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Shaft-hole axe head with bird-headed demon, boar, and dragon

Bronze Age
ca. late 3rd–early 2nd millennium B.C.
Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex
Silver, gold foil
L. 15 cm
Credit Line:
Purchase, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, and James N. Spear and Schimmel Foundation Inc. Gifts, 1982
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Ancient Bactria and Margiana were areas along the Oxus and Murghab rivers in modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. While these areas were sparsely inhabited during much of the third millennium B.C., by about 2200 B.C. permanent settlements with distinctive forms of architecture, burial practices, and material culture had been established, supported in part by active trade with parts of Iran, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley.

    This silver-gilt shaft-hole axe is a masterpiece of three-dimensional and relief sculpture. Expertly cast and gilded with foil, it represents a bird-headed hero grappling with a wild boar and a winged dragon. The idea of the heroic bird-headed creature probably came from western Iran, where it is first documented on a cylinder seal impression. The hero's muscular body is human except for the bird talons that replace the hands and feet. He is represented twice, once on each side of the axe, and consequently appears to have two heads. On one side, he grasps the boar by the belly and on the other, by the tusks. The posture of the boar is contorted so that its bristly back forms the shape of the blade. With his other talon, the bird-headed hero grasps the winged dragon by the neck. This creature is distinguished by folded and staggered wings, a feline body, and the talons of a bird of prey in the place of his front paws. Its single horn has been broken off and lost.

  • Provenance

    By 1967, Mahboubian collection; acquired by the Museum in 1982, purchased from Mehdi Mahboubian, New York.

  • Exhibition History

    "Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 8–August 17, 2003.

  • References

    Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 112 (July 1,1981 - June 30, 1982), p. 18.

    Harper, Prudence O. et al. 1984. "Ancient Near Eastern Art." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 41 (4), Spring 1984, pp. 26-27, fig. 28.

    Pittman, Holly, in collaboration with Joan Aruz. 1987. Ancient Art in Miniature: Near Eastern Seals from the Collection of Martin and Sarah Cherkasky. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 34-35, fig. 19.

    Aruz, Joan. 2003. "Shaft-hole axe with a bird-demon, boar, and winged dragon." In Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, exh. cat. edited by Joan Aruz, with Ronald Wallenfels. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 264, pp. 373-374.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History