Sasanian silver-gilt plate from Shemakha. Male figure hunting. 3rd to early 4th centuries.

A larger image of this Sasanian silver-gilt plate from Shemakha.

A larger detail of the rider on this Sasanian silver-gilt plate from Shemakha.

Silver-gilt plate from Shemakha. Male figure hunting
Museum of the History of Azerbaijan, Baku.
Photo: V. G. Lukonin

Plate 8 in: Harper, Prudence and Meyers, Pieter Silver Vessels of the Sasanian Period. Volume One: Royal Imagery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University Press, New York, 1981


Shemakha plate (PL. 8). Since firm distinctions in date are difficult to establish among the vessels in Group 1, a somewhat arbitrary beginning will be made with a plate recently found by chance in a stone box recovered by workers in a vineyard near Shemakha in Soviet Azerbaijan.43 The composition is clear in spite of the damaged condition of the vessel. Slightly to the right of the center is the figure of an archer astride a horse outstretched in a flying gallop toward the right. The outside foreleg of the horse is shown below the inside leg. This schema is consistently repeated on all the silver hunting plates and on all Sasanian rock reliefs that illustrate this motif.44 The archer has the upper part of his body turned backward so that he shoots to the rear, in the pose often referred to as the "Parthian shot."45 That the

    43. See Chapter II, p. 30. Museum of the History of Azerbaijan, Baku; diam. 29.1 cm., height with foot 4.9 cm. Khalikov, "Serebrîanoe blîudo c pozolotoǐ iz drevneǐ Shemakhi," pp. 146-149.
    44. This is also characteristic of Parthian representations. See Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos, figs 16, 26; Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos, Fourth Season, pls. 18, 21; Dura-Europos, Fifth Season, pl. 35. Ghirshman illustrates a hunting scene on one of the seal impressions from Nysa where this same view of the forepart of the horse is depicted: Persian Art, fig. 39. The presence of this schema on a Hephthalite bowl in the British Museum and in the seventh- to eighth-century paintings of Sogdian Piandzhikent indicates its long and widespread use: Dalton, Oxus, pl. 29, no. 201; Belenitskǐ and Marshak, "L'Art de Piandjikent à la lumière des demières fouilles (1958-48)," p. 34, fig. 13; p. 36, fig. 17; p. 37, fig. 19.
    45. Erdmann gives references to the literature in which this shot is described as typical of the Parthians. He also notes that there was a legend that Ardashir I killed Artabanus V in this fashion: "Die sasanidischen Jagdschalen," p. 203, note 4; Rostovtzeff, "The Parthian Shot", pp. 174-187; Sulimirski, "Les Archers à cheval, cavalerie légère des anciens," pp. 447-461. Sulimirski discusses the expanded use of this shot under the Sasanians because of their constant contact with the steppe peoples. Sidonius describes a fabric from a "far land" upon which Ctesiphon and the mountains of Armenia appear as a background to a hunting scene, in the scene a "Parthian'' is said to shoot backward at fleeing animals: Sidonius, p. 203. Book IX, Letter XIII. The term "Parthian'' is consistently used by Sidonius for Sasanian Persian. The poem in which this passage occurs was apparently written in A.D. 461 (ibid., p. 251, note 202.2).
    For a reference to the later Turks as accurate in archery both in attack and retreat (presumably the reverse shot), see Latham, "The Archers of the Middle East: The Turco-Iranian Background," p. 97.


back of the hunter is toward the viewer is indicated by the disappearance of his right or bowstring hand behind his head and by the presence of a bowed ribbon holding together his necklace, a detail that could be seen only from the rear. Although the body turned in reverse is depicted on five other hunting plates (Pls. 9, 10, 14, 18, 19), this is the sole instance in which the back of the body is shown rather than the front. In Sasanian art the only other example of this view occurs on the side wall of the rock-cut niche attributed to Khusro II at Taq-i Bustan.46 The hunter's quarry on the silver vessel is a goat,47 awkwardly placed in a vertical position parallel to that of the archer, on the left side of the vessel. Both the fore- and hind legs of this animal are bent inward under the belly. The broken shaft of an arrow is visible, protruding from the head.48 The feathered end of the arrow has fallen to the ground and appears beneath the horse's hind legs. No landscape elements are included in this scene, which fits into the circular frame of the plate. The simple design consists of two vertical elements, the rider and his quarry, and a connecting horizontal line in the form of the horse.
    The archer is rather elaborately dressed. Most striking is the headdress, a cap front the top of which there rises an immense crest somewhat resembling a palmette in shape. A short ribbon is tied to the base of this part of the headdress, and a long ribbon bound around the perimeter of the cap flutters off behind the head.49 The surface of the cap is covered with pearls.50 The hunter wears an earring and a necklace. On the left shoulder of his garment, a circular patch of embroidery with a design of lines and punched circles is depicted. Little can be seen of the belt gathering the long-sleeved upper garment at the waist. The portion of the plate with his foot is missing. Only the chased design of the ribbon leading from the foot remains on the background. The drapery covering the leg, however, is clearly defined as a series of fine parallel lines running down the surface. Similar parallel lines are faintly visible on other parts of the drapery as well.
    The head of the archer is in pure profile to the left, and the treatment of the hair in long curled locks, the dotted beard, and the wavy mustache have been referred to in Chapter II, where they were compared to those on the medallion portraits.51 These features are rendered in considerable detail. Slung from a strap attached to the archer's belt is a quiver full of arrows. The surface is divided into four compartments bearing designs. A cross-hatched pattern of lozenges, each containing a single dot, fills the lowest panel, and part of a monogram or tamga (clan mark) is visible in the third panel from the top. Plant motifs are shown in the two uppermost compartments. The archer holds a large compound bow with long straight ears disappearing at the bottom behind his body and at the top reaching to the highest point of his headdress. On this plate, and on all others in this group depicting archers, an accurate distinction is made between the larger upper arc of the bow and the smaller lower one.52

