This beautiful piece dates from the Achaemenid Empire (559-330 BC), one of the most dynamic and historically significant socio-political entities of the first millennium BC. Originally based in Persia, their borders extended eastwards and also into the Mediterranean region, where they were the notable foe of the ancient Greeks. The historical founder (the mythological founder of the Achaemenid empire was called Achaemenes) Cyrus, following an abortive raid on the Peloponnese, besieged and captured Babylon in 539 BC; his release of Jews who had been held captive there earned him immortality in the Book of Isaiah. The empire continued to grow until Cyrus’ death in 529 BC, by which time the kingdom extended as far as the Hindu Kush in present-day Afghanistan. However, his successors were less successful and the empire was gradually eroded as intrigue and corruption threatened court stability. Darius, beaten at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, led the Achaemenids back to Asia Minor where they attempted to consolidate the remains of their power. While successful in his lifetime, the court and empire returned to their usual downward cycle until the death in 330 of the last of the Achaemenids, Darius III, at the hands of his own subjects.
The cultural achievements of the Achaemenids were considerable, for although somewhat despotic in the technical sense, free trade and social tolerance went to provide a comparatively enlightened environment in which the arts flourished. The economy was healthy, fuelled by Darius’ introduction of stable gold currency, and the road system allowed the spread of trade, luxury items and ideas. As a result the artists and craftsmen of the time were extremely attuned to neighbouring and distant polities, and were able to produce a wide variety of elite items such as this. Most iconography of the time was based around enormously ornate zoomorphic statuary and architectural design as seen in Persepolis, and smaller items retain much of their grandiose monumentality.
The current piece is a virtuoso example of elite alabaster craftsmanship. The vessel is a small, oval piece with a small rounded base and a thickened rim. The body bulges medially, and has a plain band (defined by two longtitudinal lines) for the top 1/3 of the vessel, with the remains of an inscription. While largely illegible, this has been confirmed to be ancient Babylonian. The bottom 2/3 is taken up with a 360-degree panorama of a hunting scene, executed with astonishing detail and consummate skill. The narrative is not precisely clear. Most scenes depicting lion hunts show the hunter in a chariot, while it seems surprising that the hunter would start hunting lions if he were originally intending to hunt a deer. However, the image depicts an archer, on foot, aiming his bow at a lion that faces him in rampant, threatening posture. In the background, approaching a thicket, a deer rears as if startled. The hunter’s arrow is still in his bow, awaiting the moment to fire. The archer is dressed in a linear tunic with an angled hem.
The presence of the lion hints at a possible royal connection, for lion hunting was exclusively the preserve of the royal family and their immediate circle. The quality of the carving is exceptional, with the position of the bodies, the detailing and the alert pose of the participants. The small size of the vessel and the delicacy of its execution suggests that it may once have been used as a receptacle for containing a precious unguent, such as perfume or perhaps a rare oil. It could only have been made for a supremely important person, for the investment of time and expertise involved in its manufacture would have removed it from the reaches of anyone but the highest elites. This is a superb, important piece of Achaemenid art.