How was a processional standard like this one originally used? This curvilinear, bronze object is a seventeenth century processional standard (‘alam) that was found in Iran. When the standard was made in the seventeenth century, the powerful Safavid dynasty (1501 to 1736 CE) controlled Iran and surrounding territories in the Middle East. The Safavids were generous patrons of art and architecture, cultivating and supporting the production of masterful book arts, painting, textiles, and buildings.
The Safavids embraced Twelver Shiism, a major form of Shi’a Islam. Unlike the Ottomans to the west and the Mughals to the east, who practiced Sunni Islam, the Safavids subscribed to the belief that the leader of the Islamic world should be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi’a religion greatly influenced the arts during the Safavid period, including the function and decoration of the bronze processional standard in the Joukowsky Institute collection. Followers of Shi’a would have used a standard like this one in processions, particularly during ‘Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram. On this day, the Shi’a community remembers the martyrdom of Imam Husain, the grandson of Muhammad, in 680 CE.
The bronze standard in the Joukowsky Institute’s collection is shaped like a teardrop, with a triangular finial on top. In the center of the teardrop form and upper finial are Arabic descriptions of important Shi’a figures, such as Allah, Muhammad, and Ali. Religious proclamations also line the edges of the standard, revealing the religious function of the standard. A curved finial extends below the bottom half of object, though one half of the structure had fallen off before the object arrived at the Joukowsky. Processional standards like this one were often attached to poles and carried during ceremonies, as the round protrusion at the bottom of the standard suggests.
There are several other standards that can be viewed online. In 2014, Christie’s auctioned a remarkably similar object with a teardrop form, calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic, and a curvilinear border. The Christie’s standard dates to the sixteenth to seventeenth century, and its placement on a platform and pole suggest its original use in processions.
Today, Muslim communities around the world continue to participate in ceremonies to mourn Imam Hussein during the sacred month of Muharram. In the ritual of Nakhl Gardani in Yazd, Iran, Muslims gather together in a large crowd and carry a large wooden structure called the Nakhl that is covered with shawls, fabrics, mirrors, and lanterns (Tehran Times 2020). The bronze processional standard at the Joukowsky Institute memorializes the art and architecture of the Safavid Dynasty while taking part in a long tradition of Shi’a ceremonial rituals.
-Kristen Marchetti ‘22
Read more about the Safavid Dynasty, processional standards, and Muharram at the links below (my sources of information, in addition to pages linked in text):
Brown Bag talks are held Thursdays from 12:00-12:50pm. These hybrid talks are free and open to the public via Zoom. Links and information about attending each talk will be provided below.
October 7, 2021: Peter van Dommelen (Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, Brown University) Monuments of Change: Indigenous Resilience and Colonial Connections in Iron Age Sardinia
October 14, 2021: Cicek Beeby (Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, Brown University) Women’s Agency in the Iconography of Burial in Ancient Greece
October 21, 2021: Yannis Hamilakis ( Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, Brown University ) and Raphael Greenberg (Tel Aviv University) Archaeology, Nation, and Race: Confronting the Past, Decolonizing the Future in Greece and Israel Join the Zoom Meeting (passcode: BrownBag)
November 11, 2021: Alex Marko, Miriam Rothenberg, and Anna Soifer (Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, Brown University) Join the Zoom Meeting (passcode: BrownBag)
November 18, 2021: Tyler Franconi (Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, Brown University) The English Landscapes and Identities Project and the Changing Face of the English Landscape From 1500 BC to AD 1086 Join the Zoom Meeting (passcode: BrownBag)
Objects: M290abc, M276, M287abc, M229, and M270 JIAAW, Minassian Collection
This Virtual Vault post focuses on a subset of objects in the Joukowsky Institute’s collection whose origins have been the subject of debate amongst Joukowsky community members for some time. They are the pottery roundels that were given to the JIAAW as part of the Minassian Collection, consisting of round pieces of clay with designs etched onto their surfaces, as well as both negative and positive plaster impressions of the clay roundels. The roundels depict a wide range of designs and symbolic subjects, including animals, plants, and geometric shapes. While the Institute’s records attribute these roundels to 13th century Iran, similar objects have been found in many other ancient sites, with some having been used for entirely different purposes from one another.
Some of the earliest examples of clay molds come from Central Mexico during the Early Formative period (ca. 1800-1200 BCE), where they were used as decorative devices for embellishing clothing, ceramics, and even the person. Typically depicting abstract geometric designs and animal imagery, often in repeating patterns, these clay stamps have been found in ancient burial sites, indicating the meaningful cultural association attached to these objects. The practice of creating and using these clay stamps continued through to the early sixteenth century CE, as exemplified by the Aztec people’s wide use of stamps to apply ink to figurines, clothing, paper, and the body.
