The Small-Scale Arts of Achaemenid Persia

Sabrina Maras, University of California, Berkeley


The small-scale arts of the Achaemenid empire display a remarkable propensity to incorporate hybrid artistic themes. However, in contrast to what would appear to have been certain planned political messages that were transmitted through the character of the Empire's always recognizable, iconic reliefs and architecture, it is more than likely that much of the iconography that is found in small-scale objects was simply a product of the many separate artistic currents that were in vogue at the time. The hybrid aspects of glyptic art, for example, would often appear to have been consistent with the specific artistic tastes that obtained in one or another specific regions. (1) Even so, within the world of minor arts (with its wide range of influences) there is a definite style that deserves to be considered Achaemenid Persian. This style is evident in what Root has described as the 'court style' (2)—a royal Achaemenid visual canon, expressed most prominently in the reliefs of the capital city of Persepolis, for example, or on royal name seals of the era (3). This royal Achaemenid visual program held an important key to the success of each Persian ruler both in terms of the dissemination of political ideals and in terms of reinforcing a sense of cohesion—or common identity—among the far-flung elites of Persian society (4). It is a style and an iconographic program that transcended many mediums, finding its way into glyptic, stone reliefs, brick friezes or luxury items such as rhyta (or other precious metal vessels) and, of course, in jewelry.  Indeed, the palace reliefs (which have been considered elsewhere) must have often served to remind those who viewed them of the actual items that were customarily worn by Persian nobles, or otherwise used in elite circles.   In this way, the empire's most powerful social strata, extending from satraps to local nobles and officials, were constantly reminded of their prominent place in the power structure of the Empire, as well as of their allegiance to the Persian king.

Glyptic Arts
The richness and variety of Achaemenid artistry is apparent in the glyptic (i.e., carved stone cylinder and stamp seals) of the period.  Apart from the many seal impressions of firm provenance that come from Persepolis (see below), Achaemenid glyptic art is largely known from unexcavated seals and sealings. Overall, however, the available corpus helps to document a relatively experimental and free artistic environment, with a wide variety of designs and styles available to the seal carvers and their clients.  Within this eclectic artistic milieu, it is nevertheless possible to recognize several separate styles and patterns of iconographic use.  The Persepolis Fortification and Treasury Archive texts, the most valuable corpora of texts in which seal impressions with a stratified context are preserved for the Achaemenid period, are the 'blank canvases' for hundreds of seal designs from the era. Within this corpus, the most recognizable style of seal design (even if it is not the most common) is the 'court style', which echoes that on the reliefs at Persepolis.

The court style, in both sculpture and seal design, was a specific set of images carved in a particular style, and used by only the most elite members of society at the main seats of government, whether in the homeland or in the satrapies. (5) Seals carrying this 'court style' of imagery were sometimes inscribed with the name of the Persian ruler (examples bearing the names of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes I are known), and they appear to have been used by officials of the highest rank.  Indeed, it is thought that these seals represented gifts from the king to his most privileged courtiers and administrators.

Common themes in the imagery include a hero figure (often crowned and in Persian court dress) engaged in close combat (fig. 1).


Fig. 1. PFS 7 (drawing courtesy of the Persepolis Fortification Seal Project, Mark B. Garrison and Margaret Cool Root, 2001: 68).

The weapon of choice in such encounters is the Persian dagger (or short sword)—a standard accessory for any royal or noble figure in court dress. In other instances, various weapons can be employed, or the hero can be shown controlling his adversary (or adversaries) with either one or both of his bare hands. The adversaries in these scenes were sometimes animals, but more often mythological winged beasts. Other features in the glyptic imagery of the court style include the palm, the winged disk, as well as a terminal (edge) inscription in the three imperial languages (Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite). A generous selection of impressions from these types of elite seals are found on clay tablets from Persepolis; and several examples have also been recovered from satrapal seats of distinction, such as Daskyleion and Sardis.(6)

On many non-court style seal designs, there is, in fact, a repeated and common use of the 'hero' motif, or of animal combat or hunt scenes, but these are often carved in 'local' styles. Overall, the glyptic of the period (both within and beyond the heartland of the empire) demonstrates an acceptance and use of a wide range of styles and image types. Accordingly, while elite circles were inclined to use a specific type of imagery (e.g., the 'court style'), seal designs and seal styles in less privileged contexts may be said to reflect a less structured, more creative and experimental use of imagery.