    46. Fukai and Horiuchi. Taq-i-Bustan I, pl. 86. A back view of a Parthian archer horseman occurs on a Roman cup in the Moore collection, ca. first century B.C. in date: Rostovtzeff, "The Parthian Shot," pls. 18-19. The continued use of this view in Western art is suggested by the appearance of the pose on a mosaic hunting pavement found at Apamea. Syria, dated to ca. AD. 539; Mayence, "La Ve campagne de fouilles à Apamée" pp. 2-13; Taylor, "In Defense of the Classics,'' p. 21, fig. 25.
    47. See note 43 above. Khalilov calls the animal a wild goat.
    48. On one of the wall paintings in the Mithraeum at Dura an arrow protruding from the back of an antelope is similarly shown broken in half: Rostovtzeg, Dura-Europos and its Art, pl 18 no. 1.
    49. Dayet discusses the satrapal bonnet with a diadem as the headgear of feudal princes at the beginning of the Arsacid dynasty: "Monnaies arsacides à bonnet satrapal," pp. 13 ff. I am grateful to Richard Brilliant for this reference. See also note 71 below.
    50. Procopius, History of the Wars, Book I, XVII, 26-29. Procopius mentions a Persian ally who wore a headdress decorated with gold and pearls. This reference also appears in Schlumberger, "Deux Fresques omeyyades," p. 97, note 4. Helmut Nickel remarks on the fact that helmet crests, for reasons of weight, were made of gaily colored plumes or flimsy materials (painted parchment, fabric-covered basketwork): 'The Art of Chivalry," p. 90.
    51. See Chapter II, p. 30.
    52. Brown, "A Recently Discovered Compound Bow," pp. 2, 5-6, The author notes that one end of the bow was stiffened for a greater length than the other. The bowstring was held permanently on the longer end and looped onto the more flexible shorter end when the bow was strung.


The figure of the horse is damaged at the head, where a piece is missing. The forelock is drawn up into a vertical tuft above the head, the mane is short and evenly clipped, and a part of the bridle is visible, although the precise form is impossible to distinguish because of the damage. The hair of the horse's tail is elaborately bowed or knotted, the fine lines intricately chased on the surface of the vessel. Across the shoulder and rump are stretched beaded bands from which small circular ornaments are suspended. The saddle girth, decorated with a chevron pattern, runs under the horse's belly.53 A portion of the square saddle blanket with a narrow beaded border appears in the region of the quiver and from the side of this saddle blanket at the back, protrude two small ribbons. At the front of the saddle, a guard or support comes up and partly over the archer's leg. Such a saddle is also represented on early Sasanian rock reliefs.54 It is a feature which, however, occurs on no other silver plate except the following one from Krasnaya Polyana (Pl. 9).
    The method of manufacture is apparent, since a number of the repoussé pieces have broken out of the lips that were cut up from the background of the plate to hold them in place. Part of the design is chased on the shell of the plate, but most of the human figure and that of the caprid appear to have been made up of supplementary pieces. In contrast, only portions of the horse's head, chest, and foreleg are separately added. A dotted sign, perhaps a worker's mark (since it does not seem to consist of letters), is visible on the shell.55 The now missing piece of silver representing the horse's head would originally have covered it. On the reverse of the plate a single line runs just below the rim. Only portions of the design are gilded, including parts of the drapery, weapons, animal bodies, and horse trappings.

    53. This is one of two standard ways of decorating the girth. The other is with beading. The chevron design appears on a number of other hunting plates: (Burnes (P1. 11], Freer Gallery Shapur II [P1. 15], Berlin [Pl. 20]). It also occurs on the seventh- to eighth-century wall paintings at Piandzhikent: Belenitskǐ, Monumental'noye iskusstvo Pîandzhikenta fig. 23.
    54. Examples occur on the reliefs of Ardashir I, Shapur I, and Hormizd II. See Hinz, Altiranische Funde, pls. 51, 60, 72, 73, 91, 133b. A recent article on this and later Sasanian saddle types is by Ghirshman, "La Selle en Iran," pp. 94-107.
    55. I am grateful to Christopher R. Brunner for this ex-planation of the dotted signs.


A second point of importance that has emerged from this study is that the products of both the central Sasanian royal workshops and the provincial schools appear to be derived from a Sasanian metal working tradition that can be traced back to the third century A.D. The Sargveshi and Mtskheta vessels (Pls. 1, 2), with portrayals of a Sasanian king and an official respectively, the medallion bowls (Pls. 3-7) from Iran, and the hunting plates from Shemakha and Krasnaya Polyana as well as the Shapur plate in the British Museum (Pls. 8, 9, 13) represent the initial stages from which there developed both of the later stylistic schools. These original models are datable to the third and early fourth centuries, the sequence beginning only a few decades after the establishment of the dynasty.

Source: Plate 8 in Harper, Prudence and Meyers, Pieter Silver Vessels of the Sasanian Period. Volume One: Royal Imagery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University Press, New York, 1981

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