• Tibet
  • 8th - 9th century A.D.
  • Silver gilt
  • H-3 D-29
Catalogue Entry

This hammered circular vessel, made without a foot, has a thickened rim, oval in section. The low-relief design is executed in the champlev technique, which was very popular among Iranian silversmiths during the Sasanian period (A.D. 224-651) and as well as from the eighth to the tenth century. However, the foil gilding and the rough and uneven hammering of the rim indicate that the plate was made outside the lands of the ancient civilizations of Iran and Central Asia. On the outer, undecorated side of the vessel there are Tibetan incised inscriptions--now barely visible1--and three circles in a row, perhaps all added later, for inventory purposes. In the interior of the vessel, at the center, is a figure of a winged centaur in whose raised hands are bunches of grapes. Around the central medallion is a leaf scroll. Rich floral ornamentation partitions the remainder of the field into four sections. In each section is a pair of standing confronted winged animals: deer, ibex, and wild rams. Ornamental details on the bodies of the animals imitate textile designs.

The vessel is a fine example of early Tibetan silver. Tibetans played a prominent role in world history in the seventh to ninth century, when these nomadic tribal people united to create a kingdom incorporating a large part of Xinjiang, as well as the town of Dunhuang.
Silver vessels from the early Tibetan kingdom were completely unknown until a few years ago, when three examples, made in Tibet between the seventh and the ninth century, were purchased by The Cleveland Museum of Art.2 The authenticity of the rhyton and the cup now in the Cleveland Museum, as well as of the present plate, is confirmed by the similarity of many of their motifs with those on a cup with a handle found in 1932 near the village of Afanas'evo in the Viatka region of Russia, west of the Ural Mountains, along the shores of the Kama River.3 Of particular interest on the cup are the gazelles and deer in the four compartments, which are separated from each other by rich palmettes.

The seven silver vessels from this Afanas'evo hoard, including the above-mentioned cup with handle, are now in the Nizhnii Novgorod Museum in Russia; all exhibit typical features of various Central Asian silver workshops of the eighth and early ninth century. The rich imagery of the relief ornamentation on the present plate resembles the decoration on the Afanas'evo cup as well as on early medieval vessels from Tokharistan (in the Oxus River valley of ancient Bactria), Sogdiana (today Samarkand and Bukhara), and Tang-dynasty China. However, the specific motifs and their treatment here are distinctive--a fact that has been confirmed only after the recent publication of other vessels belonging to the same Tibetan group.

1. Descriptions and explanations of the inscriptions were supplied by Professor Leonard von der Kuijp; see Metropolitan Museum 1996, pp. 82-83, figs. 1-3, for (mismatched) reproductions and transcriptions.
2. See Czuma 1991, p. 190; "The Year in Review" 1989, nos. 231-33, ills. pp. 41-51.
3. See Darkevich 1976, pp. 33-36, pl. 15.