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The Darius Seal

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    89132

  • Title (object)

    • The Darius Seal
  • Description

    Chalcedony / prase cylinder seal: streaked, green to grey-brown, clouded; carved scene shows chariot, lions, symbol, tree and inscription; a royal personage (Darius I) facing right, stands at the back of a chariot, with his torso presented frontally; he has a long pointed beard, striated across the cheek and vertically down the chin and chest, his hair, in diagonal lines, is in a full-page boy style at the nape of the neck, he wears a dentate crown with four well-defined points set on wide circlet decorated with a band of dots, and is dressed in the full-length formal robe (only the top half of the garment is visible), with pendant sleeves folded back from the arms and hands to leave them free to aim his bow, which ends in a curved bird-head. The charioteer stands before the king, leans forward and guides the two horses; his short pointed beard and shoulder-length hair are striated, he wears a diadem with central boss and his upper garment is a cape with a double line border.

    The waist high sides of the two-wheeled chariot are covered by three narrow crossed (possibly cruciform) panels or straps, a rounded handle-like, looped projection protrudes from the upper end of the back, against which the king leans, while at the front is a notched, curved pole-brace; the wheel is eight-spoked with a thick, studded rim; the pole links chariot to the yoke. The two horses (the heads are shown as double, but only one body is depicted) gallop with forelegs stretched out and bent slightly downwards, their harnesses are decorated with large tassels, the penis is shown and the tail hangs down but appears to be knotted at the tip. The king has shot two arrows into the eye and front paw of a confronting, rampant and snarling lion; its heavy mane is marked by a cross-hatched pattern ending in a ventral projection down the body. Beneath the hooves of the horses lies a lion cub, face downwards (probably dead). All the animals have well-defined and lightly modelled musculature, discreet drill-holes mark out the eyes, jaws and hind paws of the lion; a curious group of drill-holes mark the lower end of the further foreleg of the horse.

    Above the scene hovers a winged sun-disc from which rises the upper part of a male figure (the god Ahuramazda), his beard is striated, he wears a crown with spikes (giving it a feather-like appearance), set on a narrow circlet, his garment has long pendant sleeves from which emerge his hands, one raised, the other extended and holding a ring. The wings are long and narrow but widen slightly at the tips and are marked by long horizontal lines and divided into six sections but diagonal lines, while the tail is marked by fine vertical lines sectioned across by one curving line; two scroll-like appendages emerge from each side. Flanking the scene are two identical palm-trees or date-palms with globular bunches of fruit beneath the palm fronds on each side, and base petioles shown by a continuous criss-cross pattern down the trunks ending in widened bases. The whole is placed on a ground line. To the side is three-line vertical inscription panel.

    Crack running through the seal.

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  • Authority

  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 6thC BC-5thC BC
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 3.7 centimetres
    • Diameter: 1.7 centimetres
    • Weight: 21 grammes
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Type

        inscription
      • Inscription Script

        Cuneiform
      • Inscription Language

        Elamite
      • Inscription Translation

        I [am] Darius, the king.
      • Inscription Comment

        Trilingual cuneiform inscription in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.
      • Inscription Type

        inscription
      • Inscription Script

        Cuneiform
      • Inscription Language

        Old Persian
      • Inscription Translation

        I [am] Darius, the king.
      • Inscription Comment

        Trilingual cuneiform inscription in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.
      • Inscription Type

        inscription
      • Inscription Script

        Cuneiform
      • Inscription Language

        Babylonian
      • Inscription Translation

        I [am] Darius, the great king.
      • Inscription Comment

        Trilingual inscription in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. The word 'great' only occurs in Babylonian.
  • Curator's comments

    This was probably a seal of office. Classified by Merrillees as Persepolis, Early/Mature style. The cruciform pattern on the side of the chariot resembles that on the front of the gold chariot-model in the Oxus Treasure, as do the studded wheel treads and the loop at the back representing a support for easy mounting. No. 15 in a previously issued series of postcards captioned "Assyrian monuments bearing on Bible history in the British Museum". Two coloured facsimile copies were made in 2003, one for the "Enlightenment" display in the refurbished King's Library and the other for handling/loan purposes. According to Merrillees catalogue "the transparency of the seal surface was probably induced by oiling", but whether this was ancient or represents a 19th century treatment for an earlier moulding and casting is unclear.Cat. entry for "Alexander the Great and the opening of the world – Asian cultures in transformation" (Svend Hansen, Alfried Wieczorek and Michael Tellenbach, eds)

