A. Baulo. A Sasanian silver plate from the Synya // Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia. - 2002. - № 1. - P. 142 - 148.


Discoveries of oriental silver plates in Russia have occurred mainly in the 19th century, primarily in the Kama basin and the western part of the Urals. In the 20th century, similar plates and other metalwork dating from the 8th – 9th centuries were first recorded from functioning sanctuaries of the Ob Ugrian population in the lower Ob basin (Chernetsov, 1947; Gemuev, 1988; Gemuev, Baulo, 1999; Baulo, 2000; Baulo, Marshak, 2001). The most recent expedition, in the summer of 2001, has been very fruitful, with investigations in two Khantic settlements in the Shuryshkar Region of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District yielding three silver plates. The present paper focuses on the most interesting of the three: a Sasanian silver plate.

The present owners of this piece referred the discovery of the plate to the second part of the 19th century. They reported that the great-great-grandmother of the present owner was going by boat along the Synya River from one settlement to another together with her husband, when somewhere in the middle of their trip they landed for a short rest. The woman noticed something glittering in the grass. They dug out the soil and discovered a treasure: several brass cauldrons containing cast silver and bronze animal figurines representing samples of West Siberian cult objects dating from the second part of the first millennium AD. The Ob Ugrian people believed that any unusual found object had been “sent from the Heavens,” so the new owners incorporated the newly found articles into their set of family ritual objects. The plate under discussion was passed down through the generations from father to younger son. The inheritor was forbidden to see this plate while his father was alive; similarly, the owner’s elder brothers are not permitted to see it today. The religious-ritual practice of the Mansi people is characterized by similar restrictions in the handling of sacred silver plates. For instance, V.N. Chernetsov reported that in the 1930s a silver plate “depicting seven persons” was deposited in S. Sampiltalov’s family sanctuary wrapped in cloth and nobody was allowed to see it, even the son of the owner. The son would be able to see the plate only upon his father’s death (Istochniki…, 1987: 200).

Most recently, the Synya plate has been stored in a house. The right portion of the entrance hall is screened off to form a room where women are not allowed. A wide shelf has been constructed at the rear wall for keeping the family cult objects. A large figurine of Kurpat-iki dressed in black is placed in the left corner of the shelf. The function of this deity is very close to that of the Russian house-spirit – Domovoi. To the right of this image is a large linen sack containing family ritual articles: a figurine of a female patron-spirit (god of the master’s mother), a sacred blanket portraying seven horsemen, a ritual belt bearing seven bird images (these two objects were made for the master’s father, who was a renowned shaman in the Synya basin and ran the largest sanctuary in this region); the silver plate, wrapped in seven shawls, was placed underneath the enumerated objects. Among other things kept on the shelf, there was a male hunting belt with decorative silver pendants, one of which had the shape of a bird representing a sample of the Ural traditional cast objects of the 8th – 10th centuries. The Kurpat-iki figurine, the blanket, the belt, the plate, and the silver bird figurine were inherited by their present owner due to the younger son’s right of succession. Such important things are kept in the entrance hall, because the local tradition forbids keeping things inside a house if they were found in an outdoor hoard. The owner of these sacred objects herds reindeer and used to take all of them (except the mother’s patron-spirit) with him when roaming the Polar Urals in his vanzei, a special sledge.

In ritual ceremonies, this plate is used as a dish for sacrificial bread, biscuits, and sweets. It is interesting that during the five years that have passed since his father’s death, the new owner has never taken the plate out of the shawls and looked at it. The plate still contains some biscuits and banknotes from the last ceremony.



Plate description. The plate has a low ring-shaped foot, the rims are thicker than the rest of the plate, and the edge is rounded. The diameter of the plate is 22.2 cm; its height is 4.8 cm. The diameter and the height of the foot are 7.5 cm and 1.2 cm respectively. The weight of the plate is 864 g. The technological sequence of production includes the following stages: casting, hammering, chasing, engraving, and gilding (on some portions of the plate the gold coating is missing). The major characters and elements of the interior design are made in a high relief (the king’s head, his hair, his crown topped with a globe, his attire, and quiver, as well as certain parts of the bulls’ bodies, excluding the upper bull’s tail, its left foreleg and rear legs, its left horn; the body of the lower bull is in high relief, excluding its legs, tail, and its right horn; also in high relief are the figure of the winged boy and the leaves of the bush).

