Burnt City animation VL

Last year there was the rather striking discovery out of Tehran of a 5000 year old “animation” of a goat found on an earthenware bowl. Like many, I found this fascinating and recently wanted to take a closer look at the actual sequence to see what its structure looked like. This ended up becoming a bit of an internet treasure hunt for me. First, I found the animated clip they had created from it:

However, upon closer inspection, this seemed really odd. First off, why are there two trees if this was going around a bowl? Shouldn’t that be one tree, that just becomes ancillary to the next “panels” representation? Of course, that’s not a big deal…

But, when I dissected the animation, things really got interesting. It’s made of 9 images, yet it features several repeated goat images (watch for the white dot on the goat’s behind which appears and disappears). The way this animation was made simply took the overall background (note that the trees never change), then cut and pasted the goat figures several times in different places!

Upon further searching, I found this great page showing the archiving of the bowl, which actually looks like this:

Quite immediately I could see that all the 9 frames could not fit on such an object. The most interesting shot by far though, was this one:

Note on the bottom is a recreation of the actual sequence of the goat. It only contains five “frames,” and the goat only jumps once, as opposed to the two hops taken nine frames in the animation. So, the animation exaggerates the degree of movement — as well as how one can really consider it “animation” in the first place. Looking at the bowl, unless someone put the hollow bottom on a “point” of some sort and spun it, real animation couldn’t come from it at all.

To me, calling it “animation” is a presumption about its function and usage in society, which there has yet to be expressed evidence for. Creating a false animation from the pieces of it – which doesn’t accurately reflect the original – simply misrepresents the discovery. In my opinion, this is irresponsible scholarship (or potentially journalism, depending on “who made the call” for terminology).

In searching for a modern comparison, would it be so hard for research to just have called it a “comic” (or “fumetti,” given that the archeologists were Italian), or would that have been too demeaning for them? From my visual language perspective, the original turns out to be quite interesting. Another good ancient example of VL grammatical structures, just as I suspected.

EDIT 2/25/06
Additional thoughts on “animation” in the Burnt City Bowl can be found in this post.

—EDIT 11/2013—
The comments section on this and all posts related to the Burnt City Bowl are now closed, due to the inordinate amount of anonymous and slanderous comments left by people clearly bearing some type of political agenda (however construed). All comments made on this blog of such a nature will be deleted during moderation prior to being published.


  • Good analysis. I’d send a letter to the journal that published this. Also, note i) unequal frame widths tell against the animation hypothesis, and ii) animation requires a shudder in synch with frames–which is difficult to cocnstruct when frames vary in width. –JJ

  • That’s a good point about shutter speeds. Thanks!

    Unfortunately, this report wasn’t released in a journal, but in various Iranian newspapers. If a report does come out in a journal though, I’ll jump at the chance to write to them.

  • Hi, Good detective work. However, this definitely is animation, which is a sequence of images to create the affect of movement. We are talking about a 5000 year old bowel, so I think comparing this to canonical “projector/shutter” style modern animation is kind of silly. Animation was not perfected overnight…this bowel shows that animation had continually been improved and refined for thousands of years to reach its current form. Indeed, neighboring countries such as Mesopotamia and Assyria later developed wall murals which show animated battle scenes, centuries after the “burnt city bowl” which clearly show the art was spreading and undergoing refinement.

  • Thanks for the comment! Unfortunately, I’d hvae to disagree with your characterization. Calling this “animation” is a backformation of the concept.

    My point was that there’s a very easy word for what we in our culture call illustrated “sequences of images to create the affect of movement” and that is usually “comics” (as problematic as my other writings would say this is). I would be very surprised to hear someone call “comics” a subset of “animation.”

    I’d also like to call you out on your claim that there is some sort of “evolutionary progress” of this form over time. While modern comics certainly use a complex visual grammar, no culture in time seems to have a more primitive version comparatively.

    This is the same as languages: no language is more or less complex than any other, they just do different things in different cultural/ecological settings.

  • Good debunking. I’ve tried to tone down this on Wikipedia, and will continue doing so. It appears there’s a bit of nationalism involved here, too… 😉

  • Good work, Neil. I thought the gif looked bogus, with the stationary trees and extra jump of the goat. It would have worked better as the artist painted it! However, I agree with the substance of Avery’s comment. It doesn’t matter if you call it animation or comics or whatever, or whether anyone actually spun the bowl. The important thing is it’s an early attempt represent the 4th dimension in 2-dimensional art.