Aside from decoration, stamps in antiquity also served practical purposes. Lumps of clay pressed with seal markings, or bullae, originate from the Seleucid period in Iran (306 – c.150 BCE). Bullae were used to shut jars, doors, and baskets, and were designed to prevent tampering with the contents inside.
Cylinder seals could be used to impress intricate designs onto bullae, or were covered with ink and rolled directly onto important documents.
Meanwhile, the ancient Romans used stamps for similar purposes of identification and proof of ownership, but instead of marking papers they marked bread. Since most bread was baked in communal ovens, Roman bakers placed custom bronze stamps on top of their dough so that they could differentiate finished loaves from one another.
Yet, the use of stamp-like objects in antiquity did not stop with bullae or bread making. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is home to a group of ceramic roundels similar to the ones here at the Joukowsky Institute that also once belonged to Kirkor Minassian. According to the Met, these roundels are actually bath scrapers, used in steamy bath houses called hammams to scrub away dead skin and eliminate impurities. Like the clay roundels in the Joukowsky Vault, these scrapers have been attributed to 12th-13th century Iran. While simpler designs could have served the same function of exfoliating the skin, perhaps the intricate illustrations of these bath scrapers says something about the personality of both the artisans who made them and the ancient people who bought and used them.
The exploration of these once mysterious pottery roundels reflects the natural place that curiosity and imagination have in archaeology. When placed next to one another, each of the objects mentioned in this post share key characteristics that can make them seem very similar to one another. Yet, a deeper look within each object’s cultural context demonstrates the many uses and purposes of stamp-like objects in antiquity despite their apparent similarities.
Decorated with a symmetrical design of blue and green hues, object M167 from the Joukowsky Institute’s Minassian Collection is a rich example of Damascus ware. Damascus tiles were derived from the tradition of Iznik ceramics, a school of Turkish pottery that flourished between the 15th and 17th centuries. Inspired by Chinese porcelain wares and the intricate designs of Persian pottery, Iznik wares often depicted floral motifs in colors of deep blues and white. In the mid-16th century, the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent sent Iznik potters to repair tiles at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Once their work was completed, the Iznik potters traveled about 135 miles north to Damascus, a city in present-day Syria. The artisans settled in Damascus, continuing to create tiles and vessels rooted in the Iznik tradition. Yet, it was in Damascus that the color palette changed from bright whites and vibrant blues and reds to more muted tones inspired by nature. In object M167, one may notice blues inspired by the sky and sea, hints of sage green reminiscent of vegetation, and earthy brown accents.
Although Iznik ceramics are considered to be the emblems of the golden age of Islamic tile production, Damascus tiles found throughout the Ottoman Empire and in its capital city of Istanbul were more readily available to Western collectors in the 19th century. It is through this market that Western museums and many collectors were able to acquire Damascus tiles and may be how this particular tile ended up as part of the Minassian’s collection.
-Jinette Jimenez ‘21
Read about the history of the Minassian Collection here.
Read more about Damascus tiles and see other examples:
Object M039 is a blue and white Kubachi ware dish decorated with birds, flowers, and other vegetal images. Flowers and plants are a common and universal decorative motif found in many styles of artwork throughout the world, and Islamic art is no exception. As the Islamic empire expanded throughout the 7th Century and onwards, the artistic traditions and techniques of conquered areas were adopted into the empire’s ceramic ware production.
Early Islamic rulers prioritized promoting high levels of production for both everyday and luxury objects over forcing craftspeople to adhere to a distinctive visual language. Thus, the power and wealth of the Islamic empire was emphasized through its incorporation of Byzantine, Egyptian, Iranian, and Roman traditions that drew from natural imagery.
Over time, however, Islamic art did develop a distinct aesthetic identity. Two prominent features, geometry and symmetry, are seen in the decoration of Object M039. Here, plantlife is depicted in six uniformly spaced segments on the plate’s inside wall. Meanwhile, a bird proudly displays its feathery wings in the center of the piece, a nod to the importance of birds as symbols of safety and rescue in the Muslim tradition.
-Jinette Jimenez ‘21
Read more about flowers, plants, and birds in Islamic art and see other examples:
The Joukowsky Institute is fortunate enough to have two hairpins, one made of bone and the other of bronze, in its collection. This Virtual Vault entry, the second in a series featuring each of the two hairpins in the vault, is about Object 297, the bronze hairpin.
This object is a thin, pointed bronze hairpin adorned with a flat finial in the shape of a bird. A closer look reveals that the bird was created with a punch pattern and is decorated with hammered circles. While the exact age of this hairpin is unknown, it is old enough for green patina to have developed over time, a sign of the natural oxidation of the bronze material.