Arrian (Anabasis VI.29.4-7) describes the contents of the tomb of Cyrus to include 'a golden sarcophagus...garments of Babylonian workmanship...robes dyed blue...with necklaces, daggers and earrings with stones set in gold.' While the reliability of such statements is not always verifiable, several fortunate discoveries (at the Persian capitals of Pasargadae and Susa; and within several important provinces of the empire) may be said to have affirmed the Persian admiration for fine jewels, costly vessels and elite objects fashioned from gold and other precious materials.(7)

Archaeological confirmation of the quality of Achaemenid jewellery originally came from the discovery of a seemingly intact, elite Achaemenid tomb on the Acropole mound at Susa in 1901.  Here, buried in what was once a vaulted tomb, Jacques de Morgan found a bronze, bathtub-shaped sarcophagus (fig. 2).

Bathtub sarcophagus burial

Fig. 2. Bathtub Sarcophagus Burial, Susa Acropole (after Harper et al, 1992: 243, fig. 54).

Within it was a single skeleton, accompanied by a rich array of jewellery and other handsome grave goods dated to the 4th century BC (Tallon, 1992: p242). Among the finds was a magnificent gold torque with lion's head terminals that was embellished with cloisonne decoration—one of the hallmarks of Achaemenid jewellery (ibid, 245)(Curtis, 2005: p132). Also present were gold earrings made from the same types of elaborate materials (fig. 3), and elaborate gold 'buttons' with the inlaid symbol of Ahuramazda.

Gold earring

Fig. 3. Achaemenid-era gold earring, Susa Acropole (after Harper et al, 1992: 250, fig. 178).

Parallels for certain of these objects come from a treasure discovered in the 1950s at Pasargadae.(8) This hoard of elite female jewellery of 5th to 4th century date appears to have been hurriedly hidden in a water jar in the royal garden at Pasargadae, most probably at the time of Alexander's advance on Fars, late in 331 BC. Included in the hoard was a pair of earrings with pendant beads of lapis enclosed in a delicate wire mesh (fig. 4),

Gold earrings

Fig. 4. Gold Earrings, Pasargadae (after Curtis and Tallis, 2005: p. 144, fig. 174)

a pair of gold bracelets with ibex-headed terminals (fig. 5),

Gold bracelets

Fig. 5. Gold Ibex headed bracelets, Pasargadae (after Curtis and Tallis, 2005: p. 137, fig. 152).

and the kind of omega shaped hoop that is peculiar to bracelets of Achaemenid date (Moorey 1985: p32). (9)

Aside from a distinct admiration for jewellery of very specific forms, Achaemenid jewelry made liberal use of cloisonné; inlay of glass-like paste, shell or stones; and the frequent use of semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli (10) or carnelian. There was 'liberal polychrome decoration on bracelets, torques, earrings and other ornaments' (Curtis, 2005: p132). Popular motifs for inlay were floral, such as petals and rosettes. Within the boundaries of the empire, other corpora of precious metal vessels and jewellery have been found that exhibit the same or similar stylistic types and shapes as those found in the Persian homeland. Both the Vouni treasure from northern Cyprus,(11) as well as the treasure from Ikiz Tepe (12) in Lydia,were found to contain Achaemenid-style jewellery and other metalwork, such as is depicted on reliefs from Persepolis.  Additionally, jewellery hoards of note have been found at Sardis (Butler 1922: p143) and at Akhalgari (in the Caucasus) (cf. Calmeyer, 1986). In short, it is clear that there was a conscious emulation of these symbols of prestige in the far-flung regions of the empire.

A stunning (and more controversial) assemblage of precious metal objects has come to be known as the 'Oxus Treasure'.  The objects in question have no firm provenance, but were supposedly brought to light in the late 1870's in the vicinity of the Oxus River in Central Asia, before eventually being bequeathed to the British Museum in 1897. (13) Particularly notable in this group of objects are a pair of magnificent Achaemenid armlets or bracelets with boldly projecting, inlaid griffin-headed terminals (fig. 6).

Gold bracelet

Fig. 6. Gold Bracelet with Griffin Terminal, Oxus Treasure (after Curtis and Tallis, 2005: 138, fig. 153).

As one more illustration of the likelihood that goldsmiths throughout the empire were expected to produce precious objects of similar design, members of the Saka and Lydian delegations can be seen to carry similar armlets into the presence of the king (Schmidt, 1953: pl. 37).

