Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Stone palette, or toilet tray
From ancient Gandhara, North-West Frontier, Pakistan, 1st century AD
A man riding a sea monster
These small stone trays, decorated with relief sculptures, from the north-west borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, clearly show the extent of Hellenistic influence in this region. Their style can be related to the stone trays found in Asia Minor and Egypt from the second century BC. However, their subject matter is not always drawn from classical Greek mythology, but is often Indianized, particularly in the later pieces dating from the second century AD. The early pieces are made of soft, pale coloured soap-stone. Later ones, as in this case, tend to use a darker stone, commonly chlorite and grey schist.
This palette has a flat rim which carries a repeating lotus petal pattern. In the centre of the plate we see a muscular man with a bare torso riding a fantastic creature with the head of a goat, legs of a horse, a scaly snake like body and fish tail. The idea of the composite sea creature can be compared to the Greek ketos or the Indian makara. The lower part of the palete has been partitioned into a nearly half-moon compartment that might have been used for pigment or perfume.