Scythian Bronze Axehead
Period: 6th 5th century B.C.
Dimensions: L: 12.2 cm
Sotheby’s, London, December 3, 1991, Lot 25.
Complete object in excellent condition; slightly worn surface, eye inlays now lost. Metal of reddish brown color with traces of a greenish and black patina.
Following a technique commonly used in ancient times (already from the 3rd millennium B.C.),this weapon was most likely made in a bivalve stone or clay mold.
The axehead, whose design is light and particularly elegant, is modeled in a T-shape. It is composed of three elements: the hollow cylindrical eye, which tapers upwards; the very elongated and regular pick-shaped end, reinforced by a central rib in relief; the back end, following the axis of the pick, which features the weapon’s only decoration: two ibex heads, arranged back-to-back (originally, the eyes were probably inlaid with semi-precious stones). Among the fi rst animals to be domesticated, ibexes have a long tradition in the iconography of Near Eastern and Central Asian art.
The style, simple and a little naive, relates to the animal representations in Scythian art. Despite this stylization, the image is very clear, since only one element – the long, ridged and recurved horns – is enough to identify the species represented. Although their shape is special and rarely witnessed (the best parallel is an axehead in the I.A. Lopatin Collection housed in the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg), axeheads of this type are documented not only in Scythian but also in Attic iconography; in Classical Athens, the police force was composed of Scythian slaves, often seen equipped with their traditional weapon, the bow, and sometimes with an axe. With the bow and the sword, the axe was an essential part of the off ensive panoply of Scythian warriors, even though it rarely appears in tombs. The finest specimens – like the golden axe from Kelermes – probably played a largely symbolic role as ceremonial weapons or power attributes; such a purpose might also be suggested for this example, given the delicate workmanship and especially the small dimensions that seem hardly compatible with use on the battlefield.
On the axehead of the I.A. Lopatin Collection, see: L’or des Scythes: Trésors de l’Ermitage, Leningrad, Brussels, 1991, no. 136.
On Scythians and war, see: LEBEDYNSKY I., Les Scythes: La civilisation des steppes, Paris, 2001, pp. 154 ff. SCHLITZ V., Les Scythes et les nomades des steppes, Paris, 1994, p. 259, no. 194; pp. 388-400.