Unexpected Meetings #3: Kish

The third in a series of blog posts that draw out additional connections between objects displayed in the Ashmolean Museum’s Imagining the Divine exhibition. Rachel Wood discusses two very different objects from the same site: the city of Kish in the Sasanian Empire. 

To Kish, a Mesopotamian city in the Sasanian Persian Empire, in the 5th century. In one part of the city, the disembodied head of a king loomed down on viewers from columns lining the walls of a large courtyard in a grand residential building, not once but fourteen times. In another, far more modest, dwelling in the city, a clay bowl was buried, hidden from view. Both the bust and the bowl ended up in the Ashmolean after the joint Oxford/Chicago Field Museum excavations at Kish between 1923 and 1933.

Stucco bust of a Sasanian ruler, most likely Bahrām V Gur (r.520-38), Building SP-2, Kish, Iraq. Ashmolean Museum AN1932.980. Photo: P. Frankopan.
Detail of incantation bowl from Kish, Iraq, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford inv. 1927.3327. Photo: S. Lenk.

These two examples demonstrate converse approaches to the visibility of objects. Most likely representing Bahram V (r.420-38), the stucco busts – one now in Oxford, one in Iraq and the rest in Chicago – were intended to be viewed in the same space, in similar positions, for the cumulative visual impact of reinstating the king’s image: the royal presence pervading the space, confronting the viewer. On the other hand, the incantation bowl could only fulfil its function once it had been deposited out of sight. Likely the act of its creation – the painting of demonic figures and writing the invocations – and the ritual act of its deposition were crucial in ensuring its efficacy, but it was not until the bowl was buried in a corner of the house, in the wall, under a threshold, or even under a bed, that it could take up its protective role catching demons and warding away evil spirits, or inflict misery on a foe.

Chicago Kish bust
Restored stucco bust from Building SP-2, Kish. H.52 cm. Photo © John Weinstein, Chicago Field Museum inv.246300.

Both objects also illustrate the importance of repetition of form. The stucco bust was repeated in one space, around the hall, while the incantation bowls are a type of object that were used by many – over 1000 survive – all variations on a similar form: a clay vessel bearing an ink text laid out in a pattern (either concentric circles, radiating lines, or in three or four opposing chunks). The words might be in Aramaic script (perhaps Syriac or Mandaic dialects), or in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), or even in Arabic, but they conform to the same underlying practice. Often, as on the bowl displayed in Imagining the Divine, the words so carefully arranged on these clay vessels do not even record a legible spell, but instead are written in a ‘pseudo-script’ that imitates Aramaic letters. Were these the work of con artists fooling illiterate clients? Or did the pseudo-script increase the magical potency? Some bowls that look particularly charming to the modern eye portray simple line drawings of demonic figures with wild hair and chained limbs standing in the centre surrounded by text, or, in the case of this example, a chicken.

Incantation bowl, Ahwaz, Iran. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago inv.A35804. Photo: R. Wood.

These two objects from the Sasanian Empire sit in different sections of the exhibition, in the Islamic and Jewish displays. Bahram’s bust resides in the section on early Islamic art because early caliphs adopted features of Sasanian kingship, ruler representation, and court life. Bahram V, along with the later Khosro I (r.531-79), was held up as an ideal ruler by early Islamic rulers, and both are major characters in Persian literature produced for centuries after the fall of the Sasanian Empire. The bowl decorated with Aramaic ‘pseudo-script’ was probably created and/or used by members of a Jewish community in Kish. Legible words on other incantation bowls suggest this type of object was used by followers of different religions, whether Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, Manichaeans or Mandaeans, while the stucco bust likely represents the Zoroastrian ruler Bahram V who grew up in the Arab city of Hira, a major Christian centre ruled by client kings of the Sasanians, the Lakhmids. Thus, incidentally, both the stucco bust and the incantation bowl recall the religious diversity within the Sasanian Persian Empire.

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