- Museum number
Gilded silver plate based on a late Hellenistic composition showing the triumph of Dionysus; hammered from thick sheet, highlighted with mercury-gilding; the partially draped central male figure, possibly Dionysos but in a posture often indicative of Heracles on eastern compositions, is reclining on a flat bed-like wheeled platform or chariot which is drawn towards the left by a pair of presumed female figures walking or running to the left. Both of these are barefoot, have short curly hair and are wearing high-girt flowing chitons; the taller figure on the far left has its head turned round and hands raised to the neck, with an additional mantle hanging from the right shoulder, and a scarf or nimbus around the head. The central figure reclines on the chariot, is bare-chested but wears a drape around his knees; his head was made separately and was crimped into place, but is now missing; he holds an open bowl in front of him with his right hand, whereas his left elbow appears to rest on a pile of cushions (not shown) behind the shoulder of a small semi-naked female figure, sometimes identified as Ariadne but at a scale and in a posture more typical of symposion scenes, who is seated on the rear corner of the vehicle and is draped only over the lower legs, and who has her right arm resting for support on the side of the chariot immediately above the eleven-spoked wheel which appears to be pushed by a small kneeling naked cupid figure. The arms of this last individual are only partly represented, as if the artist mis-understood the original composition. On the forepart of the chariot stands a small naked winged cupid, facing left, holding a handled ewer in his right hand which he appears to be in the act of pouring in front of him, and holding in his other hand the end of what appears to be a whip-like fishing-line attached to a long rod held above his head by another figure, in this case of a nude winged cupid wearing bracelets and anklets, who resembles a flying Eros. Behind the chariot is a running or skipping naked beardless male figure, possibly identified as Herakles (Hercules) or a satyr, wearing a lion-skin draped over his left forearm and holding a club over his right shoulder. The head was separately made and crimped into place, but is now missing; whether it was beardless is uncertain. Behind this figure, at the far right of the plate, is a tall conventionalised tree, possibly a vine, whose clusters of what are presumably grapes hang as a canopy over the head of the seated male at the centre of the composition. At the bottom of the scene a large feline, presumably intended to be a lion or panther, climbs into the open mouth of a large footed vase decorated with vertical ribbing on the shoulders, and is framed by a pair of conventionalised trees or large flowering bushes; several dotted inscriptions on the underside of the bowl, within the area of the foot ring.
- Production date
- 2ndC-3rdC (?)
Diameter: 8 centimetres (foot ring)
Diameter: 22.50 centimetres (rim)
Height: 2.60 centimetres (minus foot ring)
Height: 3.50 centimetres
Weight: 906.20 grammes
- Curator's comments
- The composition appears to be based on late Hellenistic art of the 1st century BC, as represented on cameos, but the metal-working techniques suggest a 2nd or 3rd century AD date. Features suggest that the artist has mis-understood details of the original, and may have deliberately adapted others to combine the essence of Dionysiac and symposion scenes. Still more conventionalised versions are usually dated to the 5th century or later. The date of the BM bowl has therefore oscillated between the late Parthian and early Sasanian periods, but is presumed to be of eastern workmanship. Its 19th century history suggests that it may have been hoarded or found in Afghanistan, but whether it was the product of a toreutic workshop in Bactria is unknown: Dalton suggested otherwise as one might expect greater Gandharan influence but if the plate is earlier then this factor is irrelevant. Related but much more heavily conventionalised iconography on two Sasanian gilt-silver plates in Freer & Sackler Gallery, Washington, and the Historical Museum in Moscow. A third "Sasanian" version was brought in for opinion on 17 August 2005 by one Mr Jeremy Pine.
The presence of the semi-erased inscriptions on the present bowl was noted in August 2006 during cleaning by Pippa Pearce as preparation for the exhibition "Forgotten Empire"; a high-quality silicon rubber cast of the underside may allow reading under high-magnification. Middle Persian dotted inscription across the centre within the foot ring (illustrated by Smirnov but not commented on by most later authors). Shown to A.D.H. Bivar (17/1/06) who reads it as metrological and giving the weight of the bowl in staters as 28, although this does not easily correlate to the real (or original) weight of the bowl.
