With contributions by Giorgio Affani and Carlo Lippolis
In 1948, the Soviet Expedition JuTAKE excavated the building called the ‘Square House’ at the Parthian site of Mithridatkert, known from ancient sources as Nisa, the alleged site of the graves of Parthian kings. Among the precious objects unearthed in this royal treasury, was a large inventory of ivory artefacts. Of these, the famous rhytons, masterpieces of Hellenistic art, were carefully restored and studied, while some 40 pieces of furniture were restored only in part and preliminarily published.
A thorough discussion and extensive publication of these findings has been undertaken by the author of this book. In 2013, in fact, thanks to support from the Shelby White & Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, the National Museum of Ashgabat was able to conduct a careful investigation of the materials and prepare a complete set of photos and drawings in order to give this material the recognition it deserved within Western scholarship.
Through careful consideration of the quantity, shape and size of each item, the author suggests a possible reconstruction of the furniture that lay buried in the Square House, and highlights its ideological and symbolical meaning within the historical framework of the Parthian Empire.
The main information that emerges from the investigation at the Ashgabat Museum is that at least a part of the ivory used for the furniture items comes from African elephants, as their diameter exceeds 11 cms, namely the maximum size of the items carved from Indian ivory, according to A. Cutler. Moreover, the most part of the rhytons reach diameters (often up to 16.5 cms) that are undoubtedly related to African elephants.
The furniture lot is made of items of big size (considerably larger than the Pompei samples, for instance), and its arrangement is strange, as the complete set of four legs of no piece of furniture has ever been found. It comprises complete and incomplete items, and restored ones; very few legs find their match within the inventory, having different sizes and technical features, so the minimum number of couches and chairs rises to 10 at least, not 3 like supposed by the former publisher, G. Pugachenkova. The furniture items were probably stocked in the Square House after being used for some time, and some incomplete items were brought there from the workshops that were providing new ones. Nothing leads to suppose that the ivory inventory might come from a booty (as suggested by P. Bernard), on the contrary there’s solid base to think that they were produced in Nisa itself by specialized craftsmen working on commission for the Arsacid court: the unbaked clay statues were obviously made at Nisa, and recent works in the SW Building brought to light tracks of a workshop producing big size statues of horses, witnessed by plaster casts. In sum, there are many proofs of craftsmen working at Nisa on commission, perfectly mastering the Greek formal vocabulary, and there’s no need to search elsewhere the workshops that produced the ivory artefacts as well.
The idea proposed by the author of the book is that the Square House hosted sacred banquets for the dead king, on which occasion he was celebrated as hero and entered the gods’ sphere. The cult models are the Greek theoxenia and the Roman lectisternia and sellisternia, namely banquets where empty beds or chairs were supposed to host the invited gods, mostly the Dioscuroi and Herakles, and the deified Roman emperor.
This study concludes the systematic review to which the Italian Archaeological Mission has subjected the main groups of findings brought to light in that building. Here we present the precise publication of the lot of ivories: parts of chairs, thrones, beds and perhaps other furnishings, ranging in size from 5 to 70 cm in length, mainly worked on the lathe, almost completely devoid of figurative decorations. These are materials known to the scientific community for over 60 years, never properly published excluding a single short article in Russian language dated 1969. In addition to a substantial part of the catalog, the book is composed of some chapters that discuss historical and archaeological questions the material under examination, and a reasoned discussion of the morphological characteristics of the finds, aimed at understanding the categories of furniture to which these objects belonged originally, and the opportunities and contexts in which they could be employed. The conclusions reached document the extraordinary vitality and originality of the life of the Arsacid citadel, and its role not only of ceremonial center and core of elaboration of the characters of the royal ideology, but also of place of production of works of art and handicrafts that of this ideology they had to express and spread the images.
Niccolò Manassero is an archaeologist specialized in the study of Central Asia in the pre-Islamic era. He has published a monograph, Rhyta and horns from the Iron Age at the Sassanid era. Pure libations and mysticism between Greece and the Iranian world (Oxford 2008), and more than 20 articles in international specialist journals, always aimed at examining the hybrid manifestations of civilization and art to which gave life to the dialogue between the Greek and Iranian world following the expedition of Alexander the Great.