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The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire

June 20–August 4, 2013

Luxury Goods

Omphalos Bowl Decorated with Lions. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (123919). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Elaborate vessels in various forms and styles were widespread during the Achaemenid period. Many classical authors refer to the great wealth of the Persian royal treasuries. Shallow gold and silver bowls derived from earlier Assyrian prototypes, often with an embossed center (omphalos), were common, particularly in elite circles. The type of decoration on the bottom of some bowls shows that they were intended to be seen from below when full of liquid and held aloft on the tips of the fingers.

Omphalos Bowl with Winged Lions. Silver. Persian Empire. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London (135571). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Luxury drinking vessels and other tableware were symbols of power and prestige at the Achaemenid court. According to Herodotus, "golden bowls and cups and other drinking vessels" were found in the Persian camp after the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. He also notes that many drinking cups of gold and silver washed ashore after the Persian fleet was wrecked off Magnesia.

Armlet. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (124017). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

A rich tradition of sumptuous jewelry can be recognized across the Persian Empire. Inlaid polychrome decoration using colored glass, faience, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and carnelian was a hallmark of Achaemenid jewelry. Inlays were fitted into cavities, or cloisons, held in place by cinnabar, which occurs naturally in Iran, or by bitumen. This cloisonné technique, which originated centuries earlier, was brought to a new level of artistry by Achaemenid goldsmiths. Large animal-headed armlets or bracelets are depicted on reliefs at Persepolis. Their popularity as diplomatic gifts accords with Xenophon's report in the Anabasis, that Cyrus the Younger gave Syennesis "gifts which are regarded at court as tokens of honor—a horse with a gold-mounted bridle, a gold necklace and armlets, a gold dagger and a Persian robe."