    This began almost at the very dawn of art, in the Paleolithic caves some 30,000 years ago. Chevaut is loaded with overlapping drawings (“frames”) of horses, bisons and lions in an obvious attempt to express their rushing forward in space and time. It’s not animation in our modern sense any more than the Persian bowl is, but it’s as good a name as any.

    This and other instances of early “animation”–like some Greek friezes and several drawings by Pontormo and Michaelangelo– are not part of a continuous evolution as Avery implied, but are independent rediscoveries by artists who knew nothing of their predecessors’ attempts. As an animator, all these examples are fascinating to me! –Warren

  • it might have been quite easy to watch this as a sort of animation. i think it’d already appear “animated” if you spin it and use your hand as a shutter. the object was probably made on a pottery spinning table + the pictures are framed and quite evenly spaced + the 5 images seem to loop pretty good; i wouldn’t be surprised if the artsist also found out how to wave his hand in front of it in the right rhythm.

  • I thought something was off with that “official” GIF too–the extra tree, the lack of motion in the tree(s), and the goat’s extra hop seems almost like, dare I say it, intellectual dishonesty. Or if that’s too strong, why make stuff up that’s not there?

    I made a GIF from the 5 frames that while still fiction is more accurate to what’s depicted on the bowl. It’s also livelier.

    Not sure if this URL will survive your spam filter but you can google tom moody “burnt city goat”:


    Tom Moody

  • Frankly, I’m astonished of the absurdity of this great hullabaloo detective story. The fact is that there is a bowl, and there are pictures on it that appear to be animated. A so-called “intellectually dishonest” guy, apparently have thought that he could improve on the animation and have added four extra frames. Upon an inspection, one can arguably maintain that not much has improved with those extra four frames. Nevertheless, the hypotheses of “animation” cannot be rejected in a scientific 95% confidence level, or in a Bayesian degree of belief — based on probability densities of priors from other kinds of animations, which other participants in this thread have presented, and I have seen some primitive examples in many villages around the world.

    As shutters, I have seen in Indonesia a similar animation device, you can imagine an stationary bowl with some opening windows, the spinning wheel would be placed inside this bowl, looking through the window you will see the animation, when the bowl spins and pictures appear through the open windows.

  • Thanks for your comment. As much as you say that you can’t disprove the “hypothesis” that this is “animation” with statistics (which is an absurd claim in the first place), you could just as easily say that you can’t prove that it is “animation” either.

    In our culture, “animation” means a moving image, not a series of static images. Again, calling this “animation” is inappropriate given the context that animation has in modern culture, and that this has zero hints that it was meant to be spun or show movement in such a way.

    I’ll also point again to my follow up post which essentially says: why should we think that the function of this was to be spun like an animation at all? Why wouldn’t it be used as a bowl that just happened to have drawings on it??

  • Dear Niel
    In our culture the validity every hypothesis is tested by statistical inference. This tradition has been introduced by people like John Lock,David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Byes.

    No hypothesis in our culture is provable, we can only maintain a hypothesis until it can be rejected by some new observations. To question this tradition is not becoming — in an Aristotelian sense.

    Now a Zoetrope device such as the Persian bowl in question is part of the statistical time series of optical toys and animated views, which try to represent the perception of motion. Among such observations include paleolithic cave paintings, the phenakistoscope, praxinoscope, as well as the common flip book as well as other devices. A null hypotheses that “the object of such devices is regarded as animation” cannot be rejected as argued in my previous missive.

    You say:”calling this “animation” is inappropriate given the context that animation has in modern culture, and that this has zero hints that it was meant to be spun or show movement in such a way. ” By the same token, I gather that, you would not consider
    the phenakisticope animation either. In fact, these cardboard disk upon which a dozen figures were arranged in a circle around its edge was quite similar to the Persian Zoetrope bowel. Similarly it had extremely limited number of figures with an overweening simplicity with “zero hints that it was meant to be spun or show movement in such a way.” Yet every textbook on animation considers them animation.

    I have read your supplementary missive, in which you produce a Mayan bowl and claim that it is similar to the Persian bowl, the problem, however, is that upon spinning the Mayan Bowl one can not see any animation or movement of a Zoetrope bowl figure. In other words, the changing sequence of the goat motion in the Persian bowl indicates clearly that it is meant for use in an optical device.

  • I again disagree with your statements and don’t take kindly to anonymous insults on my blog comments. I welcome critical perspectives, but at least have the courage to post your name with them.

