A rhyton is a type of drinking vessel, not unlike a drinking horn. While certainly not exclusive to any one region, they are more common around Eurasia and Central Asia than in other parts of the world. While there is very little specific information available on this particular rhyton, there is some guesswork we can make that would not be out of place. The main figure seems to be holding a cow’s head or possibly a buffalo’s head. This type of image is not unknown. The rhyton bears a resemblance to another rhyton currently at the Cleveland Museum of Art. That rhyton depicts “The Buffalo-Slayer Goddess,” and features the head of a goddess attached on top of the head of a buffalo. The goddess herself is likely Nana, a prominent figure in Sogdian religious life (clevelandart.org 2016). While certainly not identical, the the human-like figures do share a resemblance, and the association with the figure and the decapitated head of a buffalo can lean towards the idea that this is a depiction of Nana. Considering we see Nana so often in Sogdian art, se is all over the ruins of the Sogdian town of Panjikent, this hypothesis seems likely (Hansen 2012, 124).
While we have a likely origin for the Buffalo-Slayer rhyton, our rhyton has no such information. Its provenance, however, is quite fascinating. This rhyton was discovered in a sanctuary of the Northern Khants. This places the rhyton near the river Synya, a tributary of the great Ob, and in western Siberia. How did a rhyton of seemingly Sogdian origin make its way to western Siberia? We do know that the Sogdians, as merchants and diplomats, were widespread, and that they served as intermediaries between the Chinese and the different societies living on the steppes. While this was in a mainly diplomatic capacity, it suggests they also had regular, direct contact with the steppes. Trade would be expected to at least some degree. The Turks in particularly were fond of Sogdian silver and metalwork (Stark 2015, 465). While it seems unlikely the Sogdians specifically traded with people all the way up in Siberia, knowing that at least some of their goods were going north it is no stretch to imagine how this rhyton could have exchanged hands a few times before settling in its final place.
This hypothesis is supported by the fate of the other previously mentioned rhyton. Again, both are of Sogdian origin, and both have striking similarities regarding figure and form. Yet this one’s provenance is from the other side of Sogdiana, in Iran. These simple drinking vessels are testaments to the breadth of Sogdian trade and influence in Asia. - Matthew Dischner
Hansen, Valerie. 2012. The Silk Road: A New History. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stark, Sören. 2014. “Luxurious Necessities: Some observations on foreign commodities and nomadic polities in 6th to 9th century Central Asia,” in Complexity of Interaction along the Eurasian Steppe Zone in the First Millennium AD, Edited by J. Bemmann and M. Schmauder, 463-502. Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2016. "Rhyton: The Buffalo-Slayer Goddess, c. 600-700." http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1964.96.
Additional Research Metadata
discovered 1999 by ethnographers in a sanctuary of the Northern Khants (near the river Synya)