The king is depicted sitting on a zebu bull “flying” at a gallop. His left hand is holding the bull’s horn, and his right hand is striking another bull, which occupies the lower part of the plate. The king’s head is shown in three-quarter view; the body is shown in frontal view; the legs are shown in side view. There is a halo encircling the king’s head. The king wears a beaded diadem with streamers and a crown with a central crescent surmounted by a vertically striated globe (P.O. Harper thinks that such a form might have represented a flower bud (Harper, Meyers, 1981: 61)). The streamers flutter to the figure’s left from the crown globe and from the hoop on the king’s neck. Both the diadem and the hoop are beaded. The king wears a massive rounded earring in his right ear. His curled hair is pulled together in a ball at the back of the head. The king’s beard is dressed with a ring at its tip. He wears a long-sleeved tunic and full trousers gathered at the calf, tied up with a ribbon and decorated with a buckle. The drapery on the tunic and the full trousers suggests a thin, fold-forming cloth. The full trousers form especially rich drapery. Over the tunic belted at the waist with two buckles there is a beaded halter. The toe of some soft shoe is stretched out. Fingernails are shown on the left hand. The circle representing the fingernail of the forefinger is also depicted, though it would not be seen if the hand were in such a position. A sword is attached to the belt at the king’s back, only its hilt is shown above the horse’s back. A quiver suspended from the king’s belt is divided into six sections, five of which are decorated with a beaded flower motif and the sixth with pearl-like ornamentation.

The upper bull’s thigh has a rounded hollow, which was probably left by some missing decorative element. The lower bull is shown in death agony, its head lowering lifelessly, though the tail has not yet fallen down. There is a dot in a circle placed above the left eye. The figure of this animal is decorated with an ornamental motif in the form of a sophisticated stylized cross. The tassels at the tips of both bulls’ tails are shown with the aid of longitudinal wavy lines. The animals’ leg joints are accentuated with circles. The genitals are depicted.

The upper right portion of the plate is occupied by the figure of a bare, winged young boy (“genius”) carrying streamers to the king. The lower central part of the plate shows a mountain range and a bush with three leaves.

The plate also exhibits traces of later engravings. For instance, a long figure portraying a bird bearing a “life line” motif was incised above the sword hilt and a pair of deer was depicted to the left of the “genius.” A Siberian (or Uralian) craftsman might not have chosen this place for depicting the deer at random, because the streamers in the boy’s hands may have been perceived as lassos.

The exterior of the plate shows a five-point star at the center of the ring-shaped foot. Outside the circle is the inscription ja-m i fizzah, meaning “a silver bowl.” Such Arabic italics were used in the 9th – 10th centuries. The phrase was written in the New Persian language by order of one of the last Central Asian or Iranian owners of this plate (the phrase has been interpreted by B.I. Marshak). Consequently, the plate could not have arrived in Siberia prior to the 9th century.

Let us describe the royal figure. It is most probably a portrayal of Yazdgard I, Shah of Iran (399 – 421). He reigned during a difficult time for Iran, when the royalty struggled against prominent landowners. The shah decided to rely upon Christians as his allies. Christians were given the right to build churches, to move freely around the country, and to perform their religious services. The shah sought a peaceful relationship with Byzantium and perceived the Iranian Christians as a link between the two countries. As a result of his policy, Yazdgard I was glorified as a fair king in Christian literature, while the Sasanian tradition treated him as a “sinner.” Toward the end of his reign, Yazdgard I changed his attitude towards Christians and undertook certain repressions against them. The shah’s death occurred under a veil of secrecy as he was traveling in the northeastern province of his country. Legend holds that an unusually beautiful steed rushed out of a spring. The steed was wild; nobody could have approached it. The steed kicked the shah’s breast, striking him to death. The assumption has been debated in literature (T. Neldeke) that the nobility invented this legend in order to conceal the fact that they had murdered the shah. (Diakonov, 1961: 272 – 273).

