Cup with Goats

With its thumb rest and bulbous body narrowing at the neck, this cup is made in a style normally associated with Turkic steppe peoples (Marshak 1971, 142). However, technical evidence suggests that it was made by Sogdian artisans, and was most likely intended as a tribute item for the Türks. Sogdiana’s political system consisted of city-states largely independent of one another. Each city was walled to protect itself against foreign incursions, the most frequent of which came from the northern steppe tribes, who would periodically raid Sogdian territories. To insure against these unpredictable forays, Sogdian kings brokered alliances with their neighbors, who required tribute goods to be offered in exchange for peaceful relations. Now in the State Hermitage Museum, this cup was found by chance in the mouth of the River Don near the Sea of Azov in present-day Russia, which constitutes good evidence that it travelled northwestward from Sogdiana along the steppe.

The incisions made in the large roundels link this cup to Sogdian metalworking techniques. It is made by hammering a sheet of silver to give it the right shape and relief motifs, a method also called repoussé. The front of the design was refined by chasing the silver, and effects were used to bring relief to the decoration, such as a ring-punched pattern for the background of the top register, and gilding in select areas to highlight important features.

The decoration of the cup reinforces the idea that it was made in the Turkic taste. The thumb rest features two wrestlers grappling (Figs.2,3). Wrestling, or kurash, was a sport practiced by Turkic peoples across the Eurasia continent, and this popular form of entertainment would perhaps have been enjoyed while drinking from this cup. Mountain goats, also called ibexes, are featured within the four large roundels. The Siberian ibex, similar to the bouquetin, lives in high terrains of central and northern Asia, including the regions of Sogdiana, Kazakhstan and south-central Russia, and were therefore probably familiar animals to the peoples of the steppe. Males have large curved horns with relief rings, details that can also be observed on the ibexes represented on the cup. The ibexes are standing on rocks, and boughs sprout over their backs. Scarves are tied around their necks, and one of them has a bell. In Iranian hunting practices, the goat with a bell served as the herd leader, while the ones with ribbons on their necks were used for luring game to the king’s hunting ground (Marshak 1971 36-7).

As one of the most widespread forms of material culture from the region, Sogdian metalwork allows for relatively reliable dating and iconographic analysis. What is interesting in this case is that while several Iranian motifs were incorporated into Sogdian traditions of metalwork and can be traced on this cup, artisans also adapted their products to suit Turkic taste, thus ensuring smooth diplomatic relations with their neighbors.

Bibliography

Маrshak, Б. И, and Gosudarstvennyĭ Ėrmitazh. 1971.Согдийское серебро: очерки по восточной торевтике [Sogdian Silver]. Москва: Наука.

Metadata

Date

8th century

Coverage

Sogdiana

Format

Cup

Dimensions

H. 7.3cm × W. 12 cm

Materials

Chased, engraved and gilded silver

Location

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Inv. S–251

Additional Research Metadata

Description

The form of this cup with its rounded body, low cylindrical neck and handle with a thumbpiece, was borrowed by Sogdian masters from the culture of the ancient Turks. The mountain goats are set in large roundels with incisions,
a technique traditional to one school of Sogdian metalwork. On the neck we see the alternation, traditional in Sogdian art, of leafy and branchy ‘tousled’ palmettes (formed of a single trunk from which three-part half-palmettes emerge with petals pointing outwards), but instead of a trunk they have a hoop and the petals of the palmettes face inwards. Presumably the maker wished to demonstrate his individuality.
Cups of this kind were popular amongst the peoples of the steppes, who were drawn not only by the traditional form but by the depiction of familiar animals and complex vegetable ornament.

Provenance

Chance find in the mouth of the River Don near Azov; acquired 1927

Sources

Darkevich 1976, p. 56, no. 114, pl. 9.1–3; Expedition Silk Road, p. 208, no. 142; pl 57, 59

Citation

“Cup with Goats,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed August 9, 2020, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/items/show/101.