An eclectic array of exquisite metalwork objects derives from the last two centuries of Achaemenid rule. These include horse-trappings (cf. Moorey, 1985: p29-30), bowls (or phialae) of precious metal with a rounded base and a flaring rim (fig. 7)

silver bowl

Fig. 7. Silver Bowl, Susa Acropole (after Curtis and Tallis, 2005: 178, fig. 277).

sometimes adorned with figured decoration (cf. Ozgen and Ozturk et al, 1996); and such elegant ceremonial objects as the gold sheath of an akinakes (or short sword)(fig. 8)

Akinakes sheath

Fig. 8. Akinakes Sheath, Oxus Treasure (after Curtis and Tallis, 2005: 233, fig. 430).

that has long been among the objects associated with the Oxus hoard (14). Torques were a distinctive and popular type of jewelry worn by the Persian elite, and they are found depicted on the Apadana reliefs (fig. 9)

Apadana relief

Fig. 9.  Persians Wearing Torques, Apadana Reliefs (after Schmidt, 1953: pl. 52).

as well as fashioned from gold in the spectacular finds from Susa (cf. de Morgan, 1905) and from the 'Oxus Treasure' (cf. Curtis, 2005: p133). That vessels of gold and silver were highly prized in Achaemenid Persia is evident from the number of metal bowls and handled amphorae (with plain or zoomorphic handles) that are visible in the Apadana reliefs. Calmeyer has noted, 'metal vessels of varying types are carried by as many as 12 of the 24 delegations shown on the Apadana reliefs. (15) These exquisitely fashioned vessels attest to a well-developed network of gift-giving and tribute, a system that ultimately helped to extend aspects of the Achaemenid 'court style' throughout the empire (Calmeyer, 1986).

Achaemenid Rhyta
One important Achaemenid form of vessel that is not represented in the Persepolis reliefs is the elegant, widely diffused, animal protome rhyton (cf. Moorey 1985: p34; Simpson et al, 2005: p441). As Stronach (forthcoming) has indicated, sumptuous wine-drinking vessels of this form are not attested in the Apadana reliefs for the very good reason that they only appear to have been introduced at some date after the 'blueprint' for these famous reliefs had already been drawn up in or near 500 BC. In fact, the animal protome rhyton may very well have come into vogue at some point during the first two decades of the 5th century BC. In due course, animal protome rhyta became popular in gold, in silver and (where the general population was concerned) in ceramic forms as well (Ebbinghaus, 2005: p417). Rare examples in glass are also known.(16) While the animal protome rhyton is a hallmark of elite Achaemenid taste and refinement (fig. 10),


Fig. 10. Gold Rhyton with Animal Protome Terminal End , Hamadan (?) (after Curtis and Tallon, 2005: 121, fig. 118).

it is worth recalling that rhyta of one form or another had already existed for hundreds of years as an unquestioned symbol of luxury in the ancient Near East (Stronach, forthcoming).

Stone and Ceramic Vessels
While precious metal was a preferred medium for elite vessel production, a number of other materials were also popular. For example, fine alabaster bowls and, most particularly, tall narrow-necked alabaster flasks that were used to carry oil or cosmetic products have been found in Achaemenid Babylonia (Haerink, 1997: p31), at Susa (Tallon, 1992: p252; Curtis 2005: p179, fig. 278, 279), and at Persepolis (Schmidt, 1953: p179; and 1957: p83; and plate 57). Stone vessels of distinctive character were also highly valued in the Achaemenid world; they could be carved from numerous different stones, including serpentine, limestone, diorite, rock crystal and green chert (Schmidt, 1957: p53; 91). From Pasargadae come types of late Achaemenid pottery in many forms, ranging from fine bowls to large storage vessels. Particularly notable are thin-walled bowls with flaring rims, gadrooned bowls and still other vessels imitating metal prototypes (e.g. Stronach, 1978: fig. 106).

Stone bowl

Fig. 11. Ceramic Bowl, Pasargadae (after Stronach, 1978: pl. 173a).

By and large, however, ceramic vessel were regarded as distinctly less prestigious than those made from other, more costly materials.

Although there is no hard evidence as yet for the actual manufacture of glass in Achaemenid Iran, there was an established industry at Susa for the production of glass-like products using sand, lime and alkali to produce 'faience', 'frit' or glazed clay objects (Caubet, 2005: p409). The latter are best known from the glazed decorative bricks that were present in the palace of Darius at Susa. The remains of various glass vessels were found at Persepolis, and their shapes would appear to have copied metal forms. (17)