The contemporary Sasanian coins portrayed Yazdgard I in a crown centered with a crescent and surmounted by a globe (Sasanian Silver, 1967: 158, N 82, l). The plate under discussion shows a similar type of crown. However, no known Sasanian coins show the crown with a vertically striated globe. Such a motif rarely occurs on plates as well. A. Gunter and P. Jett have reported only four examples: two plates in the Freer Gallery (portraying Shapur II, and, according to their identification, Peroz or Kavad I), one plate in the Metropolitan Museum, and one in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (portraying Yazdgard I and Varakhran, “King of the Kushanians,” respectively) (Gunter, Jett, 1992: 108). Certain researchers have interpreted the occurrence of this striated globe in the crown ornamentation on the Kushanian-Sasanian coins as a symbol of Sasanian kings’ ownership of the Kushanian territories (Harper, Meyers, 1981: 61). Others have insisted upon a Sasanian origin of this symbolic globe and its consequent reproduction in Kushanian-Sasanian art. E. Herzfeld suggested that the striated globe formed part of the shah’s battle dress, a feature of royal headgear associated with war helmets rather than crowns (Gunter, Jett, 1992: 108).

Let us compare the plate from the Metropolitan Museum portraying Yazdgard I killing a deer (Harper, Meyers, 1981: Cat. 16) with the plate found in the Synya basin. They demonstrate a certain similarity. Both plates are roughly the same size (22.2 cm and 23.4 cm respectively). Both articles exhibit details made in high relief and demonstrate a similar design of the crowns, beard and hair dress, as well as a similar way of showing the streamers descending below the toes of the footwear. Both plates show a similar design of the halo (a three-circle pattern inside the halo, its edge is worked out with pecking). The halo encircling the shah’s head represents a feature that has been perceived as a symbol of the “Keianidian Khvarena (God of Happiness)”. Starting from the 4th century, the Sasanian kings linked their origin to the ancient “godly” dynasty of the Keianidians (Trever, Lukonin, 1987: 57).

Both plates show Yazdgard armed with an unusual type of spear. Harper defined the form of this spearhead as crescent-shaped (Harper, Meyers, 1981: 63). However, judging from the Synya plate, the spear rather resembles a bident: a standard straight spearhead is plunged into the bull’s body, while the second crescent-shaped spearhead serves as a restraint, helping the king to easily withdraw his spear from the animal’s body. Another purpose of this second crescent-shaped spearhead may be for picking up prey and carrying it (though applicable for smaller animals than the bull). In any case, this weapon seems to be regarded to as a hunting device rather than a military one.

Certain dissimilarities have also been noted between these two plates: the Metropolitan Museum specimen shows Yazdgard’s hair on both sides of his head; his beard is not tied up, and the spear handle exhibits a different form. The Synya plate displays no streamers fluttering from the king’s diadem (instead, the “genius” is carrying such streamers); the strips of beaded halter and buckles have not been shown; the bold figures are made using continuous plates (not fragmented).

In any case, the discovery of the plate in the Synya basin has been very important in attesting to the authenticity of the Metropolitan Museum plate portraying Yazdgard I. The Metropolitan Museum plate has been purchased recently, and the fact that the art market is full of counterfeit Sasanian silverware made V.G. Lukonin doubt its authenticity (Trever, Lukonin, 1987: 41). The noted coincidences in exceptionally rare features of ornamentation, like the crescent-shaped spearhead and the specific design of the lower bull and deer’s bodies, prove the authenticity of the Metropolitan Museum specimen.

