Vessel terminating in the forepart of a stag, 14th–13th century b.c.; Hittite Empire period
H. 7 1/16 in. (18 cm)
Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989 (1989.281.10)
By 1700 B.C., people speaking Hittite—an Indo-European language—had founded a capital at Bogazköy (ancient Hattusha) and, under a series of powerful kings, established a state in Central Anatolia. The Hittite army attacked and partly destroyed Babylon in around 1595 B.C. and, in circa 1285 B.C., fought a battle against the Egyptian king Ramesses II at Qadesh in Syria.
Inventories of Hittite cultic objects record lists of ritual zoomorphic, or animal-shaped, vessels. This silver example in the form of a stag was produced from at least twelve separate pieces of worked metal, with a checkerboard-patterned ring at the neck serving to both hide and reinforce the join between the head and the body. Both the antlers and the handle were attached separately. A frieze depicting a religious ceremony decorates the rim of the cup, illustrating the type of libation ritual for which the cup may have been intended. A prominent figure, probably a deity, sits on a cross-legged stool, holding a bird of prey in the left hand and a small cup in the right. The deity wears a conical crown and has large ears, typical of Hittite art. It is unclear whether the deity is meant to be male or female. A mushroom-shaped incense burner separates him or her from another, distinctly male deity who stands on the back of a stag. He, too, holds a raptor in his left hand, while with his right he grasps a small curved staff. Three men are shown in profile, moving to the left and facing the deities. Each holds an offering. Behind the men is a tree or plant against which rests the collapsed figure of a stag. Hanging from the tree is a quiver with arrows and an object that appears to be a bag. Two vertical spears complete the frieze and separate the stag from the seated deity.
Cult scenes or religious processions are commonly represented in the art of the Hittite empire, and texts make frequent reference to trees and plants associated with rituals or festivals. Hittite texts also mention that animal-shaped vessels made of gold, silver, stone, and wood, in the appropriate animal form, were given to the gods for their own use. Though the precise meaning of the frieze on this vessel remains a matter of conjecture, it is possible that the vessel was intended to be the personal property of the stag god.