Cup with a lion's head

  • West Asia
  • ca. mid-1st millennium B.C.
  • Glass
  • H-17.1 D-11
Catalogue Entry

Sizable glass vessels from the era before the advent of glassblowing (the first century B.C.) rarely survive intact in the ancient Near Eastern world. Fragments of fluted glass beakers or, conceivably, horn-shaped cups similar to this example were found in the excavations at Persepolis in southwestern Iran and are datable to the Achaemenid period (558-331 B.C.). On one small fragment vertical fluted lines terminate in what appears to be an animal's head.1

This remarkable molded and carved lion-headed beaker is made from a transparent soda-lime glass that appears to be greenish in color (as a result of iron impurities) only in the thickest part around the lion's head. The delicate and precious cup imitates the form of vessels of pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid date (eighth-fifth century B.C.) hammered from gold and silver. Details of the head, particularly the indications of wrinkles and folds in the skin, are comparable to lion heads of the Achaemenid period, although the style of this rendering, as is often the case with works made of glass, differs slightly from Achaemenid images in stone, ceramic, and metal.

The cup, which was cleaned in modern times and is without the weathered iridescent surface commonly seen on ancient glass, is in remarkable condition. Damage is restricted to a stress crack that extends obliquely from the head of the animal part way down the fluted body. As a type of ancient Near Eastern luxury vessel not often preserved, this rare work of art is an example of a court drinking or pouring vessel that is better known in ceramic and metal.

1. See Schmidt 1957, pp. 91-92, nos. 9, 10, pl. 67.

Catalogue Entry

Allegedly found in Iran, 5th?-first half 4th centuries B.C.
Clear glass with green tinge. Fused in a tripartite (?) mold or made in the lost-wax-process; after cooling the beaker was cut and engraved.
Broken in at least 2 parts and recently repaired, the break covered with dirt to mask the joint.
Strain crack extending from lion's head to fluted body. Point of the upper right tooth missing (ancient break). Slight iridescence and opaque tan-colored scum.
Height 17.1cm, Rim diam 10.5cm, weight 309gram

The relatively large vessel flares trumpet-like to a plain rim. Its body has carefully been cut to from 36 horizontal grooves or flutes. The lower portion is molded into a lion's head, with its mouth open. Details such as eyes, nose, nostrils and teeth are engraved with help of a rotating wheel.

This unique beaker (in form of a situla without handle) is a magnificent example of Achaemenid luxury glass at its best. The only other glass vessel comparable has been found in Persepolis (infra)1). In this case, however, it is a curved rhyton with an undecorated (?) body?|the central portion of the vessel is missing?|and a protome in form of a bull attacked by a lion. The quality of the cutting is quite superb, attesting to the high artistic and technical level of workmanship of the creator of this rhyton. Unfortunately it is undated but as Persepolis reached its peak in the 5th cent.?|the palace was begun about 518 by Darius and continued to be enlarged under Xerxes‡T(485-465) and Artaxerxes I (465-424)?|it is reasonable to assume that the workshops attached to the royal household in Persepolis, Susa and Ecbatana likewise were at their best particularly in the 5th cent. Below it will be shown that the finds of luxury glass from Iran during this time were not imports from Mesopotamia bur products of foreign artisans coming from the west?|I.e. perhaps from Assyria?|and of local, highly skilled workmen.

Achaemenid Glass
The history of clear luxury glass begins in Assyria in the 8th century B.C. Before this time vessels and inlays were made of opaque or translucent, highly colored glass in imitation of objects in other materials such as faience and stone. The core-formed perfume containers from Alalakh (northern Syria), Assur and Ur datable to the 15th and 14th century2) and of the 18th-dynasty in Egypt3) as well as the masses of inlays found in Egypt and at places such as Dur Kurigalzu?|Aqar Quf (near Baghdad) give testimony to the preference of polychrome glass in early times. Likewise multicolored mosaic glass was made during the same period in Egypt and in Mesopotamia4).

