Achaemenid Empire

The Elamite Rock Relief at Kurangun

Ever since Darius’ inscription at Behistun was deciphered, scholars have puzzled why it is placed high on a cliff where nobody can read it and even the sculptures are difficult to see. Even the ledge on which the builders stood was chiselled away, so that visitors who wished to copy the inscription had to be lowered by ropes from above. A common answer is that he wrote it for the gods, but this does not really work. Darius specifically addresses future kings, and readers who might doubt his words, and includes the boilerplate blessing on those who preserve and proclaim his words and curse on those who alter or destroy them. He also says that after the inscription was composed copies were sent amongst the nations (paragraph 70 of the Old Persian version), and we have a copy in Aramaic from Elephantine on the Nile and a retelling by Herodotus which clearly draws on the official version of the story. Babylonian scholars often had copies of foundation inscriptions and other texts which were buried for posterity in their collections. While the copy at Behistun was placed where nobody could read it, the text which is preserved there clearly has specific mortal audiences which Darius was concerned about, and it influenced many people in the empire and beyond.

At another place in Fars there is a tongue of rock overlooking a river with a fertile plain. On this tongue there is also a large relief carved into the rock about a hundred meters above the plain below. It was there long before Darius, although it is not clear that he was familiar with it like he was with some other rock reliefs.

The Elamite rock relief and valley below at Kurangun in Iran.  Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.
The Elamite rock relief and valley below at Kurangun in Iran. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

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A Monster-Headed Luristan Axe

As the chapter of my dissertation on war in the ancient near east before the Achaemenid period takes shape, I am reading books like Oscar White Musarella’s study of bronze and iron artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I do so, it occurred to me that I have something to add to my earlier post about monster-headed axes.

The first axe belongs to the sad collection of artifacts known as Luristan bronzes. The ancient people there deposited many fine bronzes in their tombs, and in the 1920s the locals began to dig them up and sell them on a large scale. Once enterprising smiths began to cast their own “Luristan bronzes,” and dealers began to market objects looted from other regions under the “Luristan” label, a great deal of knowledge was lost forever. However, this axe resembles finds with inscriptions from the 12th century BCE or excavated from a temple built at at Tschogha Zanbil in the 13th (although there are others in contexts 400 years younger). Have a look at how the blade is attached to the socket.

An axehead with its blade emerging from the mouth of a duck attached to its socket
A bronze axehead from the Metropolitan Museum, NY, accession number 32.161.2; discussed in Muscarella, Iron and Bronze, p. 190 no. 304.



Second, take another look at the axe of an Achaemenid king as carved sometime around 500 BCE.

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The Elamite Relief at Naqš-e Rostam

A relief set deep into a mountainside of seven men standing on either side of a tall, crowned figure holding a sword

Naqš-e Rostam is famous because Darius and three of his successors were buried there in a new style of tomb cut deep into the rock, and for the mysterious stone cube (Kaˁba) which probably also dates to his reign. The reliefs by the Sasanid kings, and the long inscription of Shahpur boasting of his victories over the Romans, are also renowned.

If you climb up from the parking lot past the souvenir shops and toilets through the remains of the Sasanid ring wall, and follow the cliffs beneath the tombs of the kings of old and past the Kaˁba, you will find something else.
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Monster-Headed Axes

The weapon bearer from the relief of the North Staircase, Apadana, Persepolis courtesy of Jona Lendering of Livius.Org.

On the great central relief of the North Staircase at Persepolis, which was presented front and center to visitors approaching the palace for an audience, a weapon bearer stands in the background with the royal axe and bow. His axe has a long, narrow head like a pick. A clever craftsman has formed the socket into the head of a strange creature, and the blade into something which comes from its mouth, while the back-spike becomes its tail. Several iron or bronze axeheads of this type survive, but none is so beautifully formed.

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Cross-Post: Achemenet News

Those of you who share my interest in Achaemenid studies will have noticed changes to the very important Achemenet website, partially good (it now works without Adobe Flash player) and partially bad (old links to the transcriptions of Achaemenid tablets by Francis Joannès, Caroline Waerzeggers, and other scholars have been broken and PDFs replaced with HTML, so that a citation in one of my forthcoming publications is already obsolete). For several years Achemenet was hosted by the Musée du Louvre. On Friday 19 February, the editors announced that since November 2015 the Louvre has refused to let them determine Achemenet policy or continue to support their open-access journal ARTA and series of monographs Persika, and that they are therefore ending their connection with the Louvre and moving Achemenet to the ARSCAN laboratory in France.

I quote their letter below without comment except for glossing a few names.

