The art of metallurgy was so well developed in Iran by the middle of the fourth millenium B.C. that it must already have been practised many centuries, and indeed there is good reason to believe that the idea of working metals was first invented in the northwest corner of the plateau. The region is rich in ores, even the desultory and unscientific excavations that have been undertaken in Adherbaijan have yielded suggestive early material, and there are indications in the Western Asiatic cultures that the craft was a foreign intrusion. 1
Weapons, ornaments and cult implements, the first copper objects from the Plateau (they usually contain too little tin to be true bronze) have more archaeological than artistic interest, but beginning about 2000 B.C. a series of bronzes reveals a fully developed and highly characteristic style, the essential features of which thereafter distinguish the metal arts of Iran for nearly three millenia. The themes are almost all animals, real or fantastic, supernatural and especially astral symbols intended to evoke in a menacing world protection from the great Powers, and they are executed with a combination of abstract formalism and highly individual vitality that constitutes one of the great animal styles of all time.
Animals are the predominant subjects of many primitive arts--for the hunter, prey; for the nomad, the basis of his life; for the pioneer farmer, draft and food supply. And the economic essential is early invested with supernatural authority, so that animals become divine attributes and gods are endowed with animal avatars, while in this part of Asia they are equated with the mysterious and compelling influence of the heavenly bodies.
All this not only made the beasts of the woods and the fields the artist's constant preoccupation, but also imbued them with portentous significance, to the expression of which the dwellers on the Iranian plateau through a succession of cultures seem to have brought a special aptitude. These animals are the epitome of the species and also the embodiment of a transcendental idea, yet at the same time each is a specific beast, an intensely vital individual. They present, in the formalized simplicity of their rendition, almost abstract patterns, compositions of geometrical units that balance within a decisive silhouette, but they have power, gait, potential action, live even in timelessness. So sure is this instinct for organic portrayal that even fantasies compounded of divergent creatures and the impossible are consistent and convincing. Idea, symbol and fact are merged in an energetic being.
Few of these earliest bronze animals are in the round. It is a relief and silhouette art and the occasional exceptions that do appear are so isolated that it is still out of the question to give them even an approximate date. Thus a notable series of bulls' heads comprising some four or five, can so far only be called pre-Achaemenid. Compact and highly simplified, this style might be called silhouette in three dimensions,