Unpublished Cernuschi exhibition catalogue entry
Silver plate showing the triumph of Dionysos
Acquired in Afghanistan
2nd - 3rd century
H 3.5 (2.6 minus foot ring), D 22.5 cm, weight 906.2 g
Burnes 1842: 203-205, pl. 18: left; Birdwood 1880: 147, pl. 2; Smirnov 1909: pl. XIII, no. 35; Dalton 1964: 49-51, pl. XXVII, no. 196; Ettinghausen 1972: 4-5, pl. IV, no. 13; Talbot Rice 1965: 86, fig. 72; Lins & Oddy 1975: 366, table 1; Colledge 1977: 224, pl. 12; Boardman 1993: 16-27, fig. 17; Ward 1993: 44, fig. 29; Boardman 1994: 94-97, fig. 4.27; Harper 2000: 53; Tokyo National Museum 2003: 113, no. 107; Eastmond & Stewart eds. 2006: 161, no. 92
London, The British Museum, ANE 124086 (1900-2-9,2)
Gilt silver plate with plain underside and a low soldered circular foot ring measuring 8 cm. across; bowl hammered from thick sheet, relief decoration on the interior created by a combination of repoussé for the low relief and adding separately made details for the high relief portions; in places the recesses for keying in the fruit are so deeply cut that they have come through the back. There are extensive remains of mercury gilding of the highlights. Several inscriptions exist on the underside of the foot ring, including possibly two cursive lightly engraved inscriptions, and a dotted Middle-Persian inscription which must be considerably later than the date of the object and, according to A.D.H. Bivar, gives the weight of the bowl. The design on the interior centres on a partially draped male figure reclining on a flat bed-like wheeled platform or chariot drawn towards the left by a pair of presumed female figures walking or running to the left. Both of these are shown barefoot, have short curly hair and are wearing high-girt flowing chitons; the taller figure on the far left has her head turned back, with hands raised to her neck, an additional mantle hanging from the right shoulder and a scarf or nimbus around her head. The central reclining figure is bare-chested but wears a drape around his knees; his head was made separately and crimped into place, but is now missing. He holds an open bowl in front of him with his right hand, whereas his left elbow appears to rest on a pile of cushions (not shown) behind the shoulder of a small semi-naked female figure seated on the rear corner of the vehicle with a piece of cloth draped over her lower leg, and her right arm resting for support on the side of the vehicle immediately above an eleven-spoked wheel. This wheel appears to be pushed by a small kneeling naked cupid whose arms are only partly represented. On the forepart of the vehicle stands a second small naked cupid, winged and facing left, and holding a handled ewer in his right hand which he appears to be in the act of emptying in front of the vehicle; in his other hand he holds the end of what appears to be a whip-like fishing-line attached to a long rod held above his head by another figure, in this case a naked winged cupid wearing bracelets and anklets. Behind the vehicle is a running or skipping naked male figure wearing a lion-skin draped over his left forearm and holding a club over his right shoulder. The head of this figure was separately made and originally crimped into place, but is now missing. Behind this figure, at the far right of the composition, is a tall conventionalised tree, possibly a vine, whose rounded clusters of what are presumably intended to be grapes hang as a canopy over the head of the central seated figure. At the bottom of the scene a large feline, presumably intended to be a lion or panther, climbs into the open mouth of a large footed vase decorated with vertical ribbing on the shoulders, and is framed by a pair of flowering bushes or conventionalised trees. The composition appears to be based on late Hellenistic art of the 1st century BC, as famously indicated by a cameo in the Naples Museum, and shows the triumphal procession of Dionysos. However, there are a number of features which suggest that the artist not only may have misunderstood details of a miniature original, but possibly deliberately adapted others to combine the essence of Dionysiac and symposion scenes into a composition fitting for a plate. For instance, the central reclining figure is in a posture often adopted by Herakles in eastern art, and although the seated female figure is usually identified as Ariadne she is shown at a scale and in a posture more typical of a