This gold model chariot was discovered by a group of merchants around the River Oxus in present-day Tajikistan along with 170 other objects made of gold and silver between 1876 and 1880. Collectively known as the Oxus Treasure, the pieces are considered to be the most important surviving artifacts of the Achaemenid period of the Persian Empire. Symbolic of the multiculturalism of the Persian Empire under, and after, Cyrus the Great, the piece features two figures wearing the garbs of the Medes from Iran and the face of the Egyptian god of protection Bes on the front of the chariot. The exact purpose of the model is unknown and at the center of scholarly debate; some believed it to be a toy, others surmise it was an offering to a temple. Currently, the Oxus Treasure, including a second incomplete gold model chariot, resides in The British Museum.
In "The Oxus Treasure in The British Museum," John Curtis, a specialist in Iranian archaeology and art, notes that numerous pieces from the Oxus Treasure possessed a composition of "alluvial gold alloyed with a little copper and possibly silver" [See Curtis 2004, 317-318]. This is true for the model chariot as well. According to Aude Mongiatti, the Conservator of the British Museum, microscopic specks of iridium and osmium are also present in the gold of two of the horses' bodies, which is considered common of gold that is panned from river sands. The copper, however, was purposely added to "harden" the gold, which is considered to be a "soft metal," and to ultimately create a more durable finished product [See "Oxus Chariot Model"].
The process by which the model was created showed exceptional artistry and expertise on the part of the craftsman. Both men and the four horses were hollow and the products of portions of gold sheet being "cut out" and "soldered" together; the bodies were created by "hammering" these pieces of gold into molds [See "Oxus Chariot Model"]. The intricate details, such as facial features and clothes, were delicately added later. For the chariot, the goldsmith molded the shape out of a sheet of gold. Wire was used for the reins and the rims and spokes of each of the wheels, all of which were fully functioning [See "Oxus Chariot Model"]. The charioteer and nobleman are also attached to the chariot by wires; the feet of the driver are connected to the chariot's floor while his passenger is fixed to a strip of gold that acts as his seat [Dalton 1964, 4].
Because of the vast amount of cultures and land that came under Cyrus the Great's Persian Empire, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact location as to the origin of the materials used to make model chariot, and by extension the general Oxus Treasure; however, the area of Bactria, an eastern section of the empire in present-day Afghanistan, is a likely candidate for the large amounts of gold [Dalton 164, xvii-xviii, xx]. If this is true, the model chariot did not travel far as it was thought to have been re-discovered Tajikistan by 19th century merchants before being brought back through Afghanistan to be traded.
According to the British Museum, it eventually acquired the treasure when Sir Augustus Wollaston Frank, curator of the Museum, bought pieces of it from bazaars in India and Major-General Sir Alexander Cunningham, the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India.
Local Historical ContextEdit
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, consummated in 550 BCE with Cyrus the Great's victory of King Astyages' Median Empire, was the largest in ancient human history. This subsequently led to the Cyrus' conquering of the Lydian, Egyptian, and Babylonian empires. Unfortunately, the majority of historical records regarding the Empire come from contemporary Greeks [See "The Achaemenid Persian Empire"]. However, the assorted influences of these conquered empires in Persian art and architecture have been able to further explain the history of the Persian Empire. Since its discovery, numerous theories have been put forth about the reasons behind the amassing of this treasure and the constructing of its individual pieces. One prominent theory holds that the collection is a hoard of a temple or shrine [Curtis 2004, 295]. In regards to the chariot model, Perry notes that some scholars have noted that the image of the Egyptian god Bes, sometimes connected to Egyptian children, may suggest that it was toy of an elite's child [Perry 2006, 16-17]. Some scholars believed that it could have been a soldier's offering in hopes of protection during battle [Perry 2006, 17]. Keeper of the British and Medieval Antiquities Department at the British Museum, O.M. Dalton, however, believed otherwise.
Focusing on the chariot's interior structure, Dalton notes that the noble occupant is forced to sit facing sideways and that there is no back to the chariot; therefore, the chariot was likely not used for battle or "the pursuit of wild beasts," but rather "peaceful excursions" [Dalton 1964, xl]. Furthermore, the seated nobleman, whom Dalton believes may have been a satrap, is considerably larger than the charioteer. This difference in size was meant to "render distinctions of rank" by showing "important persons on a larger scale than the rest" [Dalton 1964, xl]. This purposeful skewing of this upper class figure heavily suggests the person who commissioned, or was the recipient of, the model chariot was a himself a member of the nobility. This could likely fit with a separate theory that the treasure had initially belonged to an "old-established" Bactrian family who added to the horde with each successive generation [Dalton 1964, xvii].
According to the British Museum, this particular model chariot is comparable to the one that Persian Emperor Darius I is shown riding on a cylinder seal.
In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Shahrokh Razmjou, curator of the British Museum, stated that the gold model chariot should act as "a reminder of the massive networks of Persian roads and highways which connected remote places...from Central Asia and India to Europe and Africa." Driven by the Achaemenid dynasty's fervent multiculturalism and tolerance, these far-reaching trade routes allowed peaceful spreading and embracing of different fashions, religions, and precious metal. In doing so, many of these foreign influences manifested into this particular model chariot.
In a move hailed as a "masterpiece of administrative genius," Darius I, son and successor of Cyrus the Great, employed twenty provincial governors, known as satraps, to collect taxes and tributes and rule the empire on localized levels [Dalton 1964, xxiv]. These payments of tributes likely furthered the spread of ingenious culture and economic influences. For instance, satraps were sent to both of the kingdoms of Media and Bactria, whose influences (along with a motley of others) on the model chariot are well documented [Dalton 1964, xxiv]. As mentioned above, there is a possibility that the nobleman sitting in the model chariot is meant to be a satrap.
Upon examining the model chariot, scholars noted that the use of four horses, as opposed to two, was influenced by societies as far west as Syria [Dalton 1964, xxxix]. The goldsmith's use of abnormally small horses when much of the Persian Empire's land catered to the large Nisaean horses was inspired by chariot models of Cyprus, Greece at the time [Dalton 1964, xxxix]. The "belted tunic," necklaces, caps, and robes of the charioteer and his passenger in the model chariot are described as typical of the Median dress at the time [Perry 2006, 16]. In fact, similar Median "costume" is dawned by kings on monuments dating back to the Achaemenid dynasty [Dalton 1964, xxxii]. According to the British Museum, the face that adorns the front of the chariot is that of the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes, a deity who symbolized protection.
Curtis, John. "The Oxus Treasure in the British Museum." Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 10 (2004): 293-338.
Dalton, O.M. The Treasure of the Oxus with other Examples of Early Oriental Metal-Work. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1964.
Perry, Carolyn. "Chariot of Fire." Times Educational Supplement 4668 (2006): 16-17.
Britannica Online. "Satrap." Accessed April 19, 2011. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/525034/satrap
British Broadcasting Corporation . "Oxus Chariot Model." Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/sbCfsq5kSFaknMhxuK9zow
The British Museum. "Oxus Chariot Model." Accessed April 12, 2011. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/g/gold_model_chariot.aspx
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 B.C.)." Accessed April 18, 2011. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/acha/hd_acha.htm