    Statistics — which I use in my job as an experimental psychologist — can only be used if you actually have quantitative data. There is no numerical data here. This is a debate about categories, where any sort of “null hypothesis” has no manner of testing except with other counter evidence — none of which has numbers attached. If you can figure out a way to run stats on an issue like this, I’d be happy to hear how. If you don’t, then raising the issue of stats just seems like a straw man.

    “Animation” is a something that gives the illusion of moving depicted in a single place. I’ve seen no evidence that this bowl does that nor should do that.

    This is not animation, nor is there proof that it’s some kind of zoetrope or phenakisticope, nor are any *static* representations of time elapsing. Just because images statically depict a change in time does not mean they are “animation” or could be spun.

    Indeed, this certainly can’t include cave paintings, which can’t even be spun at all! Cave paintings don’t even have the potential for being animated.

    The Mayan bowl I showed (one example of many), is the same: it has time passing statically of a dart shot from the blowgun and hitting the bird.

    Rather, depicting juxtaposed static images in a sequence is a lot closer to what we in our culture call “comics” than “animation.”

    Unless you want to include all sequential images as “animation” or include comics within “animation,” these are not examples of animation. You can make this equivocation if you like, but it makes no sense to me.

  • 1. on definition of animation. In our Western culture animation is a category representing all objects that produce a perception of movement. Britannica considers Pygmalion of Greek and Roman mythology, a sculptor who created a figure of a woman so perfect that he fell in love with her and begged Venus to bring her to life, as “history’s first recorded animator”. Encarta, considers “a series of drawings or photographs on paper that are viewed with a mechanical device or by flipping through a hand-held sequence of images (for example, a pad of paper can be used to create an animated flipbook of drawings)” as animation. Others have considered successive Egyptian wall panels depicting the actions of two wrestlers in a variety of holds ( circa 2000 B.C.) or Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous illustrations, showing how the limbs would look in various positions as animation. Thus, your assertion about the Persian Zoetrope bowel is incorrect, unless you are referring to a different culture in which case you should be clearer in your specification. (Based on these evidences, I consider this debate over)

    2. On statistical inference. The choice of statistical inference is always available for all domains of positive judgment including positive qualitative claims like yours. The null hypothesis that “X is not animation” against the alternative that “X is drawing” is not a normative claim, and thus can only be verified by a valid scientific test. In conventional statistics you can look at various articles on animation and using qualitative filters map the null and the alternative hypothesis into a quantitative space (this is what we do most of the time with respect to all our positive decisions — we call such time series experience. Please do read David Hume’s calculus of probabilities, Kant’s reaction in the Critique of Pure Reason, and any Bayesian time series analysis). For instance, in a Bayesian framework (or to some extent in a neural network paradigm) the testing procedure (which would be far more appealing — at least to me – than conventional probability analysis) would allow incorporating the subjective probabilities of the observer priors. There is of course no simple way to discuss these ideas in this space. However, I am encouraged that your formation as an experimental psychologist could provide you with enough of background to follow the gist of this argument. (In this regard I consider the debate is also over. Unless you have something interesting to say about scientific testing that was not being debated in the literature over the last two decades).

    3. About your Mayan bowl, it would be interesting to see how would you animate the dart shot the way others have animated the Persian goat. (unless you can produce such an animation, this part of the debate has also been conclusive and final).

    4.The choice of “anonymous” for identifying me is assigned by Google Blogger, which is a feature of your site. I tried to sign under my name but your site has asked me to join the Google Blogger, something I do not have time for. I wish you the best.

  • 1. Just because you provide a dictionary definition of “animation” that suits your needs, it does not consider the debate “over.” Of course, your definition also says “drawings … viewed with a mechanical device or by flipping through.” There’s no “device” here or “flipping through” unless you extrapolate beyond the information that we have garnered (i.e. static images and a bowl for holding things).

    Beyond this, our culture doesn’t consider all sequential images that create the illusion of motion “animation” either. For example, would you consider a comic strip an animation? What about a a whole comic book? I wouldn’t (nor would most), but by your definition it would since it uses sequential images to show motion.

    Similarly, if I took an animated movie (clearly, animation), but unfurled its roll of film, most would not call the roll of film “animation”, though its result after being *animated* would be.

    The category most suited for “juxtaposed sequential images” would be “comics” in our culture. Not “animation.”