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Vishtaspa karanaya

A famous passage of Xenophon goes as follows (Xen. Hell. 1.4.3):

Cyrus had a letter with him, bearing the King’s seal … among other things it contained these words: I am sending Cyrus down to the coast as karanos of all whose mustering centre is Castolus (the word karanos means „having power“)

Xenophon never repeats the word karanos, and no other surviving Greek or Latin writer uses it. In the Anabasis (1.1, 1.9.7) he says that Cyrus was made strategos, or general, of those whose mustering centre is Castolus.

The word karanos has become encrusted with a painstaking and scholarly literature which investigates it philologically. Because the term was only attested once before the Parthian period, when it appears in Aramaic on coins and is spelled krny and equated with Greek autokrator, progress has been limited. The term clearly contains the root kāra-, the Old Persian word for the politically and military significant part of the population. This word is not easily translatable into English, but there are convenient equivalents in many languages, including German Heeresvolk. Because it appears in both the royal inscriptions and in Iranian names, its general meaning is clear. Philologists disagree whether the ending /-nos/ is simply the suffix for „someone in charge of“ (Latin tribus -> tribunus) or from a verb “to lead, to make go” as Nicholas Sekunda prefers (Gr. στρατηγός <- stratos “army” + agō “to go”, δημαγωγός <- dēmos “people-in-arms” + agōgos “one who leads astray”). In the first case the Old Persian would be something like kārana-, in the second kāranaya-. Neither theory clarifies exactly what the word meant in 407 BCE. Scholars who attempt to show that karanos was a common title in the Achaemenid empire find themselves in a foggy jungle, since just because a karanos could be called a strategos does not mean that any of the other strategoi in Greek sources were karanoi, and the masses of Elamite, Babylonian, Aramaic, and Demotic Egyptian documents did not use this term. But then the group of leather documents from Bactria from the fourth century BCE was published, and many of its readers noticed something.
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The Pazyryk Shield

Closeup photo of a shield of sticks thrust through zigzag slits in a sheet of leather
The shield from Pazyryk kurgan 1. Label not legible in my photo of it. Located in The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by author, September 2015.

I recently had the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg and see some things which I had wanted to see for very many years. One of these was the shield excavated by S.I. Rudenko from the barrows at Pazyryk in the Russian part of the Altai mountains where Russia, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Kazakhistan come together. The structure of the barrows and the local climate caused permafrost to develop beneath them, preserving some of their contents despite the intrusion of grave-robbers. Shields made in a similar way appear in Greek paintings of Persian soldiers from just over another border of the Achaemenid empire. The barrows (Russian singular kurgan) at Pazyryk are usually attributed to the fourth or third centuries BCE, but many of the objects found in them are older. To the best of my knowledge, the next surviving examples come from the siege of Dura Europos at least 500 years later (a photo is available in Nicholas Sekunda, The Persian Army, p. 21).

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How Do You Pronounce Those Accented Characters in Ancient Near Eastern Languages Anyways?

An old cutwater of natural stones set in concrete, barely higher than the water which flows by it and into cracks in the end facing the onrushing water; some stones are covered with slimy moss
Rivers have their own interesting sounds. The cutwater of the old footings of a bridge in the river Inn. Photo by author.

Specialists in ancient Southwest Asia do not always name and define the special accented characters which they use to transcribe words in languages like Aramaic, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Old Persian. While this is convenient for fellow specialists, and avoids taking side in some debates about the sounds of ancient languages, it makes it hard for readers without their special training to read these words, to pronounce them, and to copy them on a computer. They also sometimes refer to these characters after their Greek or Hebrew names, which can also be confusing if one does not know these alphabets and how they are transcribed in Latin letters. One of the appendices to my doctoral thesis will give the names and pronunciations of every special character which I use. I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience. If a passing phoneticist drops in to prevent a poor historian from mangling the International Phonetic Alphabet or spreading nonsense about Akkadian phonology, so much the better! I would rather be corrected now than by a reviewer when in the distant future the dissertation becomes a book.
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Late Babylonian Private Letters

Photo of a book from Ugarit-Verlag bound in bright blue cloth

Before Christmas a senior colleague recommended that I should read the new volume of Spätbabylonische Privatbriefe from Ugarit-Verlag. I am grateful that they did. The orientalists in Vienna are working on a project on Babylonia from the end of the seventh century BCE to the end of cuneiform writing on clay, and as part of this project they are editing the many letters which survive from this period. For some reason few school texts and libraries of literature have been found from this period, so private letters are our best view of the living language and everyday life. This volume contains 243 of which eighty have never been published and 58 never transcribed and commented upon. Every one is translated, and there is an introduction to the dialect of the letters and a dictionary with entries for every Babylonian word with references to use. Most of these letters are 100 to 200 words long and deal with instructions, property, and travel. A reasonable number, however, deal with military affairs and strong emotions.

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