Throughout time, the human connection to animals is undeniable. Whether it’s in food production, labour, companionship or travel, animals today still play an incredibly important role in our lives. In our modern world, day to day interactions with animals – aside from our beloved pets – are less frequent. Even so, images of animals are everywhere. A cute puppy picture on your phone’s lock screen, or a cow design on a pair of novelty socks. However, you only need to glance back into ancient history to see an obsession with depicting animals on our belonging’s is nothing new.
When we say ancient history, we really mean it. Early examples of the animal image appear as fish on the ceramics of the Indus River Valley peoples (1). Dating from the 3rd millennium BS, the Indus River Valley is one of the earliest world civilisations. Based along the river Indus in modern day Pakistan it was renowned for its urban planning and water management systems. What the fish represent is debated. It could be as simple as the prevalence of fish in their diet but perhaps more likely, the fish were symbolic of the God of Waters. As a society reliant on the monsoon and their river systems, a frequent depiction of a water God is understandable.
From slightly later, in what is modern day Northern Iran, we find the bronze ceremonial weaponry of the Amlash people. Whether a mace head with an eagle shaped terminal (2) or an axe with a stylised tiger (3)– it seems clear that an animal depiction was key in defining a weapon as being for ritual purposes. The eagle especially was a sign of royal authority in many ancient cultures. So, it’s likely in this case the bird can tell us the item was owned by a minor royal. As you’ve perhaps already realised, in ancient history the depiction of an animal normally has a much larger symbolic meaning that you may have first thought.
CATS? DOGS? RABBITS?
What about more domesticated animals? They played a role in ancient society just as they do today. So were not left out of being depicted by our predecessors. Cats, in the image of the goddess Basset, are a frequent motif in Egyptian works (4). A protective, maternal goddess she was seen to guard pregnant women and young children. A bronze figurine such as the one below would have been a comforting presence in any home – just like the real thing!
Han Chinese Guard Dog (5)
Han Chinese Rabbit (6)
Increasingly realistic, the Han Chinese figures of dogs and rabbits were also to help protect a home. The pottery dog has its ears pricked up and head alert. It was likely to have been part of a pair, either side of a door frame in order to guard the house. The rabbits are similarly animated, one on its hind legs sniffing into the air. In Chinese tradition rabbits are incredibly lucky animals and symbolised elegance, beauty and mercy. Having them present in your home invited in all of these positive qualities.
Then, in the Roman Empire, we see animals depicted for not only their religious and spiritual connections but purely for decoration. An oil lamp with a rooster is a clear example of this. Oil lamps were a common part of everyday Roman life, owned by all levels of society. Expressing yourself through these items is a normal human instinct. Some chose Gods, or charioteers, but this design centres a rooster! (7). Another decorative piece, we see a Roman intaglio ring with a bull (8). However, this would have been used as a seal as well as an accessory. So, helps reveal to us how animals were used in both decoration and the formation of identity.
Roman Gold Ring with Intaglio with Bull (8)
ANIMALS AND RELIGION
Indeed, the use of a ring as a marker of identity or belief was very common. Animals, being instantly recognisable symbols, were often part of this. For example, this silver Viking ring has the image of a wolf, representing Fenrir who was one of the most infamous wolves in Norse Mythology (9). Brandishing this symbol was a sign of not only traditional Norse religious beliefs but also strength and prowess in battle. On the contrary is another silver ring, similar in appearance but this time Byzantine. (10) Depicting a dove, it represents Christian beliefs, the dove symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Through the use of these animals we can track the move from ancient religions to the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam.
Medieval Islamic Dish with Horse (11)
Finally, to come full circle over 3 thousand years later, is a medieval Islamic dish that has large horse, surrounded by other creatures, as its centre piece. Coming from a religious tradition that doesn’t allow the depiction of people, using animals for decoration was very common. It must be said though, that this menagerie of a horse, a leopard and birds seem to be more reminiscent of the playful rooster depiction rather than the more serious directly religious symbols.
Overall, reflecting on the images of animals through ancient history helps one focus on the similarities between us and the past. Afterall, a medieval plate with a horse isn’t too different from a modern-day bowl that has sausage dogs printed round the rim, is it?