Behold the World’s Oldest Animation Made on a Vase in Iran 5,200 Years Ago

By some accounts, the his­to­ry of ani­ma­tion stretch­es back to the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Since that time, ani­ma­tors have brought an astound­ing vari­ety of visions to artis­tic life. But looked at anoth­er way, this enter­prise — which has so far cul­mi­nat­ed in fea­ture-film spec­ta­cles by stu­dios like Pixar and Ghi­b­li — actu­al­ly has it roots deep in antiq­ui­ty. In order to find the first work of ani­ma­tion, broad­ly con­ceived, one must go to Shahr‑e Sukhteh, Iran’s famous “Burnt City.” Now a UNESCO World Her­itage site, it dates back more than five mil­len­nia, about four of which it spent under a lay­er of ash and dust, which pre­served a great many arti­facts of inter­est with­in.

Shahr‑e Sukhteh was first exca­vat­ed in 1967. About a decade lat­er, an Ital­ian archae­o­log­i­cal team unearthed the pot­tery ves­sel bear­ing designs now con­sid­ered the ear­li­est exam­ple of ani­ma­tion. “The arti­fact bears five images depict­ing a wild goat jump­ing up to eat the leaves of a tree,” says the web site of the Cir­cle of Ancient Iran­ian Stud­ies. “Sev­er­al years lat­er, Iran­ian archae­ol­o­gist Dr. Mansur Sad­ja­di, who became lat­er appoint­ed as the new direc­tor of the archae­o­log­i­cal team work­ing at the Burnt City dis­cov­ered that the pic­tures formed a relat­ed series.” The ani­mal depict­ed is a mem­ber of Capra aega­grus, “also known as ‘Per­sian desert Ibex’, and since it is an indige­nous ani­mal to the region, it would nat­u­ral­ly appear in the iconog­ra­phy of the Burnt City.”

Image by Eme­sik, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

This amus­ing­ly dec­o­rat­ed gob­let, now on dis­play at the Nation­al Muse­um of Iran, is hard­ly the only find that reflects the sur­pris­ing devel­op­ment of the ear­ly civ­i­liza­tion that pro­duced it. “The world’s first known arti­fi­cial eye­ball, with two holes in both sides and a gold­en thread to hold it in place, has been unearthed from the skele­ton of a woman’s body in Shahr‑e Sukhteh,” says Mehr News. Exca­va­tions have also turned up “the old­est signs of brain surgery,” as well as evi­dence that “the peo­ple of Shahr‑e Sukhteh played backgam­mon,” or at least some kind of table game involv­ing dice. But only the Burnt City’s pio­neer­ing work of flip-book-style art “means that the world’s old­est car­toon char­ac­ter is a goat.” His­to­ri­ans of ani­ma­tion, update your files accord­ing­ly.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vas­es Come to Life with 21st-Cen­tu­ry Ani­ma­tion

The Ear­ly Days of Ani­ma­tion Pre­served in UCLA’s Video Archive

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

700 Years of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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