    2. Your appeal of stats here is creating a straw man. Are you going to do the actual stats to show that I’m “wrong”? Why would you expect me to do stats like this for a blog entry? Appealing to some “higher authority” of stats that I haven’t done (nor has anyone else, you included) is only a straw man attempting to deflate the position. Your invocation of non-stats is just as invalid as my performed non-stats. So, unless you’re going to run these stats, don’t whine that I haven’t.

    Furthermore, the “null hypothesis” in this case would likely be that this bowl is not animation, since at its base what we’re dealing with is 1) a bowl and 2) static images. Getting those drawings to be animated requires doing something more than is known outright in both function (bowls are made for holding things, not spinning) and presentation (static images, not in motion).

    This would lead me to think that the null hypothesis is that this is just a bowl with drawings on it. Being “animation” is the claim in need of being validated because it would require more proof than the evidence we’ve found, not the opposite.

    Just because your position is that it’s animation doesn’t make it the null hypothesis. Nor does referencing Kant and Hume make you sound authoritative.

    4. You can just as easily sign your name at the bottom of a message, without signing up for Google Blogger. And that is all that is “conclusive and final” about this discussion.

  • Neil, I’ve got to agree with anonymous. I’m sure that any Persian bowel which had a Zeotrope in it would be plenty animate.

    Plus he makes a pretty good argument about not understanding statistics.



  • ahem! looks like no one discussing this article is an animator. well … i am 🙂

    animation is not a "moving image". come on, an image can't move, lol! animation is a series of static images, that give an illusion of movement when viewed at a high enough speed. the principle of "persistence of vision" is at play here.

    speaking from my experience in animation, i would definitely classify it as animation. all teh great animated pictures you guys have ever seen are static images played in rapid succession at 24, 25 or 30 frames per second.

    as with matching the environment ovver a span of five frames … come on, guys! stop comparing it with pixar. this thing is 500 frikkin' years old! 😀

  • I'm an animator too, and a professional one, with over 35 years commercial experiece…

    I would NOT call the images on the bowl "animation" – that is a term for something that can be seen in motion. However much you spin the bowl, the goat won't move as in the gif animation – which is "real" animation only thanks to computer technology. Spinning the bowl, you'll only see a blur, or the several images moving sideways – no goat will jump!

    However, you can't deny that the artist has tried to illustrate motion – but that was done in neolithic cave paintings, too, and they're not animation, either…

  • Hi Neil.

    I'm sorry, I have to agree with Anonymous of May 3rd 2009. You seem to have a lot of emotion invested in this argument. As a psychologist I'm sure you have your reasons, but it seems childish, compared to Anonymous' clear arguments, which are backed by references, and basically irrefutable (at least the statistical argument, and I'm an applied physicist so speak with more authority than some pseudo scientist psychologist on statistics thank you)! Getting back to your childish emotional attachment to a position that was clearly debunked by referenced and well espoused arguments, personally I suspect that you are guilty of that which someone else (or it might have been you) was blaming the original authors of; cultural bias. After all, with a name like Cohn, and as a US citizen presumably, you probably don't hold a lot of warmth in your heart for anything Iranian. Now, this is my little dabble at experimental psychology; I've taken a bet with myself about your reaction to my comments…

    Happy to remain,


    PS, My area of applied physics is optics, I'm a well known (in my field) and much accomplished "Opticist" and I can think of several independent mechanisms by which the interesting people who came up with that bowl could have made a true moving picture, your rather specific definition of "animation", using it and technologies readily available at that time.

  • Anonymous, your statements are completely vacuous. You make no real arguments of validity about the actual status of the bowl, it's (in)ability to show motion when spun, the overt deceit of the original animated gif (which is fact), nor about the validity of categorizing it as "animation" instead of a "comic" or simply a "sequence of images." Also…

    There is STILL nothing about this example needing statistics. And your invocation of being a physicist has no bearing on being more of an "expert" than a psychologist. I'm not a "pseudo" psychologist. I have a PhD in psychology. I'm a real scientist, which is more than I can vouch for you, since you can't claim to be "well respected" and still remain anonymous. And, if you really were an expert in statistics, you would know that this is not something you can do statistics on! (What are you measuring???)

    Your inference about my name is simply slander. Though I am half Jewish on my father's side—hence my name—I have been an atheist since I was 13. Like most liberal Americans, I don't invest much in people's religions (I have many Muslim friends), though I do fear the dangers of all religious and nationalist fervor, both in the US and abroad.

    Anonymous, I believe it is you who are emotionally invested in this, not me.

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