No less than seven centuries passed before efforts were made to produce a clear or almost clear glass in imitation of the rare rock crystal. Technologically this new material was not easy to produce as it involved the search for agents to decolorize the glass. This seems to have been achieved first in Nimrud around the turn from the 8th to the 7th century B.C. An alabastron with particularly thick walls preserved in the British Museum bears an inscription in cuneiform "Palace of Sargon" and "King of Assyria", indicating that it belonged to the household of King Sargon II (722-705)5). The Vessel is greenish and translucent due to its compactness, with walls 0.7-1.7 cm thick. Also a vase, several hemispherical bowls and fragments of about 100-140 additional bowls were discovered in Nimrud of which quite a few, of thinner-walled glass, are almost colorless. Among the sherds excavated in the 50's and 60's of the last century a few meticulously engraved and cut fragments of clear glass represent Assyrian luxury of the late 8th and 7th centuries at a very high level. One of the products of this or a similarly equipped workshop is an almost clear mesomphalic bowl of the last quarter of the 8th century found in a girl's tumulus-grave at Gordion in Turkey6).

The glass from Nimrud and Gordion does not stand alone. Hemispherical bowls found in Bologna, Praeneste and Fortetsa-Knossos, a shallow bowl from Babylon, a jug from the Aliseda treasury in Spain and an amphora from the Giardino Margherita in Bologna all seem to date from the 7th century and may have been made in Assyria and, in some cases?|for example the Aliseda-jug?|in Phoenicia. A series of slender alabastra of 6th/5th century date with thick walls and greenish or grayish tint should be added to this corpus of early glasses "in the new style."

The glasses of practically decolorized material found or said to have been found in Iran are the successors of this early group. They, in turn, seem to have initiated the making of clear or almost clear glass in the Aegean and greatly influenced the production of multiformed Hellenistic glass.

The most important finds of Achaemenid glass come from Persepolis, a site investigated by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1931 and 1934. Others have come to light at places as diverse as Ephesus, Aslaia (Cyrenaica) and Ihringen (South-West Germany), Nippur, Kurdshipskij Kurgan and Trialeti (South Russia). In addition, several important pieces have been supplied by the antiquities market. Among the vessels types the bowl?|in a few variants?|is the most common form in Achaemenid glass. All finds either excavated under professional supervision or purchased by private collections and museums form a more or less homogenous group of objects among which the Shumei beaker ranks as one of the finest known.

The treasury in Persepolis revealed a host of fragmentary glasses of highest quality made almost entirely of "water-clear" glass that had been extensively cut7). All of them were fused in molds, vessels as well as decorative objects that may have served as ornaments or inlays. Among the finds are the remains of about 20 vessels. Particularly noteworthy are a bowl with deeply lobbed, almond-shaped bulges and several vertically fluted beakers, a decorative device identical to the decoration on the Shumei beaker. Other sherds include handles of jugs or vases and an expertly engraved vessel of thick glass. Some of the small ornaments are beautifully engraved, testimony to the admirable standard of workmanship at the royal ateliers.

In 1959 a spectacular and unique rhyton of almost clear glass with the protome in form of a bull attacked by a lion was found by Ali Sami (Univ. of Shiraz) in Persepolis at the base of the Rahmat mountain. Although discovered at a depth of about 5 meters in an undatable level it certainly belongs to the series of glasses from the Persepolis treasury. Both the rhyton and the Shumei beaker as well as the other vessels are based on prototypes in precious metal and stone. The beaker in the Shumei collection could, for example, be compared with similarly shaped Mannaian silver rhyta of an earlier period in Iran (south of Lake Urmia), namely the 7th century8). Also rhyta of precious metal such as those from the kurgans of the Seven Brothers in south Russia or one of the 1st half of the 5th century formerly in the Schimmel collection and now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York feature horizontally fluted bodies with flaring rim and protome in shape of rams9).

