- Museum number
Moulded stucco plaque; shows foreparts of a "senmurw" (legendary dog-headed bird) in high relief, framed by a circular pearl roundel border; traces of red and yellow pigment.
- Production date
Length: 19.30 centimetres
Weight: 1 kilograms
Width: 16.90 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Unpublished catalogue entry submitted for Cernuschi exhibition
Stucco panel showing a "senmurw"
Probably from Chal Tarkhan-Eshqabad, Iran
Late 7th or early 8th century
H 16.9, W 19.3, Th 4.5, D of roundel 15.5 – 16.0 cm
Thompson 1976: 29-31; Harper et al. 1978: 118, no. 50; Curtis 1989: 64, fig. 75; Curtis 2000: 74, fig. 85; Sarkhosh Curtis 1993: 20; Overlaet ed. 1993: 152-53, no. 11
London, The British Museum, ANE 135913 (1973-7-25,1)
Fragment of a moulded stucco panel; the central design represents a dog-headed animal with lion's paws and bird's tail, usually identified as a senmurw (see cat. xxx = BM "senmurw" plate), emerging from a roundel framed with a row representing solid pearls. The senmurw is represented with a lolling tongue, raised forepaws, erect forward pointing ears, curled over wing tips, bushy decorated tail and a collar with pendant curling volutes. The raised vertical borders indicate that this fragment originally formed part of a vertical border. Traces remain of the original thin white plaster wash over the top.
Plain, moulded or cut stucco work was widely used in Iran, Iraq and Central Asia. This medium allowed craftsmen to disguise the construction and create dramatic low-relief architectural ornament using a strong alternative material to using imported carved wood or stone. Parthian stuccoes from Warka and Qal'eh-i Yazdgird included carved figural compositions which were richly coloured using red, pink, yellow, green and black pigments applied to a gypsum plaster. The choice of designs and the palette range suggest continuity of a hellenistic artistic tradition which is also evident in the terracotta figurines. By contrast, Sasanian stuccoes generally appear very plain, but this may reflect the susceptibility of the thin painted surface wash to the combined effects of weathering and old restoration, particularly as evidence for wall and floor paintings confirm that these craftsmen were not averse to creating colourful interiors.
Apart from the issue of colour, the stucco work of these periods seems to have relied on creating one of two effects. In the case of a small building at Bandiyan, which may be identified as a fire-temple on account of one room containing a fire altar, the main columned hall included scenes of combat and religious devotion. The skill with which these were executed provides important new insights into the Sasanian stucco industry and the compositions serve as an intermediary between the traditions of wall-painting and carving rock reliefs. The second, better known, use of stucco at this period was with symmetrically arranged panels containing a combination of geometric, floral and figural motifs (either symbolic animals or set-piece scenes). These were made using pattern blocks which allowed for the manufacture of identical plaques of a standard size. Thus far almost all of the evidence for such stucco comes from 5th century and later villas or small palaces, for instance at Ctesiphon and Kish in southern Iraq, Bandiyan and Damghan in northern Iran, and Hajjiabad in Fars. The persistence of Sasanian fashion as late as the first half of the 8th century is illustrated by the presence of related stuccoes in buildings of the same type at Chal Tarkhan-Eshqabad, Tepe Mil and Nizamabad (all in the vicinity of the ancient city of Rayy, near Tehran). In each case, the decorated stuccoes appear to have been concentrated for greatest effect on the façade and interior of the principal reception room which was usually an open-ended iwan or columned hall. The decoration therefore presumably served to illustrate the wealth and status of the owner. Furthermore, the choice of royal hunting scenes, busts representing royal or divine figures, monograms or animals (boars, bears, lions, rams, birds or, as in the present case, a senmurw) were also designed to celebrate khwarnah (glory and good fortune) and, just as with the ownership of silver plates or other objects with similar motifs, embue the same properties on the residents.
The site from where this stucco fragment is believed to come was commercially excavated in the 1920s or 1930s. The site was later re-investigated by members of the American Rayy Expedition when the remains of two columned "palaces" were cleared near the foot of a small but prominent mound where the earlier excavators had revealed another building. It is likely, but unproven, that this last building was the source of stucco fragments such as this. The senmurw panels originally framed an impressive central panel consisting of eleven rows of squares containing alternating birds and acanthus leaves, with pairs of boar's heads above and winged busts below. Apart from the stucco, the only other recorded finds are a large collection of ostraca written in Middle Persian, which were acquired by Ernst Herzfeld in 1928 and bequeathed by him to the British Museum.
An additional example apparently made from the same mould was offered for auction through Sotheby's London, 8 October 2008, "Arts of the Islamic World, including Fine Carpets and Textiles", p. 99, lot 63. It was bought by a private individual living in Switzerland.
- On display (G42/dc16)
- Exhibition history
2006 14 Sept-30 Dec, Paris, Cernuschi Museum, 'Les Perses Sassanides ou les Fastes d'un empire oublié'
2005-2006 29 Jun-8 Jan, BM, G69a, 'Iran before Islam: Religion and Propaganda, AD 224-652'
2004- 3 Apr- BM, G34/John Addis Islamic gallery/case 3
1995-2004 17 Nov-Mar, BM, G52/IRAN/22/14
1994 16 Jun-23 Dec, BM, G49/IRAN/22/17
1993 12 Feb-25 Apr, Belgium, Brussels, Musée Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, 'Splendeur des Sassanides / Hofkunst Van des Sassanieden', no.11
1975-1990 Jul-Dec, BM, Iranian Room [IR] case 22, no. 7
- Some abrasion and slight surface powdering (16 October 1991). Lightly cleaned by Michelle Hercules, March 2004, and a small trace of red pigment noted on the wing of the senmurw and yellow on the background above the figure's head.
- Acquisition date
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number