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Seals and Sealings in Iranian History

Part 2


After the Achaemenid domination of Central Asia, which left scanty glyptic evidence (Pugachenkova, 1956; Collon, 1998), the most representative evidence stems from the Hellenistic period; at ?y ??nom (q.v.) seven intaglios (Hellenistic and Greco-Persian) and a dozen terracotta seals of Oriental tradition, along with a few clay sealings (Rapin, 1992, p. 131), represent the scant and heterogeneous evidence remaining of the widespread use of seals, well evidenced by the inscriptions on the Treasury pots. Seals of the same classes as those of ?y ??nom are also present among the furniture of the rich nomadic tombs at Tillya-Tepe (Sarianidi, 1985).

In the following centuries the use of seals become increasingly common. Only a few regions of the eastern Iranian area, however, have been the object of a comprehensive study of the glyptic output, which allows a reliable stylistic and chronological understanding of the materials. Among these we may include the northern sector of the Indo-Iranian frontier, the area between Afghanistan and the northwest Frontier of the Indian subcontinent, with its multifaceted evidence (Callieri, 1997). Here we must distinguish between imported production and local production: an Iranian presence is evidenced in both.

In the former category, along with seals coming from the Classical Mediterranean area, northern and central India, and Sogdiana, there are two main groups of direct Iranian origin: “Greco-Persian” and Sasanian seals.

 In both groups, however, a few specimens show certain features that make a local origin probable. In the former group, we witness a phenomenon of exchange between the Indian and the Iranian cultures represented by the diffusion of Indian symbols such as the swastika and the “taurine” symbol on some of the “Greco-Persian” gems from Gandhara (q.v.), associated with the prevalent religious environment of the region (Callieri, 1996). In the latter group, that belonging to the Iranian glyptic proper of the Sasanian period, a few iconographic or epigraphic aspects specifically suggest a local origin in the Afghan area, corresponding, for some periods, to the realm of the Kushano-Sasanians (see below, andBivar, 1968; Callieri, 1990).

In the second category, that of local production, along with seals in which the fundamentally Indian background of the northwest Frontier is evident, there are several groups of seals associated with the Iranian ethnic groups that took power in the broad region stretching across Central Asia and Northern India, although a geographic specificity is possible for only a limited number of these groups.

There is a group of seals representing male busts with the head in profile and frontal upper body rendered by means of three globular segments; characteristic of their technique and style is the undisguised use of rounded points of different size producing incisions of varying depths. The result is an image consisting of globular and dot-shaped incisions, globular for the upper body, neck, cheeks, and cranium and dot-shaped for details including the facial features. Thanks to the comparative evidence offered by a series of Parthian drachms with similar countermarks, the seals can be attributed to the Sakas in Afghanistan during the first century B.C.E. (Callieri. 1997, pp. 226-27; Callieri, 2006). It was also the same Sakas who, in the northwest, adopted for their coinage the purely naturalistic style offered by the local craftsmen of Hellenistic tradition: this probably applied also to their seals, so far as we can judge from the evidence of the seal of a vassal king, Indravarma (Salomon, Callieri, and Schmitt, 1999).

An important chapter of eastern Iranian glyptics has to do with the Kushans, whose empire extended across the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Karakorums in Central Asia and India.

 The first studies dedicated to this class of artifacts (Bivar, 1955, pp. 208-10; Bivar, 1968, pls. I, XXVII; also Rosenfield, 1967, pp. 101-3) have identified a group classified as “Royal Kushan” on the basis of the presence of motifs and symbols similar to those on Kushan coins; the same definition was applied to a gem acquired in the northwest, characterized by the presence of a Bactrian Greek (?) inscription (Bivar, 1990). Four of these seals have also been recognized as belonging to the same technical-stylistic class, corresponding to the same production environment (Callieri, 1997, pp. 234-35). Despite a marked preoccupation with verism, their stylistic rendering is static and conventional, reminiscent of Kushan coinage and confirming the close link between coin-die engravers and gem engravers.

With the demise of the Great Kushans and their conquest by the Sasanians from the Iranian plateau, Sasanian seals began to spread in the area, and Sasanian influence remained strong in the glyptic output of the area for many centuries. Apart from the imported seals, some gems and seal-impressions display iconographic traits and Bactrian inscriptions linking them to the Kushano-Sasanian rulers and administrators (Bivar, 1968, pls. I-IV, XXVII; Kruglikova, 1984; Nikitin, 1994).

Also influenced by Sasanian glyptics are the seals of the various Hunnish rulers who replaced the Sasanians and Kushans in the region across the Hindu Kush, from the Kidarites (q.v. at iranica.com) to the Hephthalites (q.v.; G?bl, 1967). Their glyptic output displays male and female portraits, sometimes accompanied by inscriptions in Bactrian, Br?hm?, or Pahlavi scripts which suggest the location of the personage’s realm. A few well-defined groups have been singled out, characterized by the same technical-stylistic traits, from the second half of the fourth to the sixth century C.E. (Callieri, 1999). Particularly important is the seal of Khi?gila, where the portrait of the seated king is accompanied by a Bactrian inscription giving the name of this Hunnish leader, whose chronological position between Kidarites and Hephthalites is confirmed by an analysis of iconography and style (Callieri, 2002).

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com

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