Reviewed By Andreas Zabczyk May 05, 2016 Updated Sep 15, 2017
Achaemenid Gold Jewelry
Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae
One of the greatest ancient civilizations was the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, and encompassed Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Caucasus, Thrace and some parts of India. The capital of the Empire and Cyrus the Great's final resting place was Pasargadae (near modern day Shiraz, Iran), which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ancient accounts of the tomb written by the associates of Alexander the Great describe a golden sarcophagus, necklaces and gold gemstone earrings. It is in Pasargadae, in the garden of a royal palace where artifacts known as the Pasargadae Treasure were found in a ceramic container called an amphora. The Pasargadae Treasure includes gold and silver objects, jewelry and gemstones. A gold and silver beaded necklace was among the jewelry items. There was also a pair of exquisite gold bracelets with ibex head finials, along with a notable pair of intricate gold mesh earrings with lapis lazuli pendants. The lion is a popular motif of the Pasargadae Treasure. Curious drinking or pouring vessels called rhytons were among artifacts of the Achaemenid Empire. These are conical containers with animal-shaped bases which were fashioned from silver, gold and even carved lapis lazuli.
Another ancient capital city and center for the government of the Achaemenid Empire was Persepolis, also near Shiraz in Fars Province of Iran and an additional UNESCO World Heritage Site. This complex was built under Darius the Great; the third ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. The palaces of Persepolis and stone reliefs give historians important clues about Achaemenid society and show how some of the artifacts found were used. It is clear that this ancient civilization took inspiration from other cultures and art, such as that of ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, it is thought that a great deal of the treasure from this and other sites of the Achaemenid Empire was looted by Alexander the Great's troops. Surviving items include a lapis lazuli and paste plaque displaying an eagle.
Oxus Treasure Armlet with Griffin Terminals
The Oxus Treasure is said to be the most significant collection of artifacts from the Achaemenid Empire. The collection is comprised of objects found in the area of the Oxus River, which lies between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, around 1877. Two of the most wonderful items from this find are two gold armlets with winged griffin head terminals. The design of the items indicates that they would have originally had colorful inlay, but the inlay has been lost to the ravages of time. Another bracelet has ram's head terminals and the remnants of turquoise inlay. There is also a bracelet with bull's head terminals and an additional pair of bracelets is embellished with dragons. Several rings, including a lion ring were thought to have originally been inlaid with gems. A signet ring has an intaglio of a crowned figure holding a bird and a flower. All of these are made from solid gold and some of them show similarities with Scythian artifacts.
One of the intriguing things about the Oxus treasure is its story; it was stolen from three traveling merchants who had bought it rather than transport large amounts of cash across the river. The merchants' servant managed to slip away and inform a British officer, Captain Burton, of the theft. The Captain traveled to the area where he found the thieves fighting over the treasure, having cut up some of the items to divide the gold. He recovered a large portion of the items and returned them to the merchants. Captain Burton noticed one of the gold armlets and offered to buy it from the merchants, who agreed. The other pieces were sold in Pakistan and then purchased by collectors who bequeathed or gifted them to the British Museum. Thus, many of the Oxus Treasure items were reunited in the British Museum, where they remain today. However, due to the theft, it is unclear as to the original condition of some of the items and the contents of the original hoard from which the treasure was taken. It is thought that some items were melted down for bullion or lost. Among the pieces of the Oxus Treasure are gold plaques, gold and silver figurines, and a miniature gold horse-drawn chariot.
Gold Earring with Carnelian, Turquoise and Lapis Lazuli Inlay
An exciting find was also made in Susa, which is located in Khuzestan Province of Iran. Susa was occupied by the Achaemenids for a time, but it is not completely clear whether the artifacts came from this time or another period. The find consisted of a mostly intact tomb, complete with a bronze sarcophagus, in which rested the remains of a human and other objects of interest. The skeleton was wearing a great deal of jewelry. Gold earrings found at this site were elaborately inlaid with lapis lazuli and turquoise in a petal-like formation.
As can be seen from the geographical extent of the Achaemenid Empire, it was one of the greatest ancient civilizations, the scale of which was enormous. The Achaemenid Empire peaked during the rule of Darius the Great, who occupied important cities such as Pasargadae, Persepolis and Babylon. Sadly, Darius III was murdered by the Satrap of Bactria, and the extensive society that he had ruled over was conquered by another ancient leader; Alexander III of Macedon, whose victory over Asia Minor led to his becoming King of Persia at the age of 25. The vast kingdom of ancient Greece led by Alexander the Great stretched across three continents. After his death, a lack of unity was a weakness that led to the rise of the Romans.
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