The decorative device of covering a vessel-surface with grooves or flutes was not limited to rhyta and beakers of the Shumei variety. A fragmentary beaker of clear glass with horizontally arranged grooves below a band of lotus blossoms in high relief was found in grave B in Derveni, north of Thessaloniki (Salonika). Although dated "after 323/315" it may be a treasured piece of late Achaemenid workmanship as it is closely related to the fluted beakers found at Persepoli (supra). Objects of this kind are faithful copies of Achaemenid silver beakers attested by examples in Berlin and Oxford10). The body of a glass vase (or rhyton ?) in Corning with egg-shaped body and wide neck flaring upwards is covered with pattern of vertical flutes11). Datable to the 5th century it imitates forms in metal example of which, an amphora with ibex handles found in Iraq, also dates from the 5th century12).

As already mentioned the bowl in Achaemenid times was the most popular form in metal and in glass. A number of well-dated glass bowls are helpful to put the Shumei beaker in its proper, historical context. Most of them are decorated either with flutes or with leaves radiating from a circlet at the center. They come in several variants?|either shallow or relatively deeply bodies?|and are always patterned after models in precious metal13). In our context only those objects will be mentioned that have been excavated under scientific supervision. Practically all of them are made of clear glass; those few of pale blue material are the exception14).

Among the oldest, safely dated objects known to me is a deep bowl with fluted body and everted rim found in a stone-built tomb in Aslaia, Cyrenaica, north-east of Benghazi15). Greek pottery found with it place the burial in the late 5th century. A fragmentary bowl of almost identical shape with leaves radiating from the center was discovered in a stone tomb in Sairkhe on the river Kvirila?|ancient Phasis?|in western Georgia. According to the other objects found in the tomb it can safely be put in the mid-5th century16). Similar bowls are known to come from Aineia and Veroia in Macedonia17) and from Rhodes18). Although they belong to graves of the last quarter of the 4th century and seem to be of Greek manufacture they are literal copies of earlier models of Achaemenid time.

Well known in the literature is a petalled bowl with everted rim found by D.G. Hogarth in the fill of the Artemision in Ephesus that was burnt in 356 B.C. Comparable to similar pieces of the 5th century it can be dated to the late 5th or 1st half of the 4th century19). Of undoubtedly mid-5th century date, however, is a shallow, undecorated bowl of clear glass that comes from a region far-away from the rest of the group, namely from a grave in Ihringen in south-west Germany20).

Closer to the "motherland" of Achaemenid glass manufacture are finds from locations in South Russia, Georgia and Nippur. Two bowls of a form similar to the piece from Ephesus come from the Kurdshipskij kurgan (south of Maikop), datable to the 4th century and from a tomb near Trialeti on the Algeti river, south-west of Tbilisi-Tiflis that has been assigned to the late 6th or 5th century21). Finally a deep, fragmentary bowl?|unfortunately unstratified?|with a pattern of overlapping leaves was discovered in Nippur in 188922).
Quite a few pieces are known that can be compared with the Achaemenid glass bowls mentioned in the foregoing. Some of them have long been part of museum holdings, others have entered public and private collections via the antiquities' market. They are preserved, for example, in Cologne, Corning, Dusseldorf, Geneva, Hamburg, Istanbul, Jerusalem, London, Munich, Naples, New York, Regensburg, St. Petersburg and Toledo; one was formerly in the Sangiorgi Collection (Rome), a few more are or were on the market23).

The group of similarly decorated glasses manufactured in molds of decolorized?|very rarely of pale blue?|material originates, as far as we know, from workshops established near royal residences in Achaemenid Iran. Although many finds come from locations far apart?| from Nippur to Germany?|the bulk has been excavated in Iran, namely in Persepolis where the finest pieces have come to light. In addition, vessels of precious metal that are known or said to be of Iranian workmanship served in practically every case as direct models for vessels of glass24). Their representations in stone appear in mass on the reliefs of the Apadana in Persepolis25).

