Statuettes of Musicians

There have been numerous archaeological finds of clay figurines depicting musicians, such as these, deities, riders on horses, camels, and other animals, in the regions that were once Sogdiana (Staviskiy 1968, 298). Baked clay figurines are known to have existed in Central Asia since the Neolithic epoch and the Bronze Age (second and fourth millennia before the common era) and the earliest clay or terracotta figurines in the Samarkand oasis region date to between the second and first centuries before the common era (Lukonin and Ivanov 2012, 70; Kidd 2003, 35). Dating to the first century of the common era, these statuettes of musicians are among those earliest figurines in Sogdiana, possibly from Samarkand (Hermitage Amsterdam 2014, 201).

Figurines dated between the fifth century and the beginning of the eighth century of the common era are found again in Samarkand, corresponding to the era of peak Sogdian prominence (Kidd 2003, 37). The later period clay figures were common until after the Muslim conquests and Islam put an end to them.Clay figures such as these were typically crafted in a mold, baked, and colored with a coating, most often red. These statuettes have “Sogdian” facial features similar to those found on other sculptures and figurines including wide eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, and a flat nose, and for men, a long twisted mustache and pointed beard (Lukonin and Ivanov 2012, 66-77). Clay figures such these have also been used as a rich source for costume studies of Sogdiana and other regions of Central Asia (Kidd 2003, 36).  

Musician figurines show a variety of instruments being played, including flutes, drums, cymbals, and different types of lutes, or stringed instruments (Liu 2011, 60; Turnbill 1981, 197-199). These particular statuettes of musicians show two different types of flutes, one played horizontally and the other played vertically, and a lute player. Lutes could be be played either by finger-plucking or by being struck using a plectra, a tool similar to a contemporary guitar pick. Although this musician figurine playing the lute is plucking with fingers or a plectra, there is also evidence that the strings were played by producing friction, similar to the manner in which a bow is used on a violin (Turnbill 1981, 197-199). The Sogdian lute was related to the Persian barbat, the Afghan setar, the Arab uda, the European pipa, and the Japanese biwa (Hermitage Amsterdam 2014, 201). 

These three statuettes were acquired by archaeologist N. I. Veselovsky from Mirza Bukharin, a merchant from Samarkand, in 1885 (Hermitage Amsterdam 2014, 201; Vambéry 1906, 83). The figurines were then acquired from the Archaeological Commission, from Boris Kastalsky in 1937, and are now housed at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.


Hermitage Amsterdam. 2014. Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. St. Petersburg: State Hermitage Museum.

Kidd, Fiona J. 2003. “Costume of the Samarkand Region of Sogdiana between the 2nd/1st Century B.C.E. and the 4th century C.E..” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series 17: 35-69.

Liu, Xinru. 2011. “A Silk Road Legacy: The Spread of Buddhism and Islam.” Journal of World History 22 (1): 55-81.

Lukonin, Vladimir and Anatoly Ivanov. 2012. Central Asian Art. New York, NY: Parkstone International.

Staviskiy, B. 1968 “The Study of Kushan Central Asia and Some Questions Concerning the Chronology of the Kushan in Soviet Historical Science.” In Papers on the Date of Kaniska: Submutted to the Conference on the Date of Kaniska, London, 20-22 April, 1960, edited by Arthur Llewellyn Basham, 293-?. Leiden, NL: E.J. Brill.

Turnbill, Harvey. “A Sogdian friction-chordophone” in Music and Tradition: Essays on Asian and Other Musics Presented to Laurence Picken, edited by D.R. Widdess and R.F. Wolpert, 197-208. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.



First century CE


Samarkand (?), Sogdiana




9×5 cm; 12.3×5.1 cm; 4.5×3.5 cm; 11×7 cm


Clay, stamped in a mould, engobe, fired.


State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Inv. A–694, SA–44, SA–101, SA–383

Additional Research Metadata


A large number of musicians feature among the terracotta statuettes made in Antiquity and found on the territory of Afrasiab (Samarkand), capital of Sogdiana. They play the harp, the drums, the cymbals, but most frequently of all they play the lute and different kinds of flute. These seem to represent a typical Middle Eastern ensemble: wall paintings in East Turkestan indicate that the same kind of ensemble was found along the Silk Road, reaching China in the 5th to 6th centuries. The most popular local instrument in Middle Asia was the lute, the Sogdian variation of which – a threeor four-stringed instrument with a broad body, short neck and head bent back – was related to the Persian barbat, the Afghan setar, the Arab uda, the European lute, the Chinese pipa and the Japanese biwa.


1885 acquired by N. I. Veselovsky from the merchant Mirza Bukharin; from the Archaeological Commission (A–694); 1937 from coll. Boris Kastalsky (SA–44, SA–101, SA–383)


Vyzgo 1980



“Statuettes of Musicians,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed July 2, 2020,