Scythians (900 – 200 BCE) and Achaemenid Persians (550-330 BCE)

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Gold plaque with panther
Golden plaques
Scythian comb
Bronze culture plaque (ordos)
Gold neckpiece (pectoral)
Golden crown
Achaemenid Persians:
Cyrus the Great – winged guardian
Gold rhyton
Bracelet – from Oxus Treasure
Apadana relief – Darius and Xerxes
Apadana relief – Ambassadors
Ahura Mazda relief
Bull, Huma and Horse capitals
Persepolis Gateway
Frieze of the Archers, Susa
Lion rhyton
Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis
Tomb of Xerxes I


Scythian Empire map c 4th c BCE
Image source: pinterest.com

The Scythians were a nomadic people that dominated the Pontic steppe from about the 7th to the 3rd c BCE. They were probably of Persian origin, with a branch of the Iranian language and religion. They were masters of mounted warfare. In the 7thc BCE they crossed the Caucaus into the Middle East, expanding towards Egypt.

Scythians played an important part in the Silk Road, the trade network connecting Greece, Persia, India and China. Defeat by the Macedonians in the 4th c BCE began their decline.

The Scythians worked in a wide variety of materials such as bronze and iron, silver, gold (natural occuring amalgam of silver and gold), leather and bone, and wood. Their clothes and horse-trappings were often sewn with small plaques fabricated in metal and other materials. Larger plaques were thought to be used to decorate shields or wagons.


Scythian gold plaque depicting a panther, probably fabricated for a shield or breast-plate. It is 33 cm long, and dated to the end 7th c BCE.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Scythian gold plaques depicting the resurrection of a dead hero. Dated to the 5th c BCE they are on show at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.
Scythian golden comb that is suggested was fabricated by Greeks, though based upon Scythian taste, thus a feature of Silk Road trading. This was found at Solokha, Ukraine and is dated to the early 4th c BCE. It is on show at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A Scythian bronze ‘Ordos culture’ plaque depicting a a deer being attacked by a wolf. It is dated to the 4th c BCE.
The Ordos culture was from the extreme eastern part of Scythian rule and later will have come under the control of Qin and Han Chinese.
Scythian pectoral, or neckpiece made in gold. Found in a royal kurgan or tumulus, near Pokrov, Ukraine. It is dated to the second half of the 4th c BCE.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A royal crown from Tillia tepe (literally meaning ‘Golden Hill’ or ‘Golden Mound’),an archaeological site in the northern Afghanistan province of Jowzjan near Sheberghan.

The hoard discovered is often known as the ‘Bactrian gold’. a collection of about 20,600 ornaments, coins and other kinds of artifacts, made of gold, silver, ivory… that were found in six burial mounds (five women and one man) with extremely rich jewelry, dated to around the 1st c BCE-1st c CE. It is on show at the Musée Guimet, Paris France.


Achaemenid Empire c 490 BCE

The Achaemenids were originally nomadic, but founded a large ancient empire based in Western Asia and then settled in the SW Iranian Plateau. It was originally founded by Cyrus II (aka the Great) and stretched from the Indus Valley to Libya, from the Red Sea to the Black Sea. It was larger than any prior empire in the world at 5.5m sq kms (2.1m square miles).

It ran as a centralised, bureaucratic administration, with a King of Kings, with satraps appointed to run the many regions. It built road systems and established a postal system. This was effected by establishing an official language, a civil service and a large professional army.


Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

It was Cyrus the Great, who ruled from 559-530 BCE, founded the Achaemenid Empire. Inscriptions define the king’s ethnicity and his rank in three languages.
This relief depicts him as a winged guardian figure, its style mimics the Egyptian approach to presenting the human body. His tomb also has a geometric mound resembling a stepped pyramid form the Pre-Dynastic Egyptians. Cultures were intermingling.
Achaemenids also incorporated techniques from other cultures, for example, in working gold, thought to be adopted from the Medes.
A popular surving item is the rhyton, or ceremonial drinking cup. These were items that the Aegean and Greek cultures, notably Mycenaeans, had been using since the 16th c BCE
This Scythian gold rhyton has a stylized ram’s head in relief.

