Sasanian Plate with King Astride a Fallow Deer

A larger image of The Sasanian Plate with King Astride a Fallow Deer

Object type: plate
Museum number: 124091
Culture/period: Early Sasanian
Date: 4thC
Findspot: Found/Acquired: Turkey (?)
Materials: silver, gold
Technique: soldered, hammered, gilded
    Diameter: 17.9 centimetres
    Height: 4.5 centimetres
    Height: 3.7 centimetres (minus the foot ring)
    Weight: 394.7 grammes
    Diameter: 0.2 centimetres (centering mark)
    Diameter: 1.5 centimetres (concentric lines on the underside of the foot ring)

Curator's comments
Hammered gilt silver plate (or bowl) with lightly inverted rim and low slightly flared circular foot ring; decorated on the interior with the scene of a king killing a fallow deer; the ruler is wearing a beribboned crenellated crown with korymbos over bunched curls, with pendant earrings, knotted beard, a long-sleeved tunic with decorated shoulder pads, loose flowing decorated trousers and beribboned shoes; two pairs of ribbons stream behind, one pair being attached to the crown and the other apparently tied to his back. The king's toes point downwards in the manner typical of riders without stirrups, where control of the mount was through the pressure of the knees. On his right thigh is suspended a large box quiver decorated with a geometric lozenge pattern below an elaborate foliated design; the presumed scabbard would be slung from the left side but is not visible. The king is depicted in full profile straddling a leaping fallow deer which he grasps and pulls by the antlers with his left hand while plunging a sword with an unusual butterfly cross-guard into the back of its neck and giving rise to a plume of blood. A second deer lies crouched below, with its raised head and blood pouring from its muzzle. The entire scene is enclosed within a medallion bordered by concentric circles, above which the rim is plain.
    There is a single line below the rim on the exterior, and two concentric circles around a broad centering mark on the underside of the base. These were previously interpreted as evidence for spinning or polishing on a lathe. However, there is no evidence that this technique was used at this period for forming vessels but they do suggest that a lathe was used to rotate the dish while it was finished. The plate itself was formed by hammering, and the decoration created through a combination of soldering and crimping a number of separately cast details to form the raised areas, and then chasing and engraving the intervening areas of the design. The composition has been tested using two different scientific techniques, which yielded sufficiently similar results. Spot gilding was used to highlight the crown, shoulder pads, cuffs, belt, trousers, parts of the quiver, and the heads, tails, hooves and bellies of the stags. XRF analysis in four places suggests a composition of 94.3 94.7% silver, 3.8 4.5% copper and 0.9% gold. Neutron activation analysis indicates that the plate is made of 95.6% silver, 3.72% copper and 0.66% gold, whereas the foot has a marginally different composition of 95.8% silver, 3.53% copper and 0.64% gold. Differences in the relative amounts of the trace element iridium detected by the latter analyses confirm that two different ore sources were used, and suggest that the foot ring may be a later replacement. The addition of between 4% and 8% copper is typical of most analysed Sasanian silver objects, including coins, and reflects the knowledge that this improved the mechanical properties of the silver during working. The relative purity of the copper suggests that it was probably freshly smelted metal whereas the recycling of scrap played a more important role in urban industries, particularly those far removed from ore sources.
    This plate was purchased in 1908 from the Durlacher Brothers, a family of dealers, and according to some reports was found in Anatolia. The plate is invariably regarded as being one of the earliest Sasanian plates but despite considerable discussion, the royal figure cannot be certainly identified. The crown is usually compared with those of Shapur II (r. 309-379), but it differs from the coin portraits of this ruler in the omission of a beaded band below the crenellations or a row of curls or volutes above a plain band. Instead it appears to most closely resemble the crown worn by Shapur I (r. 240-272) on rock reliefs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Bishapur II which commemorate his victory over the Roman emperor Valerian at the battle near Edessa in AD 360. Nevertheless, the bowl has been stylistically placed within the 4th rather than 3rd century. Two possibilities follow: either the craftsman was unaware or did not care about the discrepancies of detail of the crown type, or the plate was made during the reign of Shapur II in commemoration of that ruler's father.
    The subject on this plate falls within the general genre of Sasanian royal hunting scenes, but differs from later plates which either show the king mounted on a horse (or camel) or despatching his quarry on foot. Later plates are also larger, flatter and tend to rely on mercury gilding of the background in order to throw the decoration into greater relative relief; in contrast, the use of spot gilding on the present example accentuated the key attributes of the king and his prey. The scene itself demonstrates royal prowess not only through the improbable feat of riding a stag, but also in the deliberate portrayal of skilful swordsmanship as it provides an early illustration of a type of fencing grip: the positioning of the forefinger over the top of the quillon or crossbar of the sword enabled a more controlled thrust and swing. This detail is also present on later Sasanian silver plates, was adopted by the Arabs and eventually became known in Europe as the Italian grip. The manner in which this king is shown killing the deer has also been likened to Mithraic hunts where the god typically pulls a bull's head back and stabs it in the throat. This act of sacrifice recurs in the Zoroastrian celebration of Mihragan and a similar scene with a stag is depicted on a Sasanian silver plate reportedly found in Daylaman (Ghirshman 1962: 213, fig. 254).
British Museum Registration number 1908,1118.1

Referenced on p.31 The Enemies of Rome from Hannibal to Attila the Hun by Philip Matyszak
Shapur I, depicted as a mighty hunter on the interior of this silver bowl. Shapur built on the work of his father to create an empire which outlasted the western Roman Empire by several centuries. Some features of Shapur's reign, especially in religion and architecture, are still powerful influences in the Middle East of today.

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