by Judith A. Lerner
Metalworking in gold, silver, and bronze was one of the crafts in which Sogdian artisans particularly excelled. Many Sogdian metalwork shapes and techniques influenced Chinese metalwork and continued, with modifications over time, in Muslim Central Asia and Iran. The value of the Sogdian workmanship was such that their metalcrafts were traded extensively. Sogdian vessels—mainly silver—have been found in diverse regions of Asia, from points along the east–west Silk and northern Fur Routes in northern and southern Russia to areas of Central Asia beyond Sogdiana, and in China; Fig. 1.
Although often found with Sasanian silver vessels, no Sogdian vessels have yet been excavated in Iran, and with one exception, no Sogdian inscription has been found on Sasanian silver to indicate Sogdian ownership. What accounts for this? Most likely, it was the Sasanians’ “blockade” of Sogdian trade, especially silk, from their territory. True to the Chinese saying that “men of Sogdiana go wherever profit is to be found,” Sogdian merchants persuaded their new Turkic overlords to send a delegation to Constantinople via a northern route (avoiding Sasanian territory) to establish a market for Sogdian silk in Byzantium; Fig. 2.
At first glance, Sogdian metalwork resembles that of the Sasanians (and, indeed, some scholars still confuse the two), but differences, subtle and otherwise, differentiate them by shape, technique, and iconography. Boris I. Marshak, the Russian archaeologist most identified with the Sogdian town of Panjikent , as well as an expert on Sogdian metalwork, has demonstrated several characteristics of Sogdian vessels; Fig. 3.
Marshak determined that Sogdian vessels tend to be less massive than the Sasanian works, with different shapes, made using different techniques, and showing a greater dynamism in their designs. The static figures of ruling kings popular in Sasanian metalwork appear in Sogdian pieces only at the end of the 8th century, when Sogdiana finally came under Muslim rule. Instead, Sogdian artisans preferred medallions, each enclosing a single animal Figs. 4 and 5.
Because so little has been scientifically excavated, it is difficult to date Sogdian metalwork, but what survives comes mostly from the last centuries of the Sogdian city-states, the late 7th and 8th centuries. A few examples of metalwork, however, are later copies, thus providing evidence of the styles and subject matter of some Sogdian metalwork that is otherwise lost; Fig. 6.
Furthermore, even though they are not actual vessels, we do get a sense of the sundry kinds of vessels and their decoration from the banqueting scenes painted at Panjikent Fig. 7 and 8. Among the varied containers for foods and liquids, we see a horn-shaped wine vessel, or rhyton, terminating in an animal head a tankardlike cup engraved with a female figure; and several shallow bowls with ring bases, also made for imbibing.
In addition to silver, Sogdian craftsmen fashioned vessels in gold, although only a single example survives Fig. 9. Its exact find spot is unknown, but it dates to the late 7th or early 8th century. Its handle is joined to its neck by the foreparts of a winged and horned dragon, a creature that has roots in ancient Eastern Iranian art and appears in metalwork of the early Islamic period. Similarly, the magnificent ewer emblazoned with a winged camel Figs. 10 and 11 shows the same type of handle attachment—an influence from Late Antique/Byzantine metalwork examples.
Sogdian metalwork greatly influenced that of Tang China, through imports as well as through Sogdian craftsmen working in China. We see this in the flat ring-matted background of Tang-period metalwork, which was reproduced on Tang-period ceramic ewers Fig. 13, themselves inspired by the shape of the Sogdian ewer. In like manner, the shape of the Freer Gallery cup is repeated by Tang silversmiths Fig. 14, although ultimately the shape is Greco-Roman. In fact, this cup, collected early in the last century, reportedly came from Luoyang 洛陽 (in Henan Province). Other vessels, including one akin to the fluted lion bowl in the Freer Gallery Fig. 15, were found near Xi’an 西安, and a wine service from a mid-6th-century tomb in Hebei Province contained a Chinese-made silver bowl inspired by Sogdian metalwork.
The Sogdian-inscribed piece is a silver-gilt plate showing a mounted hunter with a ram’s-horn headdress, fighting boar. Most likely made in the eastern part of the Sasanian Empire, in the former Kushan realm of Bactria (present-day northern Afghanistan), it bears in Sogdian the name of an owner and its weight. See Prudence O. Harper, Silver Vessels of the Sasanian Period: Volume One, Royal Imagery (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981), pl. 23.
Boris I. Marschak [Marschak/Maršak], Silberschätze des Orients: Metallkunst des 3.–13. Jahrhunderts und ihre Kontinuität (Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 1986), 103.
Boris I. Marshak [Marschak/Maršak], “132. Set of Wine Vessels and a Tray,” in China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 AD, ed. James C. Y. Watt. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 252–53.