- Museum number
Gilded silver vase, pierced at the bottom like a colander and possibly intended as a strainer or sprinkler, embossed in high relief upon a gilded ground; plain neck; monogram (tamga) punched on the rim at 90 degree angle to the vessel; body decorated with scenes showing a grape harvest, specifically a pair of symmetrically arranged vines covering the entire surface and rising from a row of trilobed figures representing hilly ground, which are punched with various flowers and plants; amongst the branches, the tendrils of which are sometimes represented by dotted and punched lines, are disposed six birds (including a cock, parrot and falcon) and two foxes, both the latter stealing grapes; while on either side, between the extremities of the two vines, is a nude boy with a bobble cap or (according to Dalton) his hair tied in a knot on the top of his head. The second figure grasps the stem of a large bunch of grapes with one hand while cutting it with a curved sickle-knife held in the right hand; the other figure carries a full basket upon his back, supported by cords over each shoulder, while an oval basket (rectangular according to Dalton), filled with grapes, lies before his feet; a row of thirteen bosses decorates the shoulder-neck junction. The form of the vessel, although not the decoration, was copied in clay by some Sasanian potters. The punched inscription is in Pahlavi (Middle-Persian).
- Production date
Diameter: 10.70 centimetres
Height: 18.50 centimetres
Weight: 592.40 grammes
Volume: 750 millilitres
- Curator's comments
- Dr Chilashvili suggests that the vessel was intended for straining haoma, and prefers Dalton's suggested 4th century date on the basis of close parallel with a gilt-silver Sasanian bowl found at Mukuzani showing a similar scene which was found some years earlier in Georgia (pers. comm., ANE study room 11/3/03; cf. L. Chilashvili in O.Z. Soltes, ed., 'National Treasures of Georgia', London: Philip Wilson, 1999, p.201, no.98). The symmetrical arrangement of the vines etc resembles a composition found on Late Antique mosaics.
There is a Middle Persian dotted inscription on the rim, illustrated by Dalton but without translation and was shown to A.D.H. Bivar 17/1/06 but its meaning not understood. The reason is that it has always been viewed upright but if turned through 90 degrees it becomes a dotted monogram (tamga).
Unpublished Cernuschi catalogue entry
Gilded silver vase with an inhabited grapevine scene
Said to be from Mazanderan, Iran
5th -7th century
H 18.5, D 10.7 cm, capacity 750 ml, weight 591 g
Smirnov 1909: pl. LII, no. 86; Orbeli 1938: vol. I, 742; Dalton 1964: 64-66, pl. XXXIX, no. 209; Ettinghausen 1972: 5, pl. V, no. 17; Kent & Painter eds 1977: 154, no. 323; Harper et al. 1978: 72-73, fig. 24a; Hughes & Hall 1979: 328, table 2.5; Curtis 1989: 66-67, fig. 79; Overlaet ed. 1993: 240, no. 89; Collon 1995: 207, fig. 173; Poblome 1996; Harper 2000: 51, pl. 21; Tokyo National Museum 2003: 114, no. 108
London, The British Museum, ANE 124094 (1897-12-31,189)
Hammered gilt silver vase with a plain neck, a row of thirteen bosses at the shoulder-neck junction, perforated base, and a pear-shaped body decorated in repoussé with a mercury gilded ground. A Middle-Persian dotted inscription is punched on the outside of the rim. XRF analysis indicates that the vase has a composition of 94.5% silver, 3.6% copper and 0.9% gold. It was made by raising from a single sheet, thus is thinnest at the base and relatively thick-walled at the rim, inside which can be seen the small indentations left by individual hammer blows. This was a typical method by which Sasanian craftsmen fashioned silver vessels, whereas casting and "double shell" construction are not attested by authenticated silverwares. Unlike other vases of this form, the base appears to be integral rather than being added as a separate element. The decoration was previously suggested to have been made by tracing the outline on the surface and then sinking the background, followed by careful polishing and gilding to conceal the traces of working. However, re-examination indicates that the vessel was raised, but before the neck was narrowed and shaped the relief decoration was knocked out from the inside using a snarling iron inserted through the top of the vessel. The indentations behind all the decorative details can be seen on the inside. The finishing touches to the repoussé decoration would have been executed from the outside, and details of these last stages concealed by the gilding of the background.
