Herodotus tells us that when the Persian fleet was wrecked off Magnesia in Thessaly in 492 B.C. on its way to punish Athens for aiding the rebellious Ionians, a man who farmed land along that coast gained great wealth by collecting gold and silver drinking cups and other precious objects that washed ashore.
The historical incident points up the extreme difficulty facing the expert today when trying to ascertain the validity and the origins of many objects of precious metals discovered by accident and offered for sale, or even in some instances excavated by expeditions. In some circumstances it is possible by laboratory analysis (spectroscopic and X-ray analysis for example) to determine the genuineness of the materials and even, when impurities are present, to find the origin of the ores. Gold alone, among the precious metals, is still beyond most of these methods. Consequently it is only in terms of “style” that one can evaluate the probably relationship of a gold specimen to its original cultural milieu.
Styles in a given area are normally defined by a group of objects which all share a number of common elements–arrangement of the design motifs, their placement on the object, technique of manufacture, use of specific details, and so on. In the Zagros region along the frontier of Iraw ans Iran in the first millennium B.C., two well established styles are known: Late Assyrian (as seen in objects from Nimrud, Nineveh, and Ashur) and Achaemenian ( as seen in a few objects from Persepolis, but even more as seen in the Persepolis reliefs). To these may be added elements of the so-called “Scythian” style (known best from discoveries in South Russia and Pazyryk) which appear here partially in connection with the short period during which the Scythians ravaged the area in the seventh century B.C. Still another style, heavily influenced by the Assyrian, and indeed in many instances scarcely recognizable as a separate style, is that of Urartu, the kingdom around Lake Van in eastern Turkey in the early first millennium B.C. It seems probable that Medes, who preceded the Achaemenians, also would have a style distinctly their own.
The gold piece shown here, purchased in 1955, represents one of these problematical objects. It measures 10 1/2 by 5 1/4 inches and is quite thin. It has been fashioned by hammering into a plaque with slightly raised figures and borders. The edges were originally bent to fit over the corners of the object to which it was attached–which was probably of wood, perhaps a box or a quiver. Small holes with the impression of heads of the tacks that went through them may be seen around the sides. The top of the piece has been cut away and we are thus denied knowledge of the complete form. A somewhat similar piece in a private collection ends with a large disc at the top filled by two rampant lions and it may well be that such a top exists somewhere for our plaque. The outer edge is bordered by a double raised line. A margin is then left which is wider at the bottom than along the sides. The central series of registers is framed by a single raised line to which is added a zigzag decoration along the lower edge made by the blunt tip of a small punch in pointille fashion. Within the central panel are the remains of ten registers separated by single raised lines. Five of these registers contain paired lions; the alternate five, a floral pattern. This latter is most interesting as it recalls similar patterns on objects already known, but fails to repeat any of them to a precise degree. The larger frond-like element comes quite close to one on a silver rhyton in the Treasure of the Oxus. The bordering zigzag done in a solid line occurs on a silver pendant from Ziwiye. The floral elements in general have a curiously simplified and geometric quality.
The registers containing paired lions are arranged also in pairs. The two lower registers and the uppermost contain opposed lions flanked at either side by stylized trees; the two central registers have the lions themselves flanking a centrally placed tree. The trees at once bring in mind similar ones on the Persepolis reliefs. On close examination, however, one discovers that the latter are much more naturalistic, as they have the tiny off-shoot branches indicated along the diagonal branches, whereas in the piece illustrated here these are eliminated in favor of the patterned effect of simple parallel lines. As with the floral registers, the trees provide a curious geometric simplicity of their own.
The lions themselves also share this geometric quality. Their muscles, so accurately if bluntly rendered in Assyrian reliefs, have here been completely stylized in the forelegs. Yet, surprisingly, the haunches and rear legs retain a modeled quality. The elaborately chased manes of the lions flanking the central trees are probably meant to indicate the male, as opposed to the sleeker and less hairy females seen below. The general presentation recalls the walking lion sketched on the hem of the king’s robe in the Palace of Darius at Persepolis. The stylization does not fit readily into any of the classical forms. It is clearly not Late Assyrian as it is too abstract. But it does not conform to the beautifully modeled surfaces which we have come to associate with Achaemenian art. Yet at the same time it is too bold and simple in execution to belong to the Ziwiye group. It thus appears to fall somewhere between the earlier Assyrian and Ziwiye representations, but to be not yet fully classical Achaemenian. Perhaps the safest venture at the moment is that it is the product of a goldsmith working in western Iran sometime between these two periods, that is, between the seventh and the fifth centuries B.C.