Fluted cup with ring handle decorated with animal heads

With its flaring body, beaded rings and thumb rest, this cup is an excellent example of Sogdian traditions of metalwork. The octagonal foot is framed by ring-punched decoration, and the cup’s thumb rest features two animal heads in profile. This cup was excavated in Luoyang, China, together with a decorated lobed bowl, but the two objects were subsequently separated. They are now reunited at the Freer Gallery of Art, and are the only two objects in the collection with a traceable origin in Sogdiana.

In the seventh and eighth century, the cosmopolitan area of Samarkand, where this cup was most likely produced, was known for its luxury metalwork that drew on the artistic styles of Sasanian Iran. Hammering silver using repoussé and chasing techniques created the desired shape and volume, while the alternating gold stripes were obtained using mercury gilding, a method in which mercury is mixed with gold, forming a mixture that is applied to the surface of an object. The object is then heated at a temperature sufficient for the mercury to evaporate, leaving a thin and steadfast coat of gold on its surface.

Because of their large ears, the two animal heads on the thumb rest have commonly been identified as elephants, which would attest to connections with the Indian subcontinent (Fig.2). However, the lack of trunk or tusks could also point to a representation of senmurvs, Iranian mythical flying creatures found on several other examples of Sogdian silver. These include a banner finial and a round dish. The thumb rests of other known pieces of metalwork from the region typically feature human figures, either in profile or drinking from a shallow cup, or abstract floral motifs.

Cups such as this are one of the most widespread forms of Sogdian silver, attesting to the importance of its drinking culture. The Sogdians were known for their production of wine from fermented grapes, both in western Chinese territories and at home (Valenstein 2014, 15-16). Banquet scenes are a staple of mural paintings, which often show a host and his guests enjoying fine food and drink (Figs.3,4). These could be actual representations of the daily activities of wealthy Sogdians, or renderings of the aspirations of common citizens for a good and pleasurable life.

Made in a Sogdian city, this cup traveled over 2,500 miles eastward to reach Luoyang, where it was found. It was presumably traded through Sogdian merchant networks, or gifted as part of a diplomatic mission to the Tang court in nearby Chang’an. These types of metal wares were extremely influential in China, were recognized for their high level of craftsmanship, and their shapes and decors were subsequently reproduced and adapted to suit local tastes. This transformation testifies to the prestige that these goods carried with them across borders.

Bibliography

Valenstein, Suzanne. 2014. Cosmopolitanism in the Tang Dynasty: A Chinese Ceramic Figure of a Sogdian Wine Merchant. Los Angeles: Bridge 21 Publications.

Metadata

Date

c. 700

Dimensions

6.3 x 8.7 x 7.1 cm (2 1/2 x 3 7/16 x 2 13/16 in)

Materials

Cup, silver with gilding

Location

Freer Gallery of Art F2012.1, purchase

Additional Research Metadata

Provenance

Said to be found at Luoyang Chach ?, 8th c

Sources

pl 80

Citation

“Fluted cup with ring handle decorated with animal heads,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed August 9, 2020, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/items/show/120.