This striking anthropomorphic vessel was made in the early days of the 1st millennium AD by a potter of the Kushan Empire. It is essentially a globular flask, with a rounded body, a tapering central neck and a loop handle posteriorly. The flask is painted reddish-orange, and is decorated with a dark horizontal panel of geometrically reductivist faces in profile, demarcated by a line of waves inferiorly and a band of foliate design above. The neck of the vessel is similarly decorated, giving way to the jawline of the head which forms the very top of the pouring spout. The face is comparatively long, with oversized, rimmed, almond-shaped eyes, an angular nose and a nugatory mouth. It has a single lock of dark hair running from each ear and curling anteriorly. The handle – which is decorated in a similar manner – is comparatively low, and reaches the nape of the head’s neck.
The Kushan were a highly inscrutable and short-lived Central Asian Empire that had its apogee in the first centuries of the first millennium AD, overseeing an empire that stretched from the Aral Sea through what is currently Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The empire was founded on trade and warfare, and was emphatically multicultural due to the enormous number of Central Asian and foreign groups who came through the area. They built their cities on the remains of Hellenistic settlements, and seem to have been allied with the Greeks judging from their very similar coinage and their use of the Greek alphabet. It was yabgu (Commander) Kujula Kadphises who united the rather disparate groups into a truly powerful force to be reckoned with, taking over lands previously occupied by the Scythians, Bactrians and Gandharans, amongst others.
Culturally they were highly sophisticated, using an amended Greek alphabet, Prakrit, Kharosthi script, a variety of religions (including Buddhism, Saivism and Zoroastrianism) and absorbing aspects of all the cultures they invaded or were allied with. They sent diplomats back and forth to Rome, under the rule of Trajan. The relative stability they brought to the Silk route was instrumental in maintaining its integrity, and the flood of materials and ideas that travelled from China to Rome and back. They had a variety of capital cities according to district, one of which – Bagram – had a museum of art and materials from all the areas touched by Kushan influence. Their religion was very complex, their pantheon extremely large and comprising deities from Greek, Iranian and Indian sources. The two main deities, were Ardoxsho and Oesho (Shiva, conflated with Avestan Vayu), although others may be recognised (i.e. Boddo [Buddha] and Eraklis [Heracles]). They helped in the dissemination of Greco-Buddhist art, which led into the Serindian artistic tradition. The Kushans themselves, incidentally, often find themselves portrayed in the arts of other realms: in Gandhara they are represented as devotees of the Buddha, dressed in tunics and belted trousers.
Their position between the immovable wall of China and the massed nomads of the Steppe, the rise of competing empires and their valuable position on the Silk Road both put pressure on the Kushans throughout the 2nd century AD. Internal squabbles led to the empire being split into two halves in 225 AD. The western half, based in Afghanistan, was rapidly conquered by the Sassanids. The eastern half (in the Punjab) resisted longer, but was eventually subjugated by the Gupta Empire under Samudragupta. The Kushan order was overthrown by the Kidarites, and while much of their culture lived on in their conquerors, the rise of Islam and the invasion of the Huns put paid to the last remnants of Kushan culture.
This is a very rare and beautifully-executed piece of Kushan art.