The literary analogy in Iranian glass bowls is contained in Aristophanes' "Acharnians" (37,5) first put on stage in Athens in 425 B.C. where it is reported that Athenian ambassadors at the Persian court at Ecbatana "drank sweet wine from vessels of gold and glass26)." It can even be assumed that the beginning of the manufacture of more or less decolorized glass was formed in molds to serve as inlays for the gigantic gold-ivory statue of Zeus; these were discovered in Phidias' workshop in Olympia datable to about 435-425 B.C.27)

The influence of the Iranian luxury glass?|manufacturing facilities have not as yet been discovered?|is strongly felt in Hellenistic glass The vessels in this very prominent group make their first appearance in the last quarter of the 4th century in the Aegean in regions and locations such as Macedonia, Rhodes and Delos where they seem to have been made locally. At that time, however, it is not always possible to separate late Achaemenid from early Hellenistic works. Slightly later Hellenistic luxury glass probably of Alexandrian manufacture is found among the contents of richly appointed graves in southern Italy: the hoards from Canosa and Taranto are among the most famous finds of Hellenistic glass.

All vessels in this Hellenistic group owe their forms, their technology and partly their decorative motifs to Iranian prototypes as Iranian glass, in turn, had profited from the technological advances made in Assyria in the late 8th and 7th centuries. The glass from Persepolis and other locations and the many vessels closely related to this group?|such as the Shumei beaker?|constitute a corpus of Iranian luxury ware of the highest order. In the entire history of ancient glass not many periods have reached a comparable level of aesthetic excellence and superior workmanship.

Dr. Axel von Saldern
Ex-Director of the Museum of Art and Applied Arts in Hamburg, Germany