    The Darius Seal
    Said to have been found in Thebes, Egypt
    Purchased in 1835, formerly in the Salt collection
    Chalcedony; height 3.70cm, diameter 1.70cm
    British Museum, London, Inv.-Nr. 89132a [facsimile]                    

    This was probably a seal of office although it is popularly referred to as the “seal of Darius”. It is one of the most heavily published or illustrated examples of Achaemenid art. The scene shows Darius I standing at the back of a two-wheeled chariot which is being guided by his charioteer. The cruciform pattern on the side of the chariot resembles that on the front of a gold chariot-model in the Oxus Treasure, as do the studded wheel treads and the loop at the back representing a support for easy mounting. The subject is a lion hunt and the scene is framed by date palms in full fruit. Above the scene hovers a winged sun-disc from which rises the upper part of a male figure which is usually identified as the god Ahuramazda. A trilingual cuneiform inscription repeats the phrase “I [am] Darius, the king” in Old Persian and Elamite, expanded slightly in the Babylonian version as “I [am] Darius, the great king“.

    Literature: J.E. Curtis & N. Tallis (eds), Forgotten Empire: The world of Ancient Persia, London 2005 (cat. 398); P.H. Merrillees, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic seals in the British Museum: Pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid periods, London 2005 (cat. 16).

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  • Bibliography

    • Curtis & Tallis 2012 107 bibliographic details
    • Merrillees 2005 16 bibliographic details
    • Philby H StJ B 1981a 28 bibliographic details
    • Collon 1987a 558 bibliographic details
    • Curtis & Tallis 2005 cat. 398 bibliographic details
    • Gadd 1930a facing p.44 bibliographic details
    • Rogers R W 1929a fig.11 & pictorial cover bibliographic details
    • Littauer M A & Crouwel J H 1979 fig.81 bibliographic details
    • Pinder-Wilson 1971a no.23 bibliographic details
    • Sarre F 1922a no.52 (top) bibliographic details
    • Boardman 2000 p. 161, fig. 5.9 bibliographic details
    • Stronach D 1998a p. 239, fig. 6 (compares scene with Assyrian lion-hunts rather than later Achaemenid art as exemplified by the gold scabbard in the OT) bibliographic details
    • Curtis 1989a p. 49, fig. 56 bibliographic details
    • Pinches T G 1885 p.11, pl:3, no.6 bibliographic details
    • Schmidt EF 1957a p.13, n.65 bibliographic details
    • Du Ry C J 1969a p.149 bibliographic details
    • Guide 1908a p.158 bibliographic details
    • Ali-Sami 1970a p.172 (captioned in error as "crystal") bibliographic details
    • Collon 1995a p.183, fig.146a bibliographic details
    • Parrot A 1961 p.209, no.261F, p.374 bibliographic details
    • Guide 1922 p.233, pl.52.6 bibliographic details
    • Porada E 1961 p.250 (difference between crowns of god and king) bibliographic details
    • Curtis 1995b p.261, no.56 bibliographic details
    • Von der Osten H H 1956a p.279, pl.69 bibliographic details
    • Allen 2005a p.45 bibliographic details
    • Porada E 1993 p.501, pl.LII bibliographic details
    • Curtis 2000a p.58, fig.64 bibliographic details
    • Moortgat A 1940 p.79 bibliographic details
    • Hicks J 1976a p.79 bibliographic details
    • Walker 1980a p.79-80 bibliographic details
    • Barnett & Wiseman 1960a p.95, no.49 bibliographic details
    • Delaporte L 1910 p.xx, n.4 bibliographic details
    • Frankfort H 1939 p.XXXVI, pl.XXXVIId (p.221) bibliographic details
    • Denison Ross et al. 1930 pl. 2 bibliographic details
    • Curtis 1997a pl. 2 bibliographic details
    • Wiseman 1959 pl.100 bibliographic details
    • Cook J M 1983a pl.33 bibliographic details
    • Menant J 1883 pl.I:3 bibliographic details
    • Lajard F 1847 pl.XXV: 6 bibliographic details
    • Curtis 1997a pp.13/14, pl.2 bibliographic details
    • D'Athanasi 1836a pp.157-58, no.74 bibliographic details
    • Menant J 1886 pp.166-168 bibliographic details
    • Porada E 1965a pp.176, 178, fig.89 bibliographic details
    • Ward W H 1910 pp.25,336, no.1104 bibliographic details
    • Ghirshman R 1964a pp.268-9, 431, illus.329 bibliographic details
    • Unger E 1966a pp.57, 60 bibliographic details
    • Weissbach 1911a pp.xxiii, xxx, 106-107 bibliographic details
    • Furtwangler A 1900 vol. I, pl.I:11 and vol II, p.5 bibliographic details
    • Weber O 1920 vol.I, p.124 and vol II, p.101, no.506 bibliographic details
    • Pope 1938 vol.IV, pl.123A bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G52/dc3

