BMCR 2008.08.20

Achaemenid Culture and Local Traditions in Anatolia, Southern Caucasus and Iran: New Discoveries

, , Achaemenid culture and local traditions in Anatolia, Southern Caucasus and Iran : new discoveries. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. 1 online resource (154 pages, 15 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations (some color), maps. ISBN 9789047423980. €89.00 / $119.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Dedicated to the memory of one of the giants of Georgian archaeology, Otar Lordkipanidze, Achaemenid Culture and Local Traditions in Anatolia, Southern Caucasus and Iran: New Discoveries represents the transactions of the third conference on “Caucasian Iberia and its Neighbours in the Achaemenid and Post-Achaemenid Period” held in October 2006 in Georgia.1 The archaeology of the Caucasus within the wider Achaemenid world is the theme of six papers; two papers address respectively Achaemenid-period western Anatolia and eastern Iran, the two major contact areas for the Caucasus.

The formative impact of the Achaemenid Empire on its further regions and peripheries has increasingly been a topic of research of late; this is one of three volumes on the subject to come out in the past year.2 To some degree new archaeological discoveries, like those presented here, drive the upswing of interest; but the root cause is more to be found in other factors, like the modern desire to push at the edges of traditional academic boundaries, changes in national senses of historical heritage, and developments in the world of international politics. The surprise is that the Achaemenid Empire was so under-studied for so long, as it lasted for over 200 years, and was the first truly international empire of west Asia and Europe.

Lâtife Summerer launches the book, pursuing her important discovery that the painted wooden beams in Munich derive from a tomb at Tatarli near Kelainai in western Turkey.3 This article focuses on the battle imagery from the 2.21 x .32 m. beam cut from the tomb’s east long wall. Summerer’s detailed description enhances understanding of the 20 excellent colour photographs by Kai-Uwe Nielsen; though paint in red, blue, white and grey is preserved, details are not always easy to distinguish. Persians with rounded tiaras (archers, cavalry ranks in rider dress, and chariot moving right) battle “nomads” with pointed hats (archers on foot and horseback moving left); the Persians seem to be winning. Arguing that a historical battle is not depicted,4 Summerer points out that the rhetoric differs from elsewhere in the west, where Greek-like figures are consistently the defeated enemy, and suggests (p.21) that the Tatarli frieze attests to an Iranian tradition hitherto preserved only in glyptic. The tomb’s importance to Achaemenid studies lies in the appearance of Persian iconography in a tomb of the native Phrygian type: ethnic Phrygians embrace imperial imagery and themes.

The first of three field reports, by Ilyas Babaev, Iulon Gagoshidze, and Florian S. Knauss, outlines the first season of excavation in 2006 by the joint German, Georgian and Azeri team at Qarajamirli in Azerbaijan. The sober tone belies the excitement of the discovery of what promises to be another major building with Achaemenid features (orthogonal plan, colonnaded halls, with stone bell-shaped column bases). The columns are so similar to those of Gumbati in neighbouring Georgia that the authors suggest a common origin in a workshop near Qarajamirli, the probable source of the stone (p.33). Associated finds confirm the date to the Achaemenid period; it was previously unoccupied and after a peaceful abandonment was occasionally visited by people using ceramics characteristic of 4th c. BC Georgia and not previously attested here. The authors observe that Azerbaijan is essentially archaeological terra incognita; one would expect to be able to identify here an Achaemenid presence and a local response, in view of the evidence for both in Georgia to the north-west. Further excavation and survey at Qarajamirli are planned, and promise important new chapters in provincial Achaemenid studies.

Jens Nieling similarly presents the results of the first season of excavation (2004) of Dongus Tapa, a site in Eastern Georgia. Dongus Tapa is deemed interesting in its deviation from the pattern of destruction and abandonment of Iron Age sites in Eastern Georgia in the 7th c. B.C., though it is premature to speculate about the causes for the deviation. Extensive surface remains of stone house walls within a walled citadel bespeak some scale and planning; limited sampling yields ceramics of the late 7th c. or perhaps a little later. Nieling points to its strategic location, suggesting that the settlement served as a “relay station and watch tower,” both important functions even in a predominantly pastoral economic system.

Vakhtang Licheli present an overview of cultural relations revealed in the burials from the necropolis at Atskuri in southern Georgia. Material evidence attests to communication both west (Greek ceramics from the 6th c. and the Hellenistic period) and south (Iranian ceramics from 5th and 4th c.). As of yet no elite “palace style” arts have been recovered, but local versions of Persian ideas are seen in jewellery of the 4th to 3rd centuries. In ceramic, one local bowl has four lobes akin to the material discussed in the following article by Treister.5 An intriguing instance of religious syncretism is found in the inclusion of a bull in the wealthiest burial, Grave 2004-5. Whereas placing the head of a bull at the east end of a grave is attested in Bronze Age and Early Iron Age trans-Caucasia, Licheli identifies the burial of an entire bull as evidence of the strengthening of the Iranian cult of Mithras. In sum, Atskuri provides an interesting type-case of emerging local traditions that over the long term show traces of contact with the Achaemenid world, but that remain too remote to be an active player within it.

