59 • Three Horned Heads of Mouflons

Ancient Bactria, mid-3rd millennium BC
Size: 13 × 13 cm
Copper alloy overlaid with gold

These three horned heads are identical to those excavated in 1937 at Tepe Hissar in north-east Iran, part of the sixty objects making up the so-called ‘Treasure I’ of Hissar. All of them are believed to have come from Bactria, c. 2500 BC, according to stratification, and illustrate the contacts between different communities and the trade between them.

Published: O. Bopearachchi, C. Landes, C. Sachs, De l’Indus à l’Oxus. Archéologie de l’Asie Centrale, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Montpellier, 2003, no. 18 a, b, c

Provenance: Private collection, UK


The ancient land of Bactria lay in north-west Afghanistan, with its capital city of Balkh ‘the Mother of Cities’. Cut off to the south by the Hindu Kush mountains and to the east by the Pamirs, it stretched out westwards into the steppes of Central Asia. It was an oasis culture that flourished along the rivers in Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan. At its heart was Margiana, at the broad Murgab river delta, and the great city of Merv. It is hard for us to imagine the sophistication of such a culture, so remote, so apparently discombobulated over such a wide area. And yet it was artistically innovative and diverse, as the objects that follow show, dating from the Middle–Late Bronze Age of the 3rd millennium BC to the Hellenistic and later Roman-Gandhara periods of production. One reason was the early immigration from the Kopet Dag and Tejen oasis system, bringing irrigation techniques and material culture. There were rich mineral lodes, gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, gemstones, lapis lazuli and turquoise. Far from being cut off and remote, these oasis communities were the vital trade link between the Indus Valley, Iran and Mesopotamia; they were in touch with everybody, and prospered greatly as a result. We forget that Central Asia became a pre-eminent intellectual hub, prefigured by this oasis culture, connecting India, China, the Middle East and Europe. Merv’s outer rampart ran for 155 miles, and in the Middle Ages the city employed a permanent staff of 12,000 hydraulic engineers to maintain its irrigation system.

The 1st millennium BC saw the growing power of the nomads from the north, who interfered with the peaceful pursuit of trade, and who from the mid-millennium became locked in a struggle with the dominant Achaemenid Empire of Persia. The great artistic contribution of the nomads was the beguilingly beautiful ‘Animal Style’, which they spread from the borders of China to the Crimea. Alexander the Great brought Hellenism to Bactria in the later 4th century BC, followed by the Indo-Greek satrapies, and the close links forged with the Roman Empire in the early centuries ad. These different phases are eloquently illustrated by the works of art that follow.