MAIASP. 2023. No. 15

Mikhail Treister (Bonn, Germany)

The vessels of the Ampsalakos school and the Parthian silver

DOI: 10.53737/7020.2023.61.96.007

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Pages: 198335

Among the finds of silver vessels from the nomadic burials of the Lower Don and Lower Volga regions of the Middle Sarmatian period, a group of vessels of different shapes stands out, which are united by the decoration technique. The images are made in a planar manner, the contours are executed by long incised lines. Images, as well as ornamental friezes are gilded. At the turn of the 1980s 1990s, when I was preparing the publication of vessels from Kosika, it was obvious to me that this group of vessels is a unique collection, which, according to a number of features, could have been made in a nomadic environment especially for their nobility. According to the inscription on the basin, which mentioned a certain Ampsalakos, who made it, I conditionally designated this group of vessels as the works of the Ampsalakos school, later on making certain adjustments to the chronology of the work of this workshop, but without refusing to single it out.

In none of the works published in recent decades, in which the vessels from Kosika are attributed to the products of the Parthian workshops, there is not a single parallel with the Parthian silver vessels (!). Either the authors are not aware of these, or they do not consider it necessary to substantiate their attributions. On the other hand, the desire to attribute these vessels as Parthian products is quite in line with the trend, if not to deny the possibility of the existence of artisans-toreuts and their workshops in the nomadic societies, including the Sarmatians, then to cast it into serious doubt. The researchers who take such positions demonstrate ignorance of the widely known facts about the development of crafts, including metalworking, in the nomadic societies of Eurasia.

This work is an attempt to update, taking into account new finds, publications and attributions that have appeared in the last almost thirty years after the publication of my article in 1994.

How can the appearance of the vessels under discussion be reconstructed?

There is no reason to consider them all as imported. Noteworthy is the combination of ornamental motifs characteristic of the toreutics of the Seleucid-Parthian circle. At the same time, such important components as the composition of the decoration, the size and correlation of individual elements of the rosettes, the primitive execution of ornamental motifs, in particular on the frieze with shoots of floral ornament or on the rosettes, allow us to say that the craftsman who made these vessels (Kosika, Verbovskiy), was, of course, familiar with the works of toreutics of the Middle East, Western and Central Asia, but did not see their prototypes and did not understand the meaning and role of the elements and composition of the decoration, belonging to a different culture. However, this does not automatically mean that the vessels in question necessarily came from the workshops of Parthia. The tradition of making goblets with handles in the form of animal figurines was very widespread.

Against the general background, a jug from Vysochino stands out, in which the level of decoration is higher, and the repertoire of images is much more diverse, many of which are characteristic of the Seleucid-Parthian toreutics. However, even here the images are made inaccurately, the lines are often duplicated, the figures go beyond the friezes, and from all the rich technical repertory of the Middle and Near Eastern toreutics, the master preferred the cutter. Statics and primitivism are especially striking in the depictions of human figures in the fishing scenes.

One way or another, the jug from Vysochino, which was altered with the addition of a zoomorphic handle (like imported luterion from Novoaleksandrovka), for the nomads of the Lower Don was, of course, an imported item. At the same time, the shape of this jug, which has no prototypes in Western or Central Asia and finds parallels in grayware polished ceramics of Asian Sarmatia, rather suggests that the jug could have been made specifically for a representative of the nomadic elite.

On the whole, the jug from Vysochino can be regarded as an intermediate link between the works of toreutics made in the workshops of the Middle East or Western Asia and the group of vessels from Kosika and Verbovskiy. These vessels, the decoration of which imitated the Parthian or Seleucid prototypes, and the technique of decorating the jug from Vysochino, were originally made (in those cases when it was necessary) with zoomorphic handles. Compared to the jug from Vysochino, the set of images has also changed dramatically. These are not the peaceful scenes of fishing, images of fish, dolphins, sea dragons and waterfowl, but scenes of hunting, battles or animals being tormented by griffins, which obviously corresponded to the tastes of the customers to a greater extent.

The above-mentioned features of the images on the vessels from Kosika give grounds for both chronological conclusions and assumptions about the origin of the craftsmen. As for dating, the entire range of parallels indicates that the assignment of vessels to the 1st century BCE is quite justified. There are certain differences in the rendering of similar images and their details on the vessels from Kosika, Verbovskiy, and the collection of S.I. Grigoryants and the level of skill allows us to assume the work of different craftsmen. Against the general background, a certain negligence in the rendering of details on the goblet from Verbovskiy is striking. This makes it possible to assume not only the manufacture of the vessels under discussion by different craftsmen, but also at various times in frames of the mid-1st century BCE first half of the 1st century CE.

This reconstruction, based only on the analysis of the forms of vessels, subjects, decorative motifs, forms and techniques of execution of decorative elements without taking into account historical reconstructions, nevertheless, is in perfect agreement with the reconstruction that I originally carried out and, of course, under the influence of reading and interpretation of the inscription on the basin from Kosika.

Key words: Asian Sarmatia, Lower Volga, Lower Don regions, interfluve of Don and Volga, Parthia, toreutics, silver vessels, Ampsalakos school.

Received March 7, 2023.

Accepted for publication March 22, 2023.

About the author:

Treister Mikhail (Bonn, Germany). Dr. phil. habil. (RUS), Independent researcher.