Mikhail Yu. Treister offers a wide-ranging and learned discussion of metalware vessels in tackling the challenging task of isolating and defining the development of the toreutic tradition in Colchis. His presentation is greatly enhanced by clear distribution maps. Arguing that the Colchian school of toreutic emerged from previous south Caucasus traditions about the mid 5th c. as a result of exposure to toreutic products of Achaemenid Anatolia, Treister sets as his points of departure a silver globular aryballos from Vani previously identified as East Greek/Lydian,6 and a silver goblet from the Kuban region. The latter becomes an example of the export of Achaemenidizing Georgian toreutic northward into the Kuban. One would not contest the ascription of the distinctive four almond-shaped petals separated by lotus flowers at the bottom of each vessel as a Georgian development, nor the vertical rows of notches for fur in figural scenes. The argument that the “goblets with egg-shaped bodies” actually originated in western Anatolia would require examples of a local prototype to convince this reader; the argument for shape borrowing is much stronger for the aryballos.

Amiran Kakhidze adds to the small but highly significant corpus of glass kohl bottles imported into Georgia from northwest Iran, their presumed locus of manufacture, with two new examples from burials of the second quarter of the fifth century at Pichvnari. The new examples are important for adding precision to the chronology of the vessel type (Barag in 1975 had to date stylistically as he knew only three examples with archaeological provenance); and for attesting to the introduction of “Persian manners” at a section of the cemetery characterised as Greek. It is all the more interesting that Iranian kohl bottles were found at Pichnvari and Vani cheek by jowl with Greek-form glass perfume bottles directly imported from the Mediterranean. Kakhidze suggests that the route of importation for the kohl bottles was from the East, by land, and notes that importation continues longer in eastern than western Georgia.

Six seals judged to be Achaemenid and found in Georgia are published by Ketevan Dzhavakhishvili. All seals but one have colour photographs, which show the stone well but lack the crispness of detail required for close stylistic study. Their number may seem small but the fact that each has a known provenance greatly enhances their value. Yet Dzhavakhishvili rightly stresses that three come from Roman period burials and that even the others have post-Persian contexts. The seals include one agate cylinder and a good range of chalcedony stamp seals: conical, pyramidal, a tabloid, and two scaraboids. The white chalcedony pyramidal seal from Mtskheta features a winged master grasping two outward-facing winged lions by the tail, analogous in composition to an octagonal sealing from Persepolis, presumably also from a pyramidal seal.7 Both the scaraboids are judged to come from Boardman’s “Bern Group” and to post-date the Achaemenid period. Indeed, Dzhavakhishvili tellingly observes that Georgia also yields “numerous finds of locally manufactured seals of the Achaemenian cultural circle” dating 4th c. B.C. to 1st c. AD.

The volume ends with a contribution from east Iran (ancient Drangiana) near the border with Afghanistan: Dahaneh-ye Gholaman, an extensive one-period site of the 6th-5th c. with a peaceful abandonment. An Italian team investigated it in the 1960s. Excavation of a very large building (ca. 2500 m 2) has resumed since 2000 under the direction of the author, Mansur Seyyed Sajjadi. Several features prompt the building’s interpretation as “a sacred structure, which served for the production of some unknown ritual items and materials” (p. 132).8 One of the 36 long narrow chambers that flank the courtyard (room 25) features a construction interpreted as an altar, perhaps for Anahita. Here the plastered wall surfaces were found to have been painted; black outline images in a schematic linear style against a once-white background, with some traces of red. The images await proper cleaning and conservation for ready visibility, but some elements can be distinguished: a boar(?) hunt from a chariot (2 x .8 m) and a Bactrian camel (.5 x .4 m). High up in the doorway between rooms 23 and 24 a scene (.55 x .35 m.) was incised: a horse bearing a sedan approaches a steep flight of stairs with something on top. Sajjadi suggests that these informal works show a knowledge of Persepolis and Pasargadae and so, also, testify to the transmissions of ideas between centre and periphery.9

Some common themes emerge from these studies: the longevity of the Achaemenid imprint on local cultures, the variability of syncretistic expression, and the probability of direct communication between Lydia and Colchis in the Achaemenid period. More editorial intervention might have enhanced their collective impact. For example, if pyramidal and tabloid seals are products of western Anatolia, their appearance in Georgia as described by Dzhavakhishvili parallels and supports Treister’s discussion of toreutics. The decorative stucco from Dahaneh-ye Gholaman in Iran published by Sajjadi looks sufficiently like the under-side of lobed bowls with interspersed lotus that it could provide another eastern example to Treister. It is particularly valuable to get advances in Caucasian archaeology in an accessible language, although it is unfortunate that no native English speaker assisted in the editing; there are infelicities and the occasional obscurity in the text. The book is attractively produced and amply illustrated, with 15 pages of colour illustrations at the end in addition to drawings and black and white photographs throughout the text.

