Nowadays, with its long and glorious history, the Iranian handicraft industry has proved itself to be among the greatest in the world.
According to the opinions of experts, Iran’s long history of agricultural and animal husbandry activities, geographical position of the various regions in the country, differences in the culture and life style of the people from different regions, the Iranian artists’ talents and creativity, and their deep interest in arts and creating works of art are the main reasons behind the formation and durability of the Iranian handicrafts from the distant past up to now.
On the one hand, the agricultural and animal husbandry activities provided the materials such as wool, fluff, skin, leather, plant fibers, etc. and on the other hand, people who worked on farms were unemployed for some seasons of the year and due to the fact that did not know any other trade or profession, turned to making handicrafts in order to fill their unemployed periods and make a living. In their artistic products, these unknown artists expressed their emotional response to nature in a simple and abstract way. Similar to poets, these people gave shape to their thoughts and feelings and reflected them in their works.
Anyway, like other cultures in the ancient Near East which had their own strong individual identity, Iran also possesses a very complex and diverse culture to investigate and understand which, one should refer to history and especially the archaeological discoveries in the various regions of the country. The study of the Iranian handicrafts as well as limited and regional professions should be started from very distant past (or even the prehistoric age), investigating the different ages in a chronological order in order to reach the origins of the handicrafts which are still quite popular and thriving in some regions of the country. First of all it should be considered that being familiar with a general history of Iran as well as the archaeological discoveries made can act as the basis of our information about the Iranian handicrafts and it is plain to see that the history of these crafts is inseparable from the history of the Iranian culture and the study of the Iranian industries, arts, and crafts should start with the rise of the civilization and the way people lived through all the succeeding ages. Furthermore, notable scholars such as Pope, Dr. Schmidt, Dr. Ackerman, Dimaand, Rene Dalmani, and many others believe that the origins of agriculture, metalwork, and pottery as well as the basis of religious and philosophical thoughts, calligraphy, numerology, astrology, and mathematics go back to the Middle East and the Iranian Plateau in particular.
According to the historical texts and discoveries, the oldest stage of human life in Iran goes back to the civilization of the middle stone age or mesolithic age which belongs to 10 to 12 thousand years ago. The evidence of this civilization was discovered by Charlton S. Coon in the residential caves of “Huto” and “Kamarband” near Behshahr and the south eastern banks of the Caspian Sea. These discoveries point to the fact that around 6000 BC, Iranians cultivated grains (especially wheat and barley) and agricultural products were reaped with scythes with jagged edges which were made of flint. During the same age, animal husbandry and using the meat and milk of goat and sheep were also quite common. Furthermore, the sheep wool was also used for weaving purposes. In his researches and books, Roman Geershman points to the existence of the middle stone age people who lived in Bakhtiari mountains and knew how to make clay containers. He claims that the makers of clay containers would bake them by placing them beside the same fire they had lighted to cook the flesh of their game or their meals.
In the metal age, in spite of the gradual thriving of products made through casting bronze and copper, the use of stone tools was still more popular than that of their counterparts, and making and using painted clay containers, weaving of delicate textiles, goldsmithing, and making golden objects were still the common practice. About 2700 BC, the beginning of the bronze age made a critical change in the civilizations all across the Western Asia; the technical developments regarding the production of tools and objects, which also influenced the Iranian industries and crafts, improved the quality of people’s living because of the availability of tools that facilitated their lives.
About the year 1200 BC, iron replaced bronze for making weapons and tools (and to some extent, jewelry), and high brick buildings were built on pedestals in different regions such Astarabad. Archaeological findings obtained from the excavations carried out in Iran are among the evidence that can supplement our information regarding the history of the Iranian arts and handicrafts in the days of old, especially the periods before the Iranian written history.
The first major discovery regarding the Iranian prehistoric industries was done by J. Domergan in Shush, with the discovered objects having a wide diversity as well as a considerable number. Belonging to the copper age, the objects discovered in this excavation included axes, needles, chisels, and copper mirrors which point to the fact that Iranians used copper in that period.
Moreover, some cloths woven from various kinds of fibers have been discovered that belong to this period; however, it seems that pottery is the main industry of Iran during this period as the production of pottery using potter’s wheels in the shape of goblets, food bowls, cooking pots, vases, and containers with red enamel seems to have been quite popular. Moreover, the excavations in Shush led to the discovery of a number of items including a necklace made of shells and various stones, rings having shells attached to them, and beads mostly made of stones and depicting animals which were produced in forms of flat buttons with a little hole drilled on their middle part or little handle. In this period most objects were made of stone but there are also Iranian copper axes, spades, and various weapons which were produced according to the techniques used by the people in Mesopotamia. Bones and metals were also used to make various objects and most products had patterns painted or carved on them, with a high level of similarity between the shapes and patterns on metals products with those on pottery artifacts. During the excavations carried out 2 kilometers south west of Persepolis, painted and decorated clay objects were discovered as thin as the china containers produced today and this is the best reason for the development and evolution of pottery industry in the period it belongs to.
Doing excavations near Damqan in hope of discovering “Hecatompylos”, Eric Schmidt discovered a set of the most important works by the Iranian craftsmen from 2 to 3 thousand years ago (although he could not discover the remains of Hecatompylos).
The clay objects discovered by Schmidt include large jars in various geometric shapes enameled with bright or cream colors most of which were made using potter’s wheels and prove the rise of the enameling technique on pottery 5000 thousand years ago in Iran. Furthermore, Schmidt’s discoveries also point to the fact that Iranians belonging to that period knew how to work with copper and most copper artifacts include brooches, daggers, maces, bracelets, etc. It should also be noted that the discovery of gold and silver objects, especially golden jewelry, cups, and sculptures of various animals made of silver and similar materials shows that Iranians had access to these precious metals and knew how to work with them. There are also other evidence showing that the Iranians living at that time had extraordinary skills in metalwork and making artifacts such as mortars, sculptures, various kinds of rosaries, etc from various stones. During his excavations near Tehran in the year 1935, Schmidt also discovered many objects similar to those he had found in Damqan, the only difference being that the pottery found in the latter excavation were mostly decorated with geometric patterns painted in black, had a smooth flat surface, and the clay they were made of seemed to be mixed with something similar to straw.
The information obtained from these discoveries in various regions of Iran point to the old history of handicrafts in Iran and proves this claim that handicrafts started with the advent of living on planet earth. What is more interesting is the practical usages of various types of artifacts discovered which show that in any given period of history, human beings combined the qualities of their natural surroundings with their own culture, power, and talent, and doing this, satisfied their own needs and even those of their neighbors.
Considering the results of investigating various Iranian arts and industries such as the works discovered in Shush, Tepe Sialk, Tepe Hissar, and also the bronze artifacts discovered in Lorestan which belong to the prehistoric age, it may be concluded that the talented Iranians have always paid considerable attention to nature and various animals. In addition to the shapes of animals, geometrical patterns (each of which has its own meaning and significance) have also been used by Iranians to decorate containers including pottery objects. The ancient Iranian artists did not work in a naturalistic style (i.e. reproducing nature), and instead were more inclined towards stylized and symbolic figures.