01. Height 15 cm. Tehran, Iran Bastan Museum. Av. Saldern, Glasrhyta, Festschrift f?r Waldemar Haberey, Mainz 1976, 121-3, pl.32:1; S. Fukai, Persian Glass, New York-Tokyo-Kyoto 1977. Fig.8.
02. D.Barag, in: A.L. Oppenheim et al., Glass and Glassmaking in Ancient Mesopotamia, Corning 1970, 129-99.
03. B. Nolte, Die Glasgefaesse im alten Aegypten, Berlin 1968.
04. A.von Saldern, Mosaic Glass from Hasanlu, Marlik, and Tell al-Rimah, Journal of Glass Studies (=JGS) 8, 1966, 9-25; idem, Other Mesopotamian Glass Vessels (1500-600 B.C.), op.cit. Oppenheim et al. 1970,203-28; Nolte, op.cit. 1968.
05. D. Barag, Western Asiatic Glass in the British Museum, London 1985, no.26.
06. A.von Saldern, Glass Finds at Gordion, JGS 1, 1959, 22-7, figs.1-2.
07. E.F. Schmidt, Persepolis (OIP 68), Chicago 1953, pl.41; idem (OIP 69), Chicago 1957, 91-3, 127-32, pl.66-7.
08. C.K. Wilkinson, Two Ancient Silver Vessels, Bull. Metrop. Mus. Of Art 15, Summer 1956, 9-15; The Pomerance Collection of Ancient Art, The Brooklyn Museum 1966, no.54.
09. H. Hoffmann, The Persian Origin of the Attic Rhyta, Antike Welt 4, 1961, 21-9, pl.11 (rhyta from the Seven Brothers group of kurgans); Ancient Art. The Norbert Schimmel Collection (ed. By O. White Muscarella), Mainz 1974, no. 155. Cf. also Achaemenid vessels of gold and silver mainly of the 5th century featuring animal protomes and fluted bodies in: 7000 ans d'art en Iran, exhib. Paris 1962, nos.638ff.,pls.53ff.; Traci. Arte e cultura nelle terre di Bulgaria…, exhib. Venice 1989, nos. 138ff.
10. G. Hafner, Kretisch-Mykenisches in der sp?teren griechischen Kunst,
Festschrift des R?misch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums Mainz 3, 1953, pl.6:6; A. Oliver, Jr., Persian Export Glass, JGS 12, 1970, fig.10.
11. S. Goldstein, Pre-Roman and Early Roman Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning 1979, no.250.
12. Pomerance Collection op.cit. 1966, no.59.
13. Oliver op.cit. 1970; D.F. Grose, Early Ancient Glass, The Toledo Museum of art, New York 1989, 80-1, fig.48.
14. Vessel handle from Persepolis: Schmidt, op.cit. 1957, pl.67:1; bowl with leaf petals in Corning, Goldstein, op.cit. 1979, no.251.
15. M. Vickers, An Achaemenid Glass Bowl in a Dated Context, JGS 14, 1972, 15-6.
16. George Makharadze, Mariam Saginashvili, An Achaemenian Glass Bowl from Sairkhe, Georgia, JGS 41, 1999, 11-7.
17.. I. Vokotopoulou, Oi taphikoi toumboi tes Aineias, Athens 1990, 61, no.15 (tumulus ‡V, grave A); G. Touratsoglou, To xeiphos tes Veroia: symbole ste Makedonike oplopoia ton isteron klassikon xronon, Archaia Makedonia 4, 1986, 641-3, fig.5.
18. P. Triantafyllidis, New Evidence of the Glass Manufacture in Classical and Hellenistic Rhodes, Annales du 14e Congre's de 1'Association Internationale du Verre 1998 (2000), 30-1 fig.5-7.
19. Barag, op.cit. 1985, no.46.
20. R. Dehn, Ein sp?thallstattzeitliches Fyrstengrab von Ihringen, Kreis Breisgau-Hochschwarzwald, Archaeologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Wuerttemberg 1993, Stuttgart 1994, 109-12, fig.61; Tre'sors Celtes et Gaulois, exhib. Colmar, 1996, colorpl.9.
21. L.K. Galanina, Glass Vessels from the Kurdjipsky Barrow, Archeologiceskji sbornik Gosudarstvennyi ordena Lenina Ermitage <=Asbor> 12, 1970, 44, no.11.
22. Philadelphia, Univ.of Pennsylvania Mus. D. Barag, An Unpublished Achemenid Cut Glass Bowl from Nippur, JGS 10, 1968, 17-20.
23. Oliver, op.cit. 1970. Goldstein, op.cit. 1979, nos.248, 251. A. von Saldern, Two Achaemenid Glass Bowls and a Hoard of Hellenistic Glass Vessels, JGS 17, 1975, 37-9. Geneva: Muse'e d'Art et d'Histoire ( 14396). Catalog of Glass in the Hueseyin Kokabas?E Collection, Istanbul 1984, no.80, fig.30. Naples: G.D. Weinberg, Hellenistic Glass Vessels from the Athenian Agora, Hesperia 30, 1961, pl.93a. S. Baumgaertner, Glaeser, Antike… Museum der Stadt Regensburg, Karlsruhe 1977, no. 1.N. Kunina, Ancient Glass in the Hermitage Collection, St. Petersburg 1997, no.47, colorpl.27. Grose, op.cit.1989, no.34. Sangiorgi: Saldern, op.cit.1959, fig.29. M. Pfrommer, Studien zu alexandrinischer und grossgriechischer Toreutik fr?hhellenistischer Zeit, Berlin 1987, 251, no.KBk30 (Sotheby's London, July 12, 1976, no.307). Solid Liquid, Fortuna Fine Arts, New York 1999, no.1.
24. It should be pointed out that it is sometimes not easy to sort out stylistically similar Iranian from Greek silverware. - Cf. also the relation of Greek ceramics to toreutic art: B.B. Sefton, Persian Gold and Attic Black-glaze:Achaemenid Influences on Attic Pottery of the 5th and 4th Centuries B.C., Annales Arche'ologiques Arabes Syriennes 21, 1971 = Ixe'me Congre's Internat. D'Arche'ologie Classique, Damascus 1969, 109-11.
25. Schmidt, op.cit. 1953, pl.31ff.
26. Text in: M.L. Trowbridge, Philological Studies in Ancient Glass (Univ. of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature ‡]‡V, 3-4, 1928), Urbana 1930, 134, 151.
27. W. Schiering, Die Werkstatt des Pheidias in Olympia 2: Werkstattfunde (DAI Olympia Forsch. 18), Berlin 1991, 47-50, 131ff. 157ff.