When Alexander the Great and his armies sacked the Achaemenid Persian capital of Persepolis in 330 B.C.E., one ancient historian reported, they found gold, silver, and valuables in such quantities that ten thousand mules and five hundred camels were needed to carry away the spoils. Like the stories of Midas’s golden touch and the riches of Croesus, this ancient account reminds us that the metallic wealth of Near Eastern kings was legendary, arousing both envy and awe.
In the Near East, the region stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to present–day Afghanistan, mountains and river valleys provide abundant sources of clays, metal ores, and iron–rich pigments. These natural resources helped to nurture some of the earliest sophisticated developments in metalworking and pottery–making anywhere in the world. By 3500 B.C.E., metalworkers had established methods for extracting metal from its ores. They also knew that copper could be mixed (alloyed) with other metals to achieve materials of varying hardness, color, and working properties. By 2900 B.C.E., metalworkers had developed the basic techniques that were used until the modern era. The principal metals used by ancient Near East metalworkers were copper, silver, lead, and gold. Iron, a relative latecomer, was introduced around 1800 B.C.E.
Most of the precious metal at Persepolis was probably in the form of vessels, which could serve as royal tableware, be stored in the treasury, or be given away as gifts. Rulers not only accumulated gold and silver, but also fostered high crafting standards in palace workshops and promoted new styles as well as new techniques of making and decorating metalwork. Occasionally, they even monopolized sources of precious metals. A later Persian dynasty, the Sasanians (ca. 224–651), controlled the supply of silver, which court artisans fashioned into works of art often embellished with royal images. A silver plate depicting the Sasanian king Shapur II (ruled 309–379) hunting boars was probably a royal gift, announcing the ruler’s heroic strength as well as his vast stores of silver.
At first, metalworkers would have copied shapes of vessels fashioned from materials that boasted still older craft histories: stone, wood, and clay. Potters in the Near East began making and firing clay vessels before 6000 B.C.E. The oldest method for making pottery is by hand, using a lump, slabs, or coils of clay. The potter’s wheel was invented before 4000 B.C.E. Common techniques of decorating pots included painting selected areas, covering the surface with a thin slip made of iron–rich red clay, and burnishing (compacting the surface with a hard, smooth tool such as a pebble). Potters first fired vessels in hearths, but soon afterward in kilns, special constructions made of brick or stone in which temperatures could reach about 1,050 degrees Celsius. Firing pots at a high temperature improved their durability and impermeability, and also offered further opportunities for changing the surface color.
The beginnings of metallurgy brought about a dramatic change in ceramic production, a craft that also drew on the application of heat in manipulating the properties of materials. The uneven availability of ore sources and the complex steps involved in smelting and producing metal artifacts established metallurgy as an elite technology. As a result, metal became the principal prestige material for many objects, including vessels, whose shapes and decorative approaches clearly served as models for many of the finest class of ceramic vessels. Particularly striking examples of interaction between these media come from the Iron Age I to the Iron Age III period in northern and western Iran (circa 1400–600 B.C.E.). The practice of burnishing produced a lustrous, almost metallic sheen after firing. Another link to metal prototypes are the colors of ceramic vessels, reflecting the manipulation of firing conditions to produce red, brown, gray, and black wares. These wares most likely represent attempts to reproduce the appearance and gleaming surfaces of bronze, silver, and gold. Little wonder, then, that the ancient Near East impressed its neighbors as a vast royal treasury filled with incalculable amounts of precious metal, whose kings possessed wealth beyond imagination.