Hairpins that are aesthetically similar to Object 297 have been identified as ancient Roman and Greek artifacts. Although this particular hairpin might not be ancient, its design offers insight into the relationship that ancient people had with nature. In his book Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words, Jeremy Mynott describes the various ways in which ancient Greeks and Romans interacted and related with birds. Birds were not only resources for farming and hunting, but were treated as pets, agents, and friends. The ancient practice of augury further demonstrates the importance of birds in the ancient world. The Romans especially paid close attention to the calls, movements, behaviors, and appearances of birds to anticipate the likelihood of certain events. In this way, birds acted as omens from the gods, allowing for deities to communicate with earthly people and demonstrate approval or disapproval of their actions. It’s no wonder that birds showed up as decorative elements in ancient wares and jewelry, including hairpins like Object 297.
-Jinette Jimenez ‘21
Read more about ancient birds and see other examples of hairpins:
The Joukowsky Institute is fortunate enough to have two hairpins, one made of bone and the other of bronze, in its collection. The next two Virtual Vault entries will feature each of the two hairpins in the vault, starting with Object 333, the bone hairpin.
Dating as far back as the Neolithic Period (c. 10,000–4,500 BCE), hairpins made of various materials and designs have been used as hairstyle tools as well as status symbols by peoples from ancient Rome and Egypt to the Shang Dynasty of China. While this particular hairpin is not believed to be ancient, it offers a useful starting point to explore the meaning and function of these delicate and fascinating beauty objects. Due to their high rates of survival in archaeological sites, bone, as opposed to precious stone or wood, is the most commonly found hairpin material in ancient settlements. According to the Museum of London, hairpins are one of the most common artifacts that have survived from Roman Britain. Interpreted as indicators of the presence of women, these hairpins have been found in domestic, industrial, and public contexts, including burial sites, waterfront dumps, forts, bath houses, and amphitheaters.
A close reading of classic texts and artwork demonstrates that an ancient hairpin is perhaps not as frivolous as the lost bobby pins of today. In her analysis of the utility of hairpins in ancient Egypt, Joann Fletcher presents hairpins as both functional tools and sacred items that represented women’s connection to goddesses. More than that, hairpins with sharp ends were used by ancient women to violently assert their political stances and autonomy. In both the Roman Republic and in ancient Egypt, Fletcher asserts that the ancient woman used her hairpin as a weapon to avenge her husband’s death, an instrument to pierce her enemies, and, in the case of Cleopatra VII, even a vehicle to take her own life.
It is almost impossible to decipher the original shape, much less the tiny details, that once graced this bone hairpin due to the breaks and erosion of its surface over time. One could imagine this delicate piece of carved bone being worn, positioned, broken, and later repaired in a variety of fashions and scenarios. Yet, if the women of the ancient world have taught us anything, it is to not limit our imaginations of what an object’s history could entail.
-Jinette Jimenez ‘21
Read more about ancient hairpins and see other examples:
Though not an official part of the Joukowsky Institute’s collection, this antique mailbox front represents a fascinating part of the history of Brown Mail Services. The object, identified as a Corbin Model 87-A Post Office Mailbox Door, is a special find in and of itself. Once contextualized within its place in the lives of Brown students and staff, the mailbox front reveals how Brown’s ever changing campus facilities drastically alter the college experience of Brown students over time.
Our story begins in the basement of Faunce House in 2008, when the building was on the cusp of a major renovation. While Brown students today know Faunce as the home of popular social spaces such as the Blue Room, Leung Gallery, and the Underground, an often overlooked door to what is now known as the Kasper Multipurpose Room still bears the markings of what this space once was: the Mail Room. Rows and rows of mailboxes similar to the one belonging to the Joukowsky Institute were uninstalled and put into storage in 2008, where they would remain until 2013 when the Brown Bookstore commissioned custom wooden banks for the mailbox fronts to be sold to alumni.
Meanwhile, the renovation of Faunce between 2009 and 2010 saw the relocation of Mail Services to its current home just across the street in Page-Robinson Hall. There, each student received access to their own metal mailbox, whose minimalist design was in stark contrast from the intricate details of the previous mailbox doors that were manufactured by the Corbin Cabinet Lock Company in the early 1900s. The company’s Post Office Equipments Catalogue from 1900 describes the technology behind the brass door, boasting that the “Double dial keyless [locks] are secure, cannot be picked, and an unlimited number of combinations are possible.” Double windows for departmental mailboxes and single windows for students allowed for one to gain a sneak peek of the mailbox’s contents before turning the iconic double dial keyless locks to retrieve mail.
It turns out that the motion of peeping into mailbox windows and entering a combination on the dials has sparked visceral memories of college days at Brown for several alumni. In a Brown Alumni Magazine (BAM) article published in 2013, Brian Lies ‘85 reflected on the daily routine of visiting his antique mailbox in Faunce House,
“Through the tiny window in your box’s ornate door you might see only flimsy campus announcement slips, but occasionally you’d spy something substantial, spinning the twin dials to find—yes!—a handwritten letter or a colored card indicating a package waiting to be picked up. You’d get that dopamine blast that keeps gamblers gambling—the power of infrequent reward.”
