Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Oxus Treasure and the challenges of provenance

The Oxus Treasure is a collection of about 180 surviving pieces of metalwork in gold and silver from the Achaemenid Persian period which were found by the Oxus river about 1877-1880.  The metalwork is believed to date from the sixth to fourth centuries BCE and is thought to belong to a temple where votive offerings were deposited over a long period. Sculptural objects include two model chariots in gold, one incomplete, plus figures of a horse and a rider that may belong to this or other model groups, as may two other horses cut out from sheet gold. The wheels of the complete chariot would originally have turned freely, and it had received at least one repair in antiquity. It is pulled by four horses (rather small, and with only nine legs surviving between them) and carries two figures, a driver and a seated passenger, both wearing torcs. The chariot has handrails at the open rear to assist getting in and out, while the solid front carries the face of the protective Egyptian dwarf-god Bes.  Another exceptional piece is thought to be a gold cap ornament (aigrette) that reflects Scythian influence in the folded legs of the recumbent lion-griffin with wings, straight horns, long pointed ears, and a curled tail. There are cavities for inlay on the flank and shoulder. At the back of the plaque are two long prongs for attachment. The two griffin-headed bracelets or armlets recovered from the site are considered by some the most spectacular pieces, despite lacking their stone inlays. There are a number of other bracelets, some perhaps torcs for the neck, several with simpler animal head terminals variously depicting goats, ibex, sheep, bulls, ducks, lions, and fantastic creatures. Many have inlays, or empty cells for them. It used to be thought that this technique was acquired from Ancient Egyptian jewelry (as in some of Tutankhamun's grave goods), but Assyrian examples are now known.

The circumstances of the discovery and trading of the pieces, and their variety of styles and quality of workmanship, cast some doubt on their authenticity from the very beginning.  Indian dealers initially made copies of items and tried to pass them off to Franks, who though not deceived, bought some "at a small percentage over the gold value" and then received the genuine objects, which were easily distinguished.  Since then later  Achaemenid finds of jewelry including armlets and torcs in a tomb at Susa by a French expedition from 1902 , excavated under proper archaeological conditions, closely resemble objects found in the Oxus Treasure and are considered contemporary evidence of their ancient source.

Gold four horse chariot model, Achaemenid Period 5th-4th centuries BCE, Oxus Treasure at the British Museum
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Cristian Bortes

Lion-griffin hat ornament (aigrette), gold, Achaemenid Period, 5th-4th centuries BCE, Oxus Treasure at the British Museum
courtesy of the museum

Griffin-embellished gold armlets, Achaemenid Period, 5th-4th centuries BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

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