Bulls are to Chicago as colossal ancient objects are to the city’s Oriental Institute Museum. In this extraordinary object from the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis there are both, a colossal head of a bull.

The colossal bull head from Persepolis.

Colossal Bull Head.

Carved from dark grey limestone and highly polished, the head measures over two metres high and a metre and a half wide and weighs an estimated ten tons. Enormous yet beautifully sculptured, the head was attached to the body of a bull that still stands as one of a pair flanking the northern portico of the so-called Hundred-Columns Palace (also called the Throne Hall).

Entrances to important buildings were frequently ‘protected’ by pairs of colossal animals (some of which were mythological guardian creatures) in the ancient Near East. And the pair of bulls the Chicago head was once associated with would have been no different. The bodies of the bulls were carved in relief on the side walls of the portico, whereas the heads were carved in the round.

Sometime in the past, perhaps when the city was sacked, both heads became detached from their bodies. They were found not far from the bodies during excavations in 1932/3 by archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Unfortunately, the ears and horns, which were clearly not carved from the same block of stone but added separately, were not recovered.

Colossal Bull Head, Oriental Institute Museum.

The limestone head dominates one of the galleries in the Oriental Institute Museum.

This colossal sculpture of a bull's head was carved in dark grey limestone.

The highly polished stone bull head from the Throne Hall in Persepolis.

The ancient city of Persepolis was founded in 519 BC as the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Dominating the site was an impressive palace complex of colossal buildings constructed on a large, partly artificial partly natural terrace. The buildings, which included elaborate reception halls, the King’ residence, a treasury and military quarters, were made from the same, local grey limestone from which the colossal bull’s head was carved.

The beautiful bull’s head is typical of the elaborate and extravagant court art and architecture of the Achaemenid Empire. Placing the entire palace complex on a partly man-made terrace was akin to putting the Achaemenid dynasty on a pedestal. Persepolis was an extravagant expression of political and symbolic power on a grand scale. And it is for this reason that Alexander the Great had the city burned in 330 BC when he brought down the Achaemenid Empire.

The Oriental Institute carried out two phases of archaeological excavations at Persepolis: first under Ernst Herzfeld between 1931 and 1934, and the second under Erich F. Schmidt between 1934 and 1939. In recognition of the historical significance of the site, and the quality of the monumental archaeological ruins, Persepolis was placed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage sites in 1979.

A panoramic view of the archaeological site of Persepolis in Iran today.

Persepolis is a vast archaeological site, the reconstructed ruins of a number of colossal buildings can be seen.

Where is Persepolis?

The archaeological site of Persepolis is about 70 kms north east of Shiraz, a city in the Fars Province of Iran.

Persepolis is open to the public and relatively easy to get to from nearby Shiraz, by taxi or bus. Nate Robert has published a number of wonderful photographs and tips for visiting Persepolis, click here.

Objects from Persepolis Around the World

Besides the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago, other museums in the United States of America with artefacts from Persepolis include the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In the United Kingdom the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a collection of bas reliefs from the ancient city. But perhaps one the most outstanding collections in Western museums can be seen in the British Museum. For museums in France, go to the Louvre in Paris and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon.