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The Greatness that was Parthia

The Greatness that was Parthia

Professor Antonio Invernizzi, University of Turin

Lecture Review by Dr Caroline Mawer

Vladimir G Lukonin Memorial Lecture, British Museum, London, 10 July 2007

Professor Invernizzi will be well known to you all as an eminent Parthian expert, who should be recognised as a prime mover in the recent declaration of Nisa as a UN World Heritage site. In his well attended and wide-ranging talk, he focused on Old Nisa and discussed the published and unpublished results of his own as well as many of the other previous excavations at that site.

Professor Invernizzi presented many detailed plans and also proposed alternatives for both external and internal reconstructions of each of the major buildings on the Nisa site. His stunning photographs illustrated magnificently the range of vibrant colours discovered at excavation. This brief summary of his talk obviously cannot be comprehensive and will instead pick out a few key points.

In the Red Building, he especially noted some coloured floors, for example the purple plaster floor in Room 15. While the building is predominantly 'clean', some scattered gypsum balls with coin impressions have been found. These are presumed to be ritual objects, further supporting the idea that the building was used only occasionally and as part of the regal cult of the Arsacid dynasty.

Although the Square House was later used as a treasury and has yielded many rich finds, Professor Invernizzi illustrated the similarity of this building's layout with that for ritual dining at Vergina and suggested that the mud brick 'benches' could originally have been constructed for guests reclining at banquets which were themselves an element in the necessary demonstration of clan loyalty to the Arsacid rulers.

For the Round Hall, he noted that the internal walls were not in fact vertical, but slightly inclining, and also presented a fascinating re-excavation of pits for a presumed complex of scaffolding within the round space during its construction. From this, he proposed an elliptical dome reconstruction for the round element of the building, perhaps with white plaster in the lower part and purple in the higher, separated by a stucco cornice – this would have been partially obscured externally by the square external building, from which the tip of the ellipse would have protruded. He reminded us that no graves had been found for the Arsacid rulers and conjectured that the richly decorated and probably identifiable statues – for example of Mithridates I – found in the hall were evidence for its use as a royal memorial or mausoleum.

Professor Invernizzi went on to illustrate the mix of Greek and Oriental iconography on a variety of found objects, suggesting that the apparent strong Hellenistic influence was invoked as a way of appealing to the established Iranian recognition of Seleucid and so Alexandrine motifs and thus was a response to Arsacid legitimation concerns. He demonstrated the emphasis on, and variety of, royal symbols and proposed that, although motifs followed a Greek aesthetic, they often reflected a Scythian influence. For example, while the palmettes, eagles and a trident on a unique shield 'look' Greek; their use evokes Scythian cosmology to protect the shield's presumed royal bearer.

Professor Invernizzi then discussed some figurative art. Five Hellenistic marble statues have been thought to represent Greek deities – but close examination of the extant faces does not support this assertion and the Professor made a fascinating suggestion that they are actually of Iranian deities, following the Greek aesthetic. Statues previously considered to be of Artemis and Aphrodite, but potentially of Anahita / Nana, would correspond with some of the meagre epigraphic evidence and also be consistent with the mausoleum or memorial hypothesis.

Finally, Professor Invernizzi concluded by describing the Arsacid dynasty as being original and felicitous in their use of Hellenistic decorative elements; with the Parthian phase being not one of stagnation but rather of great universality.

Original article published in the CAIS Archaeological and Cultural News electronic newsletter, 8 Aug 2007

This page last updated 23 Feb 2021

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