symposion. The psychai (butterfly-winged girls) at the left are missing their wings, and the chariot has become a litter precariously tilted on a pair of wheels. The uppermost cupid resembles a flying eros but the arms of the cupid in the foreground are clumsily rendered as if the artist misunderstood the original composition. Finally, the running or dancing figure on the right of the scene may be identified by his lion-skin and club as Herakles, yet his stance resembles that of a satyr and he has a tufted tail. The date and origin of this plate have attracted divergent opinions. Although the origin of the composition is essentially late Hellenistic, it is certainly later and most scholars agree that the metalworking techniques suggest a date no later than the 2nd or 3rd century AD, although Dalton placed it in the 4th century and Harper regarded it as early Sasanian but in hellenising east Iranian style. In addition, two Sasanian style versions of this composition exist in the Historical Museum in Moscow and the Freer Gallery of Art, which have been attributed dates between the 5th and 7th centuries: comparison of the compositional analysis with other published data groups the latter with so-called "central Sasanian" silverwares (Gunter & Jett 1992: 121-27, no. 16; Marshak 1986: 254, figs 174-76). These two bowls differ yet further from the classical model as Dionysos is replaced by a woman, her bowl is explicitly shown as holding grapes, the women on the left are clothed in Sasanian dress, the panther is shown accompanied by musicians, Herakles has been transformed into a slim youth wearing a cap and literally growing out of the vine on the right, and the chariot wheel is rocked backwards and forwards in perpetual motion by a pair of cherubs. Moussavi and Taylor (in press) argue that this is deliberate transformation of the imagery to suit a Zoroastrian Iranian audience, whereby Anahita and Keresaspa replace Dionysos and Herakles, and the composition is divided with good at the fore, evil behind, and the cherubs offering a stabilising force at the centre. The present plate therefore appears to be an important intermediary in the survival and transmission of Greek art into the Iranian world, and an early example of oriental figural show plate. It is most likely to be the product of a Parthian or Kushan workshop, although Eastmond & Stewart (2006) have suggested it to be a product of Antioch. Nevertheless, the discovery at Beitan in Gansu province (China) in 1988 of a second silver plate of the same period representing Dionysos reclining on the back of a panther, and with a Bactrian inscription on the reverse, illustrates how widely such objects could circulate in the east (Baratte 1996). This plate was acquired in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz (or Qunduz), in the heart of ancient Bactria. The remains of monumental Kushan architecture and a large hoard of Greco-Bactrian coins have been reported from this town but the findspot of the bowl is unknown. It formerly belonged to the Hazara Mirs (leaders) of Badakhshan, who claimed descent from Alexander. After they were overrun in 1822 by Mir Morad Beg, the chief of Kunduz, they sold it to his Dewan Beghi (minister), Atma Ram, from whom it was acquired during an official visit to Kunduz by Dr Percival Barton Lord (1808-1840) in January/April 1838. During this brief stay, Lord also obtained an inscribed Kushano-Sasanian silver plate showing a mounted ruler spearing a lion (Harper & Meyers 1981: 55-57, pl. 11). After his return to Kabul, Lord passed both objects to his friend and superior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Alexander Burnes (1805-1841). Burnes mentions how they were procured, describes the present bowl as a patera which "represents the triumphal procession of the Grecian Bacchus", and illustrated it with a very accurate engraving taken from a drawing made by his fellow officer Captain H. Wade of the 13th Regiment. Lord was later killed at Purwandurrah, and "Bokhara Burnes" was murdered when the Kabul Residency was over-run exactly a year later in November 1841. Although the second plate was lost with the looting of the Residency and adjacent army Paymaster's stores, the present bowl had already been presented by Burnes with Lord's blessing to the Indian Museum in Calcutta where it is recorded by 1842. It was transferred by the India Office to the British Museum in 1900.
