Shaft-hole axe head with bird-headed demon, boar, and dragon

Period: Bronze Age

Date: ca. late 3rd–early 2nd millennium B.C.

Geography: Bactria-Margiana

Culture: Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex

Medium: Silver, gold foil

Dimensions: L. 15 cm

Classification: Metalwork-Implements

Credit Line: Purchase, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, and James N. Spear and Schimmel Foundation Inc. Gifts, 1982

Accession Number: 1982.5


Ancient Bactria and Margiana were areas along the Oxus and Murghab rivers in modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. While these areas were sparsely inhabited during much of the third millennium B.C., by about 2200 B.C. permanent settlements with distinctive forms of architecture, burial practices, and material culture had been established, supported in part by active trade with parts of Iran, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley.

This silver-gilt shaft-hole axe is a masterpiece of three-dimensional and relief sculpture. Expertly cast and gilded with foil, it represents a bird-headed hero grappling with a wild boar and a winged dragon. The idea of the heroic bird-headed creature probably came from western Iran, where it is first documented on a cylinder seal impression. The hero's muscular body is human except for the bird talons that replace the hands and feet. He is represented twice, once on each side of the axe, and consequently appears to have two heads. On one side, he grasps the boar by the belly and on the other, by the tusks. The posture of the boar is contorted so that its bristly back forms the shape of the blade. With his other talon, the bird-headed hero grasps the winged dragon by the neck. This creature is distinguished by folded and staggered wings, a feline body, and the talons of a bird of prey in the place of his front paws. Its single horn has been broken off and lost.