Comparisons of the Synya plate with the silver dish from the Freer Gallery showing Shapur II hunting wild boars (Smirnov, 1909: N 57; Gunter, Jett, 1992: plate 13) also present considerable interest. Both articles are roughly the same size and weight. Both demonstrate concurrent details: a “flying” gallop of the animals; similar ways of positioning the animals’ legs (similar poses of racing animals and those of quarry); the use of circles in depicting joints; the flower motif decorating the upper register of Shapur’s quiver and a similar motif in five registers of Yazdgard’s quiver; the positioning of swords and hanging straps; handles and pommels of the swords (a globe and two transversal lines); the forms of the quivers; the ornamentation of the horses’ harness tassels and the bulls’ tails with wavy lines. The analysis shows that all the three plates discussed here were manufactured by artisans of one and the same school, or even in one studio at roughly the same time.

The art of modeling in high continuous relief is known to be a feature of the royal, or central, school of ancient Iranian metalwork. Such a technique is characterized by a non-detailed elaboration of images, thorough working, considerable weight, and standard dimensions. The earliest known examples include the Cleveland Museum’s Hormizid II (?) plate and the British Museum’s Shapur plate. Both date from the 4th century (Trever, Lukonin, 1987: 55). If we consider the Cleveland plate to be a later replica, then the Teheran Archaeological Museum’s plate (4th century) seems to be the earliest known plate with a standard composition of a royal lion-hunting scene (Ibid.: 54, 56, 57). As early as the first decade of the 4th century, the shah of Iran became the hero of hunting scenes. The Teheran plate shows features that later became standard: large superimposed plates that form the high relief of the figures, animal leg joints shown using small circles, a mountain motif, a horse “flying” at a gallop, the king’s tied up beard. The plate discussed in this paper displays all these characteristic details. The image of the “genius” also represents an early feature of Sasanian art. For instance, the Bishapur rock relief, which was identified as a collective portrait of Shapur I and Roman emperors, shows a bare boy flying down to the king bearing the streamers of power (on the Synya plate, the boy’s pose and the way he bears the streamers is similar to the Bishapur image). V.G. Lukonin regarded this image as “a true Roman-style figure of a flying genius with a wreath of Victory… Certain features had been canonized by that time: the position of the leg with the stretched-out toe, the beard coming through a ring… From that time on, the representation of the drapery of the king’s loose trousers became standard” (Lukonin, 1977: 182, 185).

One more example of a royal hunting plate is the smaller Freer Gallery plate depicting a shah chasing ibexes and gazelles (Gunter, Jett, 1992: plate 14). Features of the shah’s headgear allow his identification as Peroz or Kavad I. A. Gunter and P. Jett have highlighted the specific leaf-shaped streamers suspended from the shoes, the same streamers that decorate Yazdgard’s attire on the Metropolitan plate (Ibid.: 115) and on the newly discovered Synya specimen. The latter demonstrates the following features in common with the small Freer plate: the shape of the quiver, the striated globe on the crown, the ornamentation pattern of the tassel suspended from the saddle (a similar pattern occurs in the ornamentation of the tassels on the bulls’ tails). In fact, the crown itself on the Freer Gallery plate is similar to that of the Synya Yazdgard’s headgear. B.I. Marshak expressed his opinion in personal communication with the present author that the noted similarity in details of the headgear may suggest that Yazdgard himself is depicted on the Freer Gallery plate (which means that the plate was manufactured early in the fifth century). I tend to agree with the proposed attribution.

The Synya plate demonstrates certain iconographic features traditional for Sasanian art. A scene portraying a king hunting a zebu bull is recorded from a plate of one private collection in the USA. Some researchers have dated it to the 5th century (Marschak, 1986: 428); others have referred it to the 6th – 7th centuries (Harper, 1978: 58). Marshak has also attracted my attention to the fact that a three-leaf bush and a zebu bull image are featured on an Iranian silver rhyton of the 4th century (?) shaped as an antelope’s head (The Arthur M. Sackler Collection) (Ibid.: 36 – 37).

