Cup with Birds and Vegetation

Figure 1: artist's rendering

Figure 1: artist's rendering Download

Along the Silk Road and the surrounding areas, silver was as much a commodity as silk (Lurje, “Exchange” 2014). It was used for trade in the form of coins, art in the form of ornaments, and practical items such as decorative cups. These cups were popular with steppe people because of the decorative motifs of familiar flora and fauna (Lurje, “Catalogue” 2014). Furthermore, the poly-lobed style of the cup was popular, as can be seen in a collection of similar cups dating to about the eighth century (Marshak 1971). They were so popular, in fact, that imitations were often made in clay and vegetal motifs were incorporated into Chinese artwork (Torgoev 2014).

In addition to a bird and vegetation motif, this silver cup, featured at the State Hermitage Museum, has a distinctive formal feature of the Sogdians, merchants active along the Silk Road—the handle. The handle features a thumb piece, a common feature of Sogdian silver cups (Lurje “Catalogue” 2014). On top of the thumb piece is a small bird surrounded by dots in an illustration by Boris Marshak (Fig. 2), which would presumably help the thumb grip the cup. Originally borrowed from the Turks, the thumb rest can be seen on many other silver cups of Sogdian origin.

When observed from overhead, the cup is poly-lobed (Fig. 5). The rounded hexagonal shape breaks the outside of the cup into twelve panels which are separated by thick lines and are filled with birds and vegetation. This configuration, the handle, and mature iconography, like that of the three-petal flower (Fig. 4) compared to Sasanian-inspired or more autonomous Sogdian cups and silverwork, point towards a wave of Chinese-influenced Sogdian silver (Marshak 1971).

The outside of the cup is decorated with birds, pearls, and vegetation. While many of the birds, which look like ducks, are flying, some are fighting snakes (Fig. 4). Others appear to be carrying garlands in their beaks, a popular motif in Sogdian, Sasanian, and Byzantine art. For instance, birds carrying items can be seen in paintings from Panjikent (Samosyuk 2014; Azarpay 1981). Birds depicted in a wall painting in a citadel in Panjikent carry leaves and have ribbons surrounding them, which are not dissimilar to the birds on this particular cup (Lurje “Catalogue” 2014).

The plant that curls around a large portion of the side of the cup looks like a grape vine, a symbol of the Sogdian way of life (Grenet 2007). Grapes, associated with wine and merriment, appropriately adorn the cup, strengthening the relationship between Sogdians, viticulture, and feasting. Not only did wine come to China by way of the Sogdians, but the notion of feasting with wine arrived in China via the Sogdians, showing how far their Dionysian influence reached (Sims-Williams 1996; Torgoev 2014). The dialogue between Sogdiana and other cultures, particularly China, can be seen more than one way in this cup.


Azarpay, Guitty. 1981. Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. Berkley: University of California Press.

Grenet, Frantz. 2007. “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-Century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism.” InComparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 27, No. 2, 463-478. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 

Lurje, Pavel. 2014. “Exchange Along the Silk Road.” In Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Amsterdam: Hermitage.

Lurje, Pavel. 2014. “Sogdiana Catalogue.” In Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Amsterdam: Hermitage.

Marshak, Boris. 1971. Soghdian Silver. Moscow: Izd-vo.

Samosyuk, Kira. 2014. “The Art of East Turkestan.” In Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Amsterdam: Hermitage.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 1996. “The Sogdian Merchants in China and India.” In Cina e Iran Alessandro Magno all dinastia Tang, ed. A. Cadonna and L. Lanciotti, 45-67. Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore.

Torgoev, Asan. 2014. “The Roads Travelled by Middle Asian Silver.” In Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Amsterdam: Hermitage.



8th century


H. 5.5 cm

Dia. 10 cm., H. 6.7 cm. according to State Hermitage Museum


Cup, silver


State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Additional Research Metadata


Discovered in Tomys, Udmurtische Russian Autonomous Republic Chach? Second half 8th c


pl 53


“Cup with Birds and Vegetation,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed September 26, 2020,