- Museum number
Onyx ring bezel; engraved with standing figure of Bahram IV wearing his characteristic crown, long apron-style shirt and baggy trousers. His right hand rests on the hilt of a straight sword. His left holds a sceptre with pointed spear-like butt. Beneath his feet is the figure of a fallen enemy.
- Production date
Length: 3.60 centimetres
Thickness: 0.40 centimetres
Width: 2.55 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- Unpublished Cernuschi catalogue entry
Gem or bezel with the image of Bahram IV
Possibly acquired in India or Afghanistan
Late 4th century
L 3.6, W 2.55, Th 0.4 cm, weight 6.5 g
Thomas 1868: 352, 357; Herzfeld 1924: 74, no. 2; Ackerman 1938: vol. I, 785, vol. IV, pl. 255A; Erdmann 1943: pl. 92b; Ghirshman 1962: 241, fig. 294; Bivar 1969: 21-22, 56, pl. 4, BC1; Pinder-Wilson 1971: no. 105; Herrmann 1977: 112; Harper et al. 1978: 147, no. 71; Choksy 1988; Overlaet ed. 1993: 282-83, no. 140
London, The British Museum, ANE 119352 (1868-4-29,1)
Oval nicolo (onyx) gem or ring bezel engraved on one face with the standing figure of the Sasanian ruler Bahram (Varahran) IV (r. 388-399), and beneath his feet the prostrate figure of a fallen enemy. The king is identified by his distinctive crown which is in the form of a high korymbos with a stepped crenellation at the front flanked by a pair of wings. He is depicted wearing a long belted apron skirt over loose flowing trousers, with beribboned shoes, a beaded necklace and a beaded chest girdle. Pairs of tasselled ribbons flow from behind his shoulders and the back of his belt. His right hand rests on the pommel of a beribboned straight sword with horizontal guard positioned vertically between his legs, and his left hand holds a spear with attached ribbons (previously interpreted as a long sceptre with a pointed butt) which is driven into the back of the prostrate figure wearing a short tunic, trousers and a plumed helmet. The identity of this second figure is uncertain but it may represent an eastern Iranian enemy as his dress resembles that of eastern subjects of Shapur I (r. 309-379) depicted on the rock relief at Bishapur III, and Bahram is known to have campaigned repeatedly against the Hephthalites. The purpose of the imagery therefore was to emphasise victory and Sasanian dominance.
As with most gems or seals, the provenance of this object is unknown, but it may have been acquired in Afghanistan or India as it was purchased in 1868 from Major-General Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), who served in India. The bevelled edges and lack of perforation indicate that it was intended to be set either as a ring bezel or worn as a gem in a piece of jewellery. Although stamp seals carved from hard stones are a typical feature of Sasanian glyptic, engraved bezels continued to be popular throughout this period and constitute as many as a quarter of the Sasanian seals registered in the British Museum collection. The setting of Sasanian gems carved in intaglio within metal finger rings is confirmed by the discovery of one within the coffin of Wu Hui (d. 547), wife of Li Xuan (d. 547), at Guyuan in northern China (Juliano & Lerner eds 2002: 101, no. 32). On both examples the carving has been very carefully executed so as to render the figures in dark silhouette against the pale background, implying that they were intended to have aesthetic value in their own right. The additional fact that the impression of the present example shows the king in left profile, whereas right profile was typical of coin and seal portraits, supports the hypothesis that it was intended to be worn for display rather than functioning as a practical seal. In this case it may have been made for a high-ranking member of Bahram IV's entourage.
- Bibliographic references
Thomas 1868 / Sassanian inscriptions (pp.352, 357)
Herzfeld E 1924a / Paikuli : monument and inscription of the early history of the Sasanian Empire (p.74, no. 2) (attributed to Bahram IV)
Pope 1938 / Survey of Persian Art (vol. IV, 255A; vol. I, p.785)
Erdmann 1943 / Die Kunst Irans zur Zeit der Sasaniden (pl.92b)
Ghirshman R 1962a / Iran: Parthians and Sassanians (p.241, fig. 294)
Harper 1965 / The Heavenly Twins (p.191, fig.7)
Bivar A D H 1969a / Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum. Stamp Seals II: The Sassanian Dynasty (pp.21-22, 56, BC 1, pl.4)
Pinder-Wilson 1971a / Royal Persia: a commemoration of Cyrus the Great and his successors on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire (no. 105)
Herrmann G 1977a / The Iranian Revival (p.112)
Harper P O et al. 1978a / The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire (p.147, no.71)
Choksy J K 1988a / Sacral Kingship in Sasanian Iran
Callieri 1990 / On the Diffusion of Mithra Images in Sasanian Iran: New Evidence from a Seal in the British Museum (p.82, fig.4)
Overlaet B 1993a / Splendeur des Sassanides. L'empire perse entre Rome et la Chine [224-642] (p.282, no.140) (cat. entry by Overlaet)
Gyselen R 2006b / Note de glyptique sassanide, 6. Le phénomène des motifs iconographiques communs à l'Iran sassanide et au bassin méditerranéen (p. 92, fig. 9)
Demange F 2007a / Les Perses sassanides. Fastes d'un empire oublié (224-642) (cat.172, p.211) (entry by Rika Gyselen)
- On display (G52/dc7)
- Exhibition history
2006 14 Sept-30 Dec, Paris, Cernuschi Museum, 'Les Perses Sassanides ou les Fastes d'un empire oublié'
1993 12 Feb-25 Apr, Belgium, Brussels, Musée Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Splendeur des Sassanides / Hofkunst Van des Sassanieden, no.140
1971 - BM, 'Royal Persia: a commemoration of Cyrus the Great and his successors on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire'
Room of Writing [ROW] Seals 1b.
Iranian Room [IR], B, W/5.
- Sound condition although there are minor chips to the edge (noted 16 October 1991)
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Impression sent by Cunningham who describes seal as of Vararanes IV, and as dark sardonyx with milky white surface, standing figure with protrate ?Roman below, wearing plumed helmet & kilt (ANE CORRES 1868-81, CHI-CY), letters dated 1, 3, 6, 8, 28, 29 April 1868, items 1458-65. Registered as "Cone bevelled; Vararames [?] IV. or Bahram standing; profile to right; wearing royal tiara and tunic; spearing a prostrate Roman. Niccolo. 1 1/2 in. h."
Listed in Inventory 1877, p. 19, no. 3. Acquisition listed in BM Return for 1868 as "Oval niccolo; on it Vararanes IV., or Bahram, standing on a prostrate Roman; a fine specimen of Sassanian art, A.D. 389".
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: 1967,0220.11 (additional registration no.)