The decoration shows a carefully composed scene of grape harvesting, and consists of a pair of symmetrically arranged vines covering the entire body and rising from a row of trilobed figures representing hilly ground and punched with assorted flowers and plants. The tendrils of the branches are sometimes represented by dotted and punched lines, and between them are disposed six birds, including a cock, parrot and falcon, and two foxes in separate acts of stealing grapes. On the opposite side, two nude youths are shown. The first is approaching an oval tray of grapes on the ground while carrying a fully laden basket of grapes which is supported on his back by a pair of straps; this figure appears to wear a cap, or alternatively may have his hair knotted on the top of his head. The second figure is shown grasping the stem of a large bunch of grapes with one hand while cutting it with a curved sickle-knife held in the right hand. Inhabited grapevine scenes such as this were commonly depicted in Late Antique art, and notably on mosaics such as those of Constantine on the vaults of the Mausoleum of Sta. Costanza in Rome or at Antioch. The scenes were derived from Dionysiac concepts and were held to symbolise eternal life and fecundity, ideas which were easily adapted to suit Judeo-Christian, Zoroastrian and Buddhist audiences. Within Iran, foxes and birds were regarded as sacred creatures, the vine scroll could be regarded as a Zoroastrian "tree of life" and the entire composition thus viewed as evidence for contentment and order. Similar iconography is found on other Sasanian metalwork, including a vase of the same shape in the National Museum in Tehran with a Pahlavi inscription stating that it was the "Property of ... Gushnasp" (Harper et al. 1978: 71-73, no. 24), and a gilt-silver bowl with a cross on the interior which was discovered at Mukuzani in Georgia (Soltes ed. 1999: 201, no. 98). However, although the form is relatively common in Late Sasanian toreutic, and similar known in pottery and glass, the regular holes through the base are unusual. Although they may be secondary, Dalton proposed on the basis of the imagery that the vessel was "probably intended to be used as a strainer for grape-juice". A second interpretation has been offered by Dr Levan Chilashvili (pers. comm., 2003), namely that the vessel may have functioned as a strainer for haoma, which was a liquid made from ephedra and used in Zoroastrian ceremonies as libations or as a drink believed to facilitate resurrection. In any case it might be added that amphora-shaped rhyta are attested from the Sasanian (as well as earlier) periods in Iran, and a class of Late Sasanian pear-shaped faceted glass jars with perforated bases perhaps shared the same function. This vessel is said to have been found hoarded together with a post-Sasanian gilt-silver dish inscribed with the Persian name "Anoshzad", placed inside a "copper vase", and reportedly discovered in Mazanderan in 1893. If this association is correct, it would imply that the vase remained in circulation for at least a century, if not considerably longer, before being concealed. The two gilt-silver vessels were acquired by the British Museum in 1897 as part of the large bequest of the former Keeper of the British & Medieval Department, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-1897). They formed part of the Franks Room display which opened in 1923 within a large gallery of European and Oriental pottery, porcelain and glass in the British Museum. Photographs show that a careful distinction was made between those objects forming the Oxus Treasure and other pieces in the Franks bequest. This was also reflected in the title and arrangement of Dalton's catalogue of The Treasure of the Oxus with other examples of early Oriental metal-work, although some scholars continue to mistakenly refer to the Erzincan group and the Sasanian silver as being part of the Oxus Treasure itself. Dalton originally proposed a 4th century date for this vessel, later revised to the 6th - 7th century in the third edition; this later date has been followed by most authors since, and is supported by the date of the imitations in pottery and glass.
- Bibliographic references
Smirnov 1909 / Vostochnoe Serebro (no.86, pl. LII)
Ghirshman R 1952a (p.56 ff.)
Dalton 1964a / The treasure of the Oxus with other examples of early oriental metal-work (pp. 64-66, pl. XXXIX, no. 209) (6th-7thC; not part of the Oxus Treasure)
Ettinghausen R 1972a / From Byzantium to Sasanian Iran and the Islamic World: Three Modes of Artistic Influence (no. 17)
Kent & Painter 1977 / Wealth of the Roman World. Gold and Silver, AD 300-700 (p.154, no.323)
Harper P O et al. 1978a / The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire (pp. 72-73, fig. 24a) (5th or 6thC)
Hughes M J & Hall J A 1979a / X-ray Fluorescence Analyses of Late Roman and Sassanian Silver Plate (p.328, tables 1, 2.5)
Curtis 1989a / Ancient Persia (pp. 66-67, fig. 79)
Overlaet B 1993a / Splendeur des Sassanides. L'empire perse entre Rome et la Chine [224-642] (p. 240, no. 89)
Collon 1995a / Ancient Near Eastern Art (pp. 207, fig. 173)
Poblome J 1996a / The ecology of Sagalassos (Southwest Turkey) Red Slip Ware
Curtis 2000b / Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian Periods: Rejection and Revival c. 238 BC - AD 642 (Proceedings of a Seminar in memory of Vladimir G. Lukonin) (pl.21)
Harper P O 2000a / Sasanian Silver Vessels: The Formation and Study of Early Museum Collections (p.51, pl.21)
Tokyo National Museum 2003a / Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural Contacts from Greece to Japan (p.114, cat 108)
Demange F 2007a / Les Perses sassanides. Fastes d'un empire oublié (224-642) (cat.38, p.101) (entry by St John Simpson)
- On display (G52/dc7)
- Exhibition history
2021 29 May-12 Sep, London, V&A, Epic Iran
2019 28 Feb - 27 May, London, BM, G5, Feeding History: the politics of food
2007- BM, Rahim Irvani Gallery for Ancient Iran, case 6
2006 14 Sept-30 Dec, Paris, Cernuschi Museum, 'Les Perses Sassanides ou les Fastes d'un empire oublié'
2003 18 Oct-21 Dec, Kobe, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, 'Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural Contacts from Greece to Japan'
2003 5 Aug-5 Oct, Tokyo National Museum, 'Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural Contacts from Greece to Japan'
1995-2005 17 Nov-, BM, G52/IRAN/22/12
1994 16 Jun-23 Dec, BM, G49/IRAN/22/11
1993 12 Feb-25 Apr, Belgium, Brussels, Musée Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Splendeur des Sassanides / Hofkunst Van des Sassanieden, no.89
1977, BM, 'Wealth of the Roman World. Gold and Silver, AD 300-700'
1975-ca 1990 Jul-, BM, Iranian Room [IR], case 20, no. 7
Persian Landing [P.L.], case 3
1931-ca 1939 BM, Room 20: Persian Room
1923-1931 BM, King Edward VII Building: Franks Display
- Slight darkening of gilded surface closest to cloth in case, presumably as a result of outgassing (observed in ca 1999, no noticeable difference on 11/3/03 or 29/3/04). Cleaned August 2006.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Said to have been found with decorated silver dish (now in Department of Asia) inside a copper vase in Mazanderan province of northern Iran.
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: OT.189 (1st ed. of catalogue)
Miscellaneous number: OT.209 (2nd ed. of catalogue)