Chariot of fire

Carolyn Perry

(Photograph) - This small gold artefact represents a starting point to uncover what we know about a lost civilisation, writes Carolyn Perry

This miniature chariot of gold is part of a mysterious treasure: the story of its discovery unfolds like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie, and is still a subject of debate today. Of ancient Persian workmanship, the small sculpture dates from the 5th or 4th century BC. This was the time of the Achaemenid empire, created by King Cyrus the Great, when Persians controlled a vast area ranging from Egypt and the Aegean in the west to Afghanistan and the Indus Valley in the east.

The treasure, of which this chariot is the most famous piece, was found on the River Oxus (known nowadays as Amu Darya) in modern Tadjikistan. The chariot is generally called a model because it so faithfully represents the type of vehicle used at that time by a people called the Medes. The Medes, who used to be proverbial in English, in the saying "according to the laws of the Medes and Persians", were from Iran, the centre of the Achaemenid empire; the figures in the chariot are wearing typically Median dress.

The huge Persian empire was made up of a variety of different peoples who are generally differentiated in court art by their modes of attire. The driver wears a belted tunic, a typical Median cap and a necklace or torc of gold wire. The other person is clearly one of some status. He is seated sideways on a gold bench wearing a full-length robe. He also wears a cap and torc. Comparing this with other depictions of chariots, we can see how chariots were used by people of high rank.

Chariots are shown on seals, reliefs at the palace of Persepolis in Iran, and in the famous Alexander mosaic in Naples where Alexander on horseback does battle with the Persian king who rides in a chariot with a driver. The fact that this one is in gold clearly demonstrates that it would have belonged to a member of the elite. It is pulled by four small horses, so carefully depicted that it has been possible to identify their breed: the Nissaean. Unfortunately, of the horses' legs, just nine survived.

The front of the chariot is decorated with an image of the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes, a popular protective deity often associated with children.

This has led some scholars to speculate that the chariot was originally connected with a child, as a toy, grave goods or a temple offering.

However, it seems just as likely that this was an offering made by a soldier for protection in battle. Since we do not know the answer the chariot offers an excellent starting point for debate on how to interpret archaeological finds.

The Oxus treasure itself is also a rich topic for discussion. The most important surviving collection of Achaemenid Persian metalwork, it consists of about 170 objects, dating mainly from the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Because the objects originated over such a long period of time, we can speculate that the treasure took a long time to accumulate. Some scholars have suggested, therefore, that this was perhaps a temple treasury or collection of offerings. It contains vessels, a gold scabbard, model chariots and figures, armlets, seals, finger-rings, miscellaneous personal objects, dedicatory plaques and coins.

It was found on the banks of the River Oxus, probably at the site of Takht-i Kuwad, a ferry station on the north bank of the river. In May 1880, bandits captured three merchants in the process of taking precious objects to Peshawar, presumably for sale. Luckily, their servant escaped and found Captain Burton, a British political officer serving in Afghanistan. Burton discovered the bandits holding the merchants prisoner in a cave. They were quarrelling about how to divide up the treasure, and four had been wounded in the argument. Burton threatened to return with a large force, so the bandits gave back about three-quarters of the treasure to the merchants.

The freed merchants were so grateful that they let Burton buy a gold armlet from them.

Other pieces from the treasure subsequently emerged in the bazaars of Rawalpindi and gradually made their way into private collections. Traveller and collector Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks amassed as much as he could and eventually it was bequeathed by him to The British Museum.

This long journey across space and time from the river bank to the museum raises many questions for scholars and curators. We do not know how much of what is now in the museum was part of the original group, and how much was added by dealers along the way. We also do not know the exact location where it was found, and what happened to it between being discovered and coming into the hands of the merchants. For these reasons, the Oxus Treasure is a useful tool for teachers who wish to discuss several aspects of museum collecting and the light it sheds on what we know of the past, from the issue of provenance to the roles played by dealers and private collectors.

As well as being one of the most beautiful objects in the treasure, the chariot is also helpful for dating and ascertaining provenance, since it has parallels in other media. Its value lies not only in the light it sheds on an aspect of vanished Persian civilisation, but also when considering what we can understand of the past from material remains.

Carolyn Perry is director of programmes at MBI International

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Carolyn Perry

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