The meaning of the royal hunting scenes deserves special discussion. Sasanian metalwork often depicts live and killed animals in one composition (Trever, Lukonin, 1987: 55). The Synya plate scene features a king sitting on the back of one bull while striking another with his spear. Such a scene may assume various interpretations. Firstly, the composition may be interpreted as an ordinary hunting scene demonstrating the exceptional skill of the king, having mounted one bull and striking another. The king holds the spear with one hand, not with two (as, for instance, on the plate from the Emir of Badahshan’s collection (Harper, Meyers, 1981: 55, plate 11)), because he is holding the bull’s horn with his other hand in order to balance himself. Moreover, the scene may be interpreted as the fight of the shah against two bulls (in imitation of Roman circus fights) rather than a simple hunt. With this combat, the king is asserting his right to ascend the throne and obtain the symbols of his royal rank from the gods. Such an interpretation rests on the special form of the spear with two tips, adapted to arena fighting. In such case, the cross pattern occurring on the body of the lower bull becomes more clear (a ceremonial animal in a blanket?). Yazdgard I seems to have had a predilection for extraordinary animals, a passion that would have been known to the Iranian people. In such a case, it is not surprising that the legend disclosing the circumstances of his death involves a miraculous steed. The death of the king “while hunting” would have seemed plausible for his people.

Secondly, in accord with Lukonin’s point of view, the scene may be interpreted in terms of Zoroastrian symbolism. The royal hunting scene features the high godlike values of the king of kings. Fighting with an animal was aimed at the acquisition of its merits. The Avesta texts narrate struggles for the acquisition of certain divine merits personified in different animals: strength, invincibility, good luck, etc. In order to acquire these features it was necessary to catch the animal personification of a god. Lukonin interpreted the hunting scene on the Sar-i Meshhed rock relief as Varahran II’s attainment of royal merit through killing a lion. The Shapur II plate from Freer may be interpreted as a fight for acquiring the role and values of Vretragna, the god of war and victory (Trever, Lukonin, 1987: 56, 57, 59). The zebu bull has been known to be a personification of the “primeval bull,” a Zoroastrian deity (Lukonin, 1977: 209). The Synya plate may have depicted the shah’s fight for the acquisition of the merits of this mythological character.

Another idea may be linked to the Zoroastrian theme. The second Yazdgard plate shows a very unusual deer. Its body displays a specific ornamentation pattern consisting of flowers of two different sizes. The deer itself is of the same height as the shah, its antlers being at the same level with that of the shah’s crown. This may highlight the equality of the shah’s merits with the value and strength of the deity personified in the image of an animal.

Thirdly, K.V. Trever’s opinion about the royal hunting scenes should also be noted. She believed that the shah himself had ordered many such plates. When the shah ordered the depiction of himself fighting with animals, he required his image to be godlike (as in the scene of Mitra killing the primeval bull), struggling for good and light against evil and dark. So the hunting scene may symbolize the dualistic ideological system of Zoroastrianism (Trever, 1939: 247 – 249). The Synya hunting scene showing the shah mounting one bull while striking another resembles the Mitra scene. The British Museum plate depicting Shapur II mounting a deer represents the unique composition in Iranian toreutics. Analogous composition on a stucco panel has been reported from Chal Tarkhan (dating from the second half of the 7th – first half of the 8th centuries). The plate depicts a male deity with a shining halo encircling his head on the back of a deer (Harper, 1978: 116). O. Grabar argued that such compositions might be suggestive of a legend about existing sacrifices analogous to the Mitra theme (Sasanian Silver, 1967: 54 – 55). In such a way, the Synya plate scene may also be interpreted as the sacrifice of a bull. Consequently, the shah might have been perceived as a personification of Mitra.

In sum, this article is focused on the discovery of the first Iranian plate of the Sasanian period found in West Siberia. Prior to the Synya plate, only a paten (discos) plate depicting angels surrounding the cross was reported from this region. The discos-plate was manufactured by Syrians of the Nestorian Christian sect who populated Mesopotamia in the 6th century, the territory which belonged to Iran at that time (Sokrovisha Priobia, 1996: N 25). The Synya plate depicting Yazdgard I and two bulls can be counted among the most brilliant examples of classical Sasanian art. I am sure that the history and interpretation of the enigmas surrounding this artifact will be the focus of research for forthcoming generations.


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