The editors express a hope that the publication “will shed new light on the question of relations between the centre and the outlying areas in the culture of the empire of the Achaemenids and the regions adjoining it” (p.2). The eight contributions both testify to the range of ways in which archaeology can contribute to the question of cultural relations and also advance their respective fields of research. We are not yet in a position to generate a global transformational grammar in cultural reception to guide our attempts to read the contribution of archaeology to empire studies; but collections like this certainly move us towards such a goal.


Askold Ivantchik, Vakhtang Licheli, “Introduction” (1-2)

Lâtife Summerer, “Picturing Persian Victory: The Painted Battle Scene on the Munich Wood” (3-30)

Ilyas Babaev, Iulon Gagoshidze, and Florian S. Knauss, “An Achaemenid ‘Palace’ at Qarajamirli (Azerbaijan). Preliminary Report on the Excavations in 2006” (31-45)

Jens Nieling, “Dongus Tapa — An Iron Age Settlement in the Udabno-Steppe, Eastern Kakheti” (47-54)

Vakhtang Licheli, “Oriental Innovations in Samtskhe (Southern Georgia) in the 1st Millennium BC” (55-66)

Mikhail Yu. Treister, “The Toreutics of Colchis in the 5th-4th Centuries B.C. Local Traditions, Outside Influences, Innovations” (67-107)

Amiran Kakhidze, “Iranian Glass Perfume Vessel from the Pichvnari Greek Cemetery of the Fifth Century BC” (109-115)

Ketevan Dzhavakhishvili, “Achaemenid Seals Found in Georgia” (117-128)

S. Mansur Seyyed Sajjadi, “Wall Painting from Dahaneh-ye Gholaman (Sistan)” (129-154)


1. The book represents the print publication of one issue of the journal Ancient Civilisations from Scythia to Siberia 13.3-4 (2007), also available electronically by subscription.

2. The other two, also based on conferences, are I. Delemen, ed., 2007, The Achaemenid Impact on Local Populations and Cultures in Anatolia (Sixth-Fourth Centuries B.C.) (Istanbul) and C. Tuplin, ed., 2008, Persian responses: political and cultural interaction with(in) the Achaemenid Empire (Swansea).

3. Published in “From Tatarli to Munich: The Recovery of a Painted Wooden Tomb Chamber in Phrygia,” in Delemen 2007 (see n. 2) 131-158. The beams are provisionally dated dendrochronologically to ca. 478.

4. As she notes, Calmeyer, who originally published the beams, had urged a specific historical moment in the Scythian campaigns of Darius (“Zwei mit historischen Szenen bemalte Balken der Achaemenidenzeit,” Münchener Jahrbuch für Bildende Kunst 43 [1993] 7-18).

5. Licheli p.64 seems to date the Ikiztepe material to the 7th c., but this may be a matter of mis-expression or simple typographical error.

6. Treister notes that the aryballos had a stopper attached by chains to its duck-handles (n.1); the detail offers a further parallel with the material from Ikiztepe whose inscribed incense burner was linked by chain to its cover (Lydian Treasure cat. no. 71, noted by Treister for the parallel of plastic ducks). This of course also appears on the incense-burners of the Persepolis audience reliefs.

7. Persepolis PFS 1321s: M. Garrison and M.C. Root, 2001, Seals on the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, I: Images of Heroic Encounter (Chicago) cat. no. 176, pl. 97, with an attested use in 495 BC which supports Dzhavakhishvili’s date of the Mtskheta seal.

8. It is not easy to correlate the description with the plans provided; the curious 18 m. long corridors separated by walls that incorporate rows of columns are presumably the lines at the N(E) of the courtyard, rather than SE, as stated on p.145.

9. Also published in S.M.S. Sajjado and F.S. Moghaddam, “Peintures et gravures murales découvertes à Dahan-e Gholaman, Sistan,” Studia Iranica 33 (2004) 285-296, but without the helpful plan of the excavated building (here fig. 3a) or the splendid colour photographs of this volume: fig. 21, a view of the hunt, and fig. 26, a colour drawing of the hunter with his bow in the chariot.