Rhyton in the shape of a seated bull
Period: Anatolian (Phrygia?), ca. 7th-5th century B.C.
Dimensions: Length: 28 cm
Ex Maurice Boss Collection, Geneva, Switzerland; ex Dr. L. Collection, Switzerland, acquired in 1964.
Conditions: Virtually complete and remarkably preserved. A fragment is missing just above the left shoulder. The left horn and ear are lost. Chips and wear on the left side of the body and on the head especially. Abundant remains of paint.
This hand-modeled rhyton represents a bovid seated with its legs folded under its body, which may be identified as a bull or a calf. The terracotta is now of a yellow ocher color, highlighted with reddish brown and black paint for the details of the coat (patches on the shoulders, haunches and head), for the tail and for the lines that probably indicated garlands (around the chest, shoulders, collar, head and hindquarters).
A tall cylindrical opening, provided with a rounded lip and certainly used to fill the vessel, is placed on the back of the animal, while a small circular opening, pierced at the bottom of the chest, between the front legs, allowed limited pouring of the liquid by the simple covering of a finger.
The body of the animal is squat, with powerful proportions and well rounded, though poorly detailed and hardly realistic volumes. The lower legs, however, are represented only by thin stems in low relief, which terminate in hooves and constitute the support points of the vessel.
The head, which enables us to confidently identify the animal as a bovid, has a strong and massive structure that reveals the triangular shape of the skull. Unlike the body, its modeling is more realistic, both in the overall shape and through the presence of many accurate anatomical details (eyes, brows, incised nostrils, horizontal mouth, jaw in relief, etc.) highlighted by red and black paint.
The ornamental motifs covering the body and the head (triangles on the forehead and “pendants” between the horns) characterize this animal as sacred, perhaps sacrificial: like many other related rhyta, this vessel was no doubt used for libations during religious ceremonies, the precise nature of which still remains enigmatic. It can even be imagined that by depicting the exact pattern of an animal intended for sacrifice, the vessel would somewhat replace the real animal, like a sort of permanent offering.
While belonging to the rich and large series of animal-shaped rhyta originating in Anatolia and in the Near East from the late 2nd millennium B.C., this example does not currently have any specific parallels, which prevents us from suggesting a precise chronology: it should nevertheless be dated between the late 8th and the 5th century B.C. Among the best comparisons, one should mention the rhyta in the shape of a seated horse (from Maku, Western Azerbaijan Province, Iran) and in the shape of a standing horse (from Susa, Khuzestan Province, Iran), also adorned with richly painted patterns (8th-7th century B.C.), as well as the terracotta example from Ardabil, slightly coarser and darker (late first half of the 1st millennium B.C.). In central and eastern Anatolia, the ornaments in the shape of bulls’ heads adorning the cauldrons from Gordium (Tumulus MM, late 8th century B.C.) are typologically similar, like the protome of a rhyton in the shape of a horn found in Armavir (Armenia, 6th-5th century B.C.).
Technical and stylistic similarities also exist with a type of ceramic (yellow ocher background, linear decoration painted in red and black) from the eastern regions of Anatolia and that archeologists date to the 7th century B.C.
Rhyta were widespread in the ancient world: the first documented examples are those of Tell Halaf (Syria, 6th-5th millennium B.C.), but their shape quickly became the norm in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in the Aegean cultures of the Bronze Age and, later, in classical Greek and Roman civilization. Although rhyta may vary in their typology, they are almost always linked to the world of animals and fantastic beings: they may be modeled in the shape of an animal (like our example) or in the shape of a horn with the protome of an animal or a monster; or, in the classical world especially, they may be composed of a wide mouth with a handle and of a head depicting various animals, women, blacks, satyrs, small groups with two figures, etc. These vessels were used primarily to make libations by pouring the offered liquid to the deity (their Greek name, ρυτοσ, means “drinking, pouring vessel”).
On rhyta in the Caucasus and in the Caspian Sea region, see:
BLOME P. (ed.), Paradeisos: Frühe Tierbilder aus Persien, Basel, 1992, pp. 56 ff.
On similar examples, see:
AMIET P., Elam, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1966, p. 568, no. 433 (from Susa).
Au pied du Mont Ararat: Splendeurs de l’Arménie antique, Arles, 2007, p.163, no. 110 (protome in the shape of a bull’s head).
SEIPEL W. (ed.), 7000 Jahre persische Kunst: Meisterwerke aus dem Iranischen Nationalmuseum in Teheran, Milan-Vienna, 2000, pp. 175 ff., no. 101 (from Maku).
Trésors de l’ancien Iran, Geneva, 1966, p. 108, pl. 40, no. 554.
YOUNG R.S., Three Great Early Tumuli, Vol. I, Philadelphia, 1981, pp. 102 ff. and 219 ff., pl. 50.
On the type of ceramic, see:
MERHAV R. (ed.), Treasures of the Bible Lands from the Elie Borowski Collection, Tel Aviv, 1987, no. 77.