Almost 20 years prior in the February 1994 issue of BAM, Maggie Rosen ‘85 wrote about a recurring nighttime dream she had about being a student at Brown again. Between scrambling to figure out her class schedule and buying textbooks, Rosen always dreamt of returning to Faunce House to find her mailbox overflowing with letters, postcards, and flyers advertising campus activities and events. Lies and Rosen show us that the antique Corbin mailbox fronts were an undeniable part of the Brown experience for all students enrolled before the 2009 renovation. Within those four brass walls lay lifelines to home, mass communication from peers, and tickets to opportunities beyond College Hill. Essentially, they were perfect representations of what it is to be a Brown student, simultaneously stretched between the familiarity of one’s roots and the promises of a new life of infinite possibilities all while temporarily being situated right here on the Main Green.
Yet, the thrill of an unexpected letter or surprise package described by Brown alumni is not as often felt today. Mailroom habits have changed in tandem with new methods of communication. As handwritten letters and care packages began to be replaced by FaceTime calls and Amazon orders in the 2010s, Brown Mail Services was faced with the unprecedented challenge of processing more packages than letters. Soon, the physical student mailbox became obsolete and in the fall of 2015, Brown University students returning to campus were greeted with a newly renovated mailroom. This second renovation saw the digitization of the regular ritual of retrieving one’s mail, with locker combinations being traded in for the swift swipe of a Brown ID. Today, stopping by Mail Services in Page-Robinson Hall is not necessarily a daily task for Brown students. Instead, they receive campus announcements, messages from extracurriculars, and even notifications that tell them when their letters and packages arrive in their email inbox.
This mailbox front is a symbol of a reality that every Brown alum faces– that our campus is constantly evolving and continues to do so even after we step through the Van Wickle Gates, sometimes to a point beyond recognition. The common experiences of one generation of Brown students can be entirely different from the next depending on the state of Brown’s facilities at the time. The drastic changes of Brown Mail Services throughout the past decade is simply one example of that.
Though this object represents a particular moment of such drastic change, it also maintains a meaningful connection to the Joukowsky Institute today. Notice the mailbox number printed between the two windows. This is the original Box 1837 that was assigned to the JIAAW upon its inception in 2004. While a physical Box 1837 no longer exists, one can still address a letter there and it will surely find its way to Rhode Island Hall.
Special thanks to: Beth Gentry, Assistant Vice President of Business and Financial Services at Brown, who graciously provided much of the information that this post is based on.
-Jinette Jimenez ‘21
“Corbin Post Office Equipments : Lock Boxes, Both Key and Automatic Keyless Style, Furniture of Any Description for All Classes of Post Offices. : Corbin Cabinet Lock Company” Internet Archive, New Britain, Conn. : The Co., 1 Jan. 1970, archive.org/details/corbinpostoffice00corb/page/12/mode/2up.
Lies, Brian. “Mailbox Dreams.” Brown Alumni Magazine, 2013.
“Philip Corbin: Manufacturing A Legacy for New Britain: Connecticut History: a CTHumanities Project.” Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project, 24 Aug. 2013, connecticuthistory.org/philip-corbin-manufacturing-a-legacy-for-new-britain/.
Rosen, Maggie. “Mailbox of My Dreams.” Brown Alumni Magazine, 1994.
Cylinder seals are small cylindrical objects carved with images and text and meant to be rolled in soft clay to leave an impression of the design. Like this cylinder seal , many were made of stone, but they could also be made from ivory, bone, shell, metal, glass, or ceramic. Many had a hole through the center so they could be worn as a necklace or on a pin – perhaps to keep them close at hand or as a decorative or protective amulet.
The first cylinder seals were probably used about 5,000 years ago in the Near East, around the time writing was invented. They were often used like a signature – rolled onto a clay tablet that already had writing on it (they’ve been found on documents ranging from letters, to receipts, to treaties) – or as a seal on a door or storage jar to announce ownership and ensure there was no unauthorized access to the space or container. Because these seals were usually made from sturdy material, many of them have remained completely intact even though their use and production dropped off rapidly once papyrus and parchment started to replace clay as the preferred writing material.
-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator
Learn more about cylinder seals and see other examples:
Askoi are vessels for pouring small amounts of liquid – probably most commonly oil for refilling oil lamps. They can have one or two spouts and a handle (which often arches over the entire top of the vessel) and come in a variety of shapes. Some askoi are squat, like ours, while others are globular with a shape originally inspired by containers made from animal skins or organs. Many askoi include a strainer and some have a lid (our askos may have originally had a lid covering the strainer holes at the center).
-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator