Battle with Amazons (eastern and western parts)
The Goose Who Laid the Golden Eggs Mural Panel
[Summer Olsen’s Object Study]
This section of the murals of the “Battle with Amazons” is from the western part of the mural painted on the long wall to the left of the entrance of the room and were painted c.740 C.E.. The room was once the main hall of this house (Room1/SectorXXI). The murals in this room are painted in three registers and each register’s murals are divided into scenes with the divisions marked by double parallel lines. The scenes painted in the lowest register, like this one, are drawn from tales and fables and the narrative in each scene reads from right to left. (Marshak 2002, 126)
The story in this panel is Aesop’s fable of the goose who laid golden eggs. It is broken into three scenes read right to left. In the first scene the protagonist holds a golden egg while the goose who laid it stands to his left. One can judge the man’s wealth not only by the egg he holds but also by the textiles he wears and surrounds himself with. He wears a Phrygian cap, a marker of Sogdian identity, and sits on a colorful patterned textile. In the second scene the protagonist becomes greedy and wants to have all the goose’s eggs at once instead of one at a time and makes the foolish decision to kill the goose to extract the golden eggs. In the third and final scene the protagonist sits with head tilted down and his hand to his forehead which Boris Marshak interprets as a pose of sadness (Marshak 2003, 135). This foolish protagonist with a dead goose no longer capable of producing eggs, and perhaps after having spent all the gold from the eggs he extracted, is left hatless and without a patterned textile to sit on. If the Phrygian cap is a marker for Sogdian identity perhaps with his departure from ideal Sogdian merchant behavior the protagonist of the fable has lost his Sogdian-ness. (Marshak 2003, 133-135).
The Penjakent wall murals were painted on walls of unbaked mudbrick that had been coated with several layers of mud plaster mixed with straw. The artists of then used a mixture of gypsum and calcite as the mural ground. On this dry plaster ground the artists painted the mural scenes with pulverized minerals. The minerals were adhered to the mural ground using a vegetable glue which both acted as a solvent and adhesive.(Kulakova 2014, 93, Azarpay 1981, 159-162).
Marshak,Boris. Legends, Tales and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002.
Kulakova, Larisa, “The Art of Sogdiana. Monumental Paintings from Panjakent.” In Expedition Silk Road Journey to the West. Hermitage Museum. Amsterdam, 2014.
Panjikent, Sogdiana, Site XXI-1,
133 × 468 cm (eastern part)
154 × 737 cm (western part)
50 × 137 cm (Goose Laying Golden Eggs)
51 × 103.5 cm (A Blacksmith and his Assistant; The Tale of the Wise Men who Brought a Tiger Back to Life)
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Additional Research Metadata
Cats 125–27 come from the main room of one of ancient Panjakent’s largest residential buildings, where the paintings were arranged in three tiers. The low first tier (50 cm high) was divided into rectangular sections of different sizes showing scenes from tales and fables (Cats 126–27), bearing no relationship to the main scenes in the second tier, which Alexander Belenitsky gave the tentative title ‘Battle with Amazons’. The subject of the second tier would seem to be based on some literary or pseudo-historical text, although no precise source has been identified.
The surviving paintings with ‘Amazons’ come from the second tier on the eastern, southern and western walls, and a small fragment from the northern wall also survives. A doorway in the southern wall of the room separated the scheme into eastern and western parts.
Eastern part: To right of the entrance, with the narrative running from left to right.
Here we see a battle between several riders, although it is not quite clear who is fighting whom, since only the lower half of the figures survive. The horses gallop above the ground, their hooves not touching the earth. Lying beneath their hooves are five figures, one of them a woman whose costume and weaponry is identical to that of the men: only the two long plaits of black hair reveal her sex. From the colour and ornament on the kaftan worn by both rider and fallen ‘Amazon’ it is clear that they are one and the same person, shown during and after battle.
The rider in a black kaftan (probably once red, its colour changed with time) on a yellow horse appears three times in the eastern wall paintings, suggesting that he is their main hero. Twice he is shown moving from left to right, indicating the direction of the narrative.
The horses’ bodies partly overlap, creating an illusion of deep space and giving a sense of the scale of the battle. We barely notice that the artist repeated the same flying gallop pose for the horses at least six times.
Western part: The long wall running from left of the entrance, the narrative running from right to left (to judge by the direction of the riders).
First comes a battle between two groups of riders, then the action unfolds near the south- western corner. A rider heading a small company sits upon a pale grey dappled horse: his armour and weaponry touched with gold and the rare colour of his horse suggest he is a commander, perhaps a king. In the foreground is another rider on a brown horse, his armour also evidence of noble status and therefore of his important role in the battle. Below, on the ground, we can pick out two wheels, probably belonging to the chariot bearing an unidentified hero in blue holding a thread of pearls.
The next episode unfolds in the south-west corner, where the paintings have been most extensively preserved in terms of the height of the surviving image. Here we see a complex composition built up of several horizontal planes.
In the first plane is a duel between a ‘king’ and a rider on a bay horse. They fight with spears and the king would seem to be almost knocked from his saddle, every detail confirming the strength of the blow he has received: the girth has come undone and the breastplate has snapped, the saddle is falling, the rider’s feet have come free of the stirrups and he has fallen back onto the horse’s rump. In the second plane, on a hill beyond the horse, is another figure of which only the legs in golden greaves and the lower part of the body armour survive, but these are sufficient to identify the king, now down on his feet. He moves right, holding a spear the tip of which shows behind the horse’s rump.
The rider on the bay horse has been almost entirely lost. A wounded or dead woman lies on her back beneath the horse, her pale blue patterned kaftan finished in the same way as that of the rider. She wears no helmet and a long black plait runs alongside her right arm. There is a bloody wound in her breast. The similarity between the colour and finish of the kaftan suggests that the rider and the woman beneath the horse’s hooves are one and the same.
Next in terms of preservation and the logical development of the subject comes a scene in which two warriors carry a carpet bearing a female figure. Although it must come later in the narrative, this scene is placed between figures in single combat and the king’s departure. The half-naked woman lying on the carpet has long plaits and wears silk shalwar (baggy trousers), over which are gaiters made of the skin of some beast of prey; she has a wound in her chest, the nature and location of which allow us to identify this ‘Amazon’ with the woman doing battle with the king. Directly below the carpet on the ground is another dead warrior in an incredibly realistic pose that seems to have been drawn from life. The artist used a single line to convincingly convey the rippling muscles of the back, the bulging ribs and stomach muscles.
The next scene comes in the upper part of the surviving painting. Behind the king engaged in single-handed combat are three male figures seated in a row in identical poses, turned to the viewer’s right. All three wear identical long kaftans caught up at the waist with a golden belt from which hang empty scabbards. They are seated directly upon the ground, without any
underlying cushions or blankets, all of which suggests that they are prisoners. Before them is a large trapeziform carpet, the upper part of which has been lost.
The main characters – the rider on the yellow horse in the eastern part of the room and the king in the western part – do not appear together, and the narrative develops in different directions, in one case from left to right, in the other from right to left. We might conclude that the room contained two different subjects, yet the heroes are all doing battle with the same enemy: the dead warriors lying on the ground beneath the horses’ feet are the same in both cases, and in both cases they include a woman. It is the presence of these female warriors that gave the painting its name, ‘Battle with Amazons’, although there are only two women, one in each subject, both of them fighting on the losing side.
The fallen enemy warriors are shown not just dead but stripped of their clothes by the victors. The artist thus simultaneously depicts the same figures at different stages of events, a device that was an important feature of medieval narrative art.
As in other narrative paintings from Panjakent, Battle with Amazons has no overall panorama of the battle but shows consecutive episodes.
Goose Laying Golden Eggs: Illustrating Aesop’s fable (6th century BCE) of the goose who laid the golden egg, the subject is divided into three scenes which should be read from right to left. In the first scene a seated man holds a yellow (golden) egg; in front of him is the goose, with several more eggs. In the next scene the owner kills the goose. Lastly, not finding any gold inside the dead bird, the man sits with head bowed, understanding that he has lost both gold and the miraculous bird.
To left is a vertical band that separated the panel from the next scene; it shows an unidentified subject with two figures.
A Blacksmith and his Assistant; The Tale of the Wise Men who Brought a Tiger Back to Life: The fragment consists of two panels. The first subject would seem to have some connection to the Panchatantra, an Indian collection of fables, although the characters do not match exactly. It tells the tale of a blacksmith with a monkey assistant. The blacksmith sits in front of his anvil holding in his tongs a piece of metal that the monkey is about to hammer. A fly settles on the blacksmith’s brow and the monkey brings his hammer down onto his master’s head. Boris Marshak noted that this is one of many stories of the eager fools who are worse than enemies.
The action in the second panel unfolds from left to right. Three wise men find the bones of a tiger. The wise man seated to left puts the bones together, another puts flesh upon the bones, but the tiger then eats the third wise man who brings him back to life. Here the tiger eats all three! In the version of this tale told in the Panchatantra, there was a fourth – truly wise – man, who climbed a tree and saved himself from the tiger’s jaws.
From the Panjakent Archaeological Expedition of 1964
Inv. SA–16194–16198 (SA–16197 is not illustrated) (eastern part)
Inv. SA–16200–16211 (SA–16208–16211 are not illustrated) (western part)
Inv. SA–16203 (Goose Laying Golden Eggs)
Inv. SA–16205 (A Blacksmith and his Assistant; The Tale of the Wise Men who Brought a Tiger Back to Life)
Expedition Silk Road, 192-97; Marshak 2002, pp. 126–42; Kulakova 2013; Belenitsky 1980, p. 115; Semenov 1996, pp. 86,88, 108–10;