This beautiful mount in the shape of an ibex 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 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.
This imposing piece was once socketed onto a wooden item of furniture, as evidenced by its hollow body. It portrays an ibex – an animal routinely hunted by Achaemenid royalty, judging from palace reliefs – in a resting position, the limbs tucked under the body. The head is turned to the right, so it would originally have been on the left hand end of a piece of furniture, so as to face the room. It may also have been a decorative chariot shaft end, designed to face outwards at onlookers; this theory is substantiated by the additional hole bored through the piece, which would have been used to secure it more firmly. The quality of the bronze casting is extremely high and naturalistic, especially when compared to the nugatory way in which the body has been rendered. The pose is decidedly regal, with long, sweeping horns that join the ears and almost meet at the back of the head, a long nose, high oval eyes and linear detailing that describes the contours of the face to perfection. It is possible to count the individual growth rings on the horns; judging from modern ibex standards, this figure represents a male at maximum size and maturity, at an age of around 20 years. The symbolism of caprid iconography in Achaemenid art is not well understood, although a mature, poweful male ibex at the height of his prowess might well have had its significance to a high ranking Achaemenid personage. Whatever the reason, it is certainly a mature, beautifully executed and perfectly preserved piece of ancient art.