Catalogue entry submitted for the Somerset House catalogue, 2007 (unpublished):
Silver plate showing the triumph of Dionysos
Acquired at Kunduz, Afghanistan; transferred by the India Office, 1900
2nd - 3rd century
Hammered silver with crimped details (some missing), highlighted with mercury gilding
H 3.5 (with foot ring), D 22.5 cm, weight 906.2 g
Burnes 1842, 203-205, pl. 18: left; Dalton 1964, 49-51, pl. XXVII, no. 196; Ettinghausen 1972, 4-5, pl. IV, no. 13; Talbot Rice 1965, 86, fig. 72; Lins & Oddy 1975, 366, table 1; Boardman 1993, 16-27, fig. 17; Ward 1993, 44, fig. 29; Boardman 1994, 94-97, fig. 4.27; Harper 2000, 53; Tokyo National Museum 2003, 113, no. 107
London, The British Museum, ANE 124086 (1900-2-9,2)
The design on this bowl is inspired by a late Hellenistic composition of a seated Dionysos being drawn in a triumphal chariot by two Psychai, best exemplified by a 1st century BC cameo in the Naples Museum, but the metal-working techniques on this bowl suggest a later date, probably in the 2nd or early 3rd century AD. Although the workmanship is excellent, many features suggest that the artist misunderstood details of the original design, and may have deliberately adapted others to combine the essence of Dionysiac and symposion scenes. For instance, the central reclining figure is in a posture often adopted by Herakles in eastern art, and although the seated female figure is usually identified as Ariadne, she is shown at a scale and in a posture more typical of a symposion. The uppermost cupid resembles a flying eros but the arms of the cupid in the foreground are clumsily rendered and the original whip is turned into a fishing-line. The skipping figure on the right carries the lion-skin and club attributes of Herakles, yet his stance resembles that of a satyr and he has a tufted tail. Two other silver bowls with different versions of this composition exist in the Historical Museum, Moscow, and the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, and are usually attributed to 5th century or later Sasanian workmanship. The dating of this bowl therefore has oscillated between the late Parthian (or Kushan) and Sasanian periods. There are unpublished inscriptions on the underside, including one in Middle-Persian which was presumably added at a later stage. This bowl was transferred to the British Museum by the India Office in 1900. Prior to that it had been in the India House museum where it had been donated by Sir Alexander Burnes, popularly known as “Bokhara Burnes”. At that time Burnes was head of an East India Company delegation to Kabul, and he had received it together with a Sasanian bowl (subsequently lost when the Kabul residency was looted in 1841) from his colleague Dr Percival Barton Lord. Lord in turn had acquired both plates during an official trip to the northern Afghan town of Kunduz in 1838. This is therefore one of the earliest finds of silver plate to have been made in this region. It is not known whether it had been found at Kunduz itself or whether it derives from another site in the near vicinity.
Boardman, Sir John, 1993. The Seventeenth J.L. Myres Memorial Lecture: Classical Art in Eastern Translation. Oxford: Leopard’s Head Press.
__________, 1994. The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. London: Thames & Hudson.
Burnes, Sir Alexander, 1842. Cabool: being a Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City, in the Years 1836, 7, and 8. London: John Murray.
Dalton, O.M., 1964. The Treasure of the Oxus, with other examples of early Oriental metal-work. London: Trustees of the British Museum (third edition).
Ettinghausen, R., 1972. From Byzantium to Sasanian Iran and the Islamic World: Three Modes of Artistic Influence. Leiden: E. J. Brill; The L.A. Mayer Memorial Studies in Islamic Art and Archaeology (eds. R. Ettinghausen & O. Kurz, vol. III.
Harper, P.O., 2000. 'Sasanian Silver Vessels: The Formation and Study of Early Museum Collections', Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian Periods: Rejection and Revival c. 238 BC - AD 642 (Curtis, J., ed.), 46-56. London: British Museum Press.
Lins, P.A. & Oddy, W. A., 1975. 'The origins of mercury gilding', Journal of Archaeological Science 2/4, 365-73.
Talbot Rice, T., 1965. Ancient Arts of Central Asia. London: Thames & Hudson.
Tokyo National Museum, 2003. Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural Contacts from Greece to Japan. Tokyo: Tokyo National Museum.