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:

    2013 15 Mar-Mar, Cyrus Cylinder tour
    2012 24 May-30 Sep, London, BM, 'The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot'.
    2010 3 Dec-2011 3 May, Madrid, Canal de Isabel II, Alejandro Magno: Encuentro con Oriente (Facsimile).
    2010 21 Mar-1 Nov, Leobon, Kunsthalle Museumcenter, Alexander der Grosse und die offnung der Welt (Facsimile).
    2009 2 Oct-2010 21 Feb, Mannheim, Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Alexander der Grosse und die offnung der Welt (Facsimile).
    2006 8 Jul-29 Oct, "Splendeur and Grandeur of the Great Kings: The Persian Empire", Museum Speyer, Germany (second facsimile cast).
    2006 7 Mar-11 Jun, Barcelona, Fundacion La Caixa, 'L'imperi Oblidat'.
    2005 Sept-2006 Jan, London, BM, 'Forgotten Empire'.
    2003 Nov - facsimile copy in G1/Enlightenment.
    1996 1 Oct-1997 31 Mar, USA, St. Petersburg, Florida International Museum, Alexander the Great: History and Legend
    1995 21 Dec-1996 21 May, Rome, Fondazione Memmo, Alexander the Great: History and Legend
    1995-2005, 17 Nov-Aug, BM, G52/IRAN/6.
    1994 16 Jun-23 Dec, BM, G49/IRAN.
    1990 28 Jun-23 Sep, Australia, Melbourne, Museum of Victoria, Civilization: Ancient Treasures from the British Museum, cat. no.15
    1990 24 Mar-10 Jun, Australia, Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, Civilization: Ancient Treasures from the British Museum, cat. no.15

    1975-1990 Jul-end, BM, Iranian Room [IR].

    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'

    1960 BM, Room of Writing.

    Assyrian Room [AR], table-case B6 (1922 Guide).

    Babylonian Room, table-case D.

  • Condition

    Fair / poor; crack running through the seal (noted spring 2003 prior to facsimile copying); impressions should be made with great care

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1835 (29th June)

  • Acquisition notes

    Sotheby's sale of Salt collection, 29th June 1835; catalogued as no.74 in d'Athanasi catalogue of the Salt Collection where the object is said to have been "found in lower Egypt", in a tomb on the left bank at Thebes.

  • Department

    Middle East

  • BM/Big number

    89132

  • Registration number

    1835,0630.1

Agate cylinder seal; carved scene shows Darius I, standing in a chariot shooting at a facing rampant lion with two arrows penetrating its head; second lion lying dead below the chariot; chariot has a pair of wheels, shown with eight spokes and studded treads; side decorated with cruciform pattern; loop at back; chariot drawn by two horses, galloping, steered by charioteer who stands and leans forward; scene is framed by two erect date palms with full fruit; winged sun-disc and bust placed centrally above and facing right; entire scene placed above a horizontal base-line; inscription in three lines.

Agate cylinder seal; carved scene shows Darius I, standing in a chariot shooting at a facing rampant lion with two arrows penetrating its head; second lion lying dead below the chariot; chariot has a pair of wheels, shown with eight spokes and studded treads; side decorated with cruciform pattern; loop at back; chariot drawn by two horses, galloping, steered by charioteer who stands and leans forward; scene is framed by two erect date palms with full fruit; winged sun-disc and bust placed centrally above and facing right; entire scene placed above a horizontal base-line; inscription in three lines.

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Object reference number: WCO25288

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