones placed vertically as walls and larger slabs as ceilings.

Establishing a strong chronology for the Luristan bronzes has been challenging. The extensive looting destroyed much of the surrounding soil layers, or stratigraphy, that archaeologists rely on to establish occupation dates.

Only in recent decades has it been possible to pinpoint dates for the Luristan bronzes. Stylistic and iconographic analysis was complemented by a series of archaeological digs during the 1960s and 1970s. The excavations, carried out between 1965 and 1979 in western Luristan by Ghent University and the Royal Museums of Brussels, made it possible to locate a large number of collective tombs full of finds. Thanks to intact stratigraphy, these can be dated. Based on these studies, scholars can more accurately calculate when the Luristan bronzes were made, a timescale that is fixed at some point between the 11th century B.C. and the mid-seventh century B.C. the so-called Late Iron Age of Luristan.

An incredible variety of artifacts was discovered in Luristan, most falling into three major categories: the standards (or finials), metalwork from horse harnesses, and pins. Different kinds of bronze pieces have also been found, including weapons like daggers, spears, and axes, but not in the same abundance.

The standards are objects that were once fixed to the top of a staff. What makes them unique is their complex iconography taken from the animal world, in which the ibex (a species of mountain goat) is common. One of the best-known and most fascinating variants is the so-called Master of Animals, which depicts a human figure (typically male, but female versions have been found) holding wild animals by the neck.

The kinds of animals vary, ranging from big cats or birds of prey to mythological beasts like griffins and sphinxes. The motif is common to other ancient civilizations: Master of Animals artworks have been found in Mesopotamian art as well as Sumerian. The motif is believed to symbolize human dominion over nature.

Magnificent horse-bit cheek pieces confirm the nomadic lifestyle of the people who fashioned them. As the archaeologist Paolo Matthiae has written: “The most frequently found item is the bit, decorated with two cheek pieces made of perforated plates with pictures of animals that had a large hole in their bellies, pierced by the bar of the bit.” The iconographic repertoire can include bulls, lions, and ibexes; in others, griffins and sphinxes.

There are also everyday objects. The best known are the pins, whose purpose is still debated. Some scholars think they were votive offerings, while others suggest a more practical purpose, and they were used to fasten clothing. The pins feature a variety of subjects: goddesses, animals, and also the Master of Animals motif.

A final category is beakers, cylindrical vessels with a small nub on the base. The decoration, made in relief on the outside, includes scenes such as ritual banquets, with important figures flanked by servants or musicians.