Ward, R., 1993. Islamic Metalwork. London: British Museum Press.
- Bibliographic references
Burnes 1842 / Cabool: being a Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City, in the Years 1836, 7, and 8 (pp.203-205, pl.18: left)
Birdwood 1880 / The Industrial Arts of India (p.147, pl. 2)
Smirnov 1909 / Vostochnoe Serebro (no.35, pl. XIII) (illustrates the dotted inscription)
Pope 1938 / Survey of Persian Art (vol. I, p. 725, vol. IV, pl. 206) (essay by J. Orbeli)
Dalton 1964a / The treasure of the Oxus with other examples of early oriental metal-work (pp. 49-51, pl. XXVII, no. 196) (not part of the OxusTreasure)
Talbot Rice T 1964a / Ancient Arts of Central Asia (p. 86, fig. 72) (Attributed 2nd century AD date)
Ettinghausen R 1972a / From Byzantium to Sasanian Iran and the Islamic World: Three Modes of Artistic Influence (pl. IV, no 13)
Lins & Oddy 1975a / The origins of mercury gilding (p. 366) (mercury gilding confirmed)
Harper P O 1982a / Reflections on the Whip in the Pre-Islamic Near East: Questions of Identification and Interpretation (pp.182-83) (discusses the whip)
Ward 1993 / Islamic Metalwork (fig.29)
Boardman 1993a / Classical Art in Eastern Translation (pp. 16-27, fig. 17) (not later than 2nd or 3rd century AD)
Boardman J 1994a / The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity (pp.94-97, fig.4.27)
Harper P O 2000a / Sasanian Silver Vessels: The Formation and Study of Early Museum Collections (p.53) (regarded as early Sasanian but in hellenising east Iranian style)
Tokyo National Museum 2003a / Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural Contacts from Greece to Japan (p.113, no. 107)
Eastmond A & Stewart P 2006a / The Road to Byzantium. Luxury Arts of Antiquity (p.161, no. 92)
Demange F 2007a / Les Perses sassanides. Fastes d'un empire oublié (224-642) (cat.36, pp.98-99) (entry by St John Simpson)
Simpson 2012a / Afghanistan. A Cultural History (pp.56-57)
Errington 2017b / The Charles Masson Archive: British Library, British Museum and Other Documents Relating to the 1832–1838 Masson Collection from Afghanistan (p.109)
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
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'
2006 30 Mar-3 Sep, London, Somerset House, 'The Road to Byzantium: Luxury Arts of Antiquity
2005-2006 Sept-Jan, London, BM, 'Forgotten Empire'
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/22/1
1994 16 Jun-23 Dec, BM, G49/IRAN, case 22, no. 1
1975-ca 1990 Jul-, BM, Iranian Room [IR], case 20, no. 9
Persian Landing [PL], case 3
- Fair; head of the central seated and right figures are missing; earliest inscriptions erased in antiquity. Be aware that the raised figures are made of hollow thin sheet and that any broken edges are liable to “pick” so handle with care, particularly if using cotton gloves. Use only padded mounts to avoid scratching the metal. Case materials should be non-corrosive to silver.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Previously owned by the Mirs (Hazara rulers) of Badakhshan; "sold by them in their distress, when they were conquered and imprisoned by Meer [Mir] Morad Beg of Kunduz to Atma Ram, his Diwan Beghi" (Lord in letter to Cunningham, quoted in 'JASB' 1841, X.2, p. 570). Also referred to in the 'Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal' (7), 5 September 1838; 'JASB', December 1838: V. "Coins and relics from Bactria", pp. 1049-50, pl. facing p. 1047. Acquired from Alma Ram by Dr Percival Lord in 1838, who passed it soon afterwards to his friend and colleague Lieutenant Colonel Sir Alexander Burnes who in turn presented it to the former Indian Museum in Calcutta, whence it was taken by Dr McLeod, the Inspector General of Hospitals to India, and where it is recorded by 1842. It was transferred to the British Museum in 1900.
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: OT.196 (2nd ed. of catalogue)