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

The Oxus Treasure, so called because it was found beside the Oxus river, consists of 180 pieces of gold and silver reliefs, figurines , and jewellery, with some 200 coins. They date between 6th and 4th c BCE. The treasure clearly illustrates the variety types of metal working during the early Persian Empire.
This griffin-themed bracelet is one of a pair that is a V&A artefact on loan to the British Museum that displays it with other parts of the Oxus Treasure.

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com
Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, it was begun by Darius I and completed by Xerxes. The true capitals were capitals were Susa, Babylon and Ecbatana. Perspolis is located about 70 kilometers NE of today’s Shiraz, Persepolis is a wide, elevated complex 12m high, 30m wide, and 180m long. It is decorated with reliefs of nature and daily life. One interesting feature is the audience hall of Apadana, where the king received tribute from his twenty-three vassal nations. It had thirty-six 20m high fluted columns with capitals sculpted into unique forms. Its ‘Treasure Relief’ friezes illustrate the power of the king and scenes from across his empire.

Image source: Wikimedia commons Image source: thecollector.com
The central relief of the Persepolis Apadana shows Darius I seated and his heir Xerxes stood behind him, There are guards and courtiers present as he receives ambassadors from around his empire. The smaller picture is an illustration of how the Apadana looked.

Image sources: Wikimedia commons, the collector.com, pbase.com
Three reliefs above show delegations arriving at the Apadama. At the top Lydians and Armenians bring tributes of a stallion and their wines. The Greek historian Strabo suggests Darius received 20,000 colts from the Armenians. The middle shows the Nubians bring an elephant’s tusk and an okapi. The bottom shows Susians bringing a much prized lioness and two cubs.Indians brough gold and buffaloes.

The Zoroastrian creator god, Ahura Mazda, shown in relief at Persepolis. Inscriptions state it was he ‘who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king of many, one lord of many
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image sources: Wikimedia commons

Achaemenids had little direct experience of stone architecture, but imported artists and craftsmen from around their empire. This developed a hybrid style from Elam, Egypt, Lydia and Mesopotamia.

As a result Persepolis had distinctive columns and ornate capitals for its columns. As these pictures show, these were bulls, huma birds and horses. The mytical huma bird is said never to land, living its entire life flying invisibly high above the earth. Some sources suggest it is a griffin.
The ruins of the gateway into Persepolis, known as the Xerxes’ Gate or the Gate of All Nations.
Image source: Trip Advisor

Image source: digitalmapsoftheancientworld.com

A polychrome glazed brick frieze at Darius’ Great Palace in Susa. These have glazes of brown, green, white and yellow. The full frieze depicts two symmetrical lines of archers (or soldiers). These may or may not be the royal guards of Darius, the ‘immortals’ referenced by Herodotus. It is on show at the Louvre, it suggestd that the technique may have been inspired by those developed and used for the Processional Way in Babylon, constructed by Nebuchadnezar II.
This Achaemenid Lion Rhyton is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA and is dated to 500 BCE.
Image source: digitalmapsoftheancientworld.com

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Naqsh-e Rustam was the necropolis for the Achaemenid dynasty located 12 km NW of Persepolis.
There is a damaged 1,000 BCE relief that is thought to be Elamite. This relief was considered locally to be a depiction of the mythical hero Rustam, who was immortalized by the 10th c Persian poet Ferdowsi in Shahnameh (Epic of Kings). This details pre-Islamic Iranian folklore and history. His name was applied to the site, Naqsh-e Rustam.
One tomb is clearly identified as that of Darius I (ruled c522-486 BCE), the other three are believed to be those of Xerxes (c486-465 BCE), Artaxerxes I (c465-424 BC), and Darius II (c423-404 BC). A fifth tomb was unfinished, perhaps intended for Artaxerxes II (reigned less than two years) or Darius III (the last Achaemenid king). The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great.

Image source: digitalmapsoftheancientworld.com
The Achaemenid Tomb of Xerxes I at Naqsh-e Rustam.

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