The Achaemenid Empire, from 550 – 330 B.C, called the First Persian Empire, was founded by Cyrus the Great, and went on to create some of the finest sculptural objects from antiquity from their many workshops that produced master carvers, masons and artisans. Fine small charms, seals and jewellery were carved from agate, carnelian, lapis lazuli, haematite, and rock crystal throughout the Achaemenid Empire. After the Achaemenid conquest of Ancient Egypt in 525 B.C., they adopted hippopotamus imagery from the Ancient Egyptians who revered the animal, often dedicating faience statues of the animal in funerary and religious contexts. Historically, this was a turbulent time, but artistically it was very rich, as both a mixing of foreign styles and a return to the iconographical traditions of the past both occurred, as wonderfully exemplified by this enigmatic hippopotamus.
This charming polished agate pendant of a hippopotamus is modelled reclining with short forelegs and rear legs tucked under its stout and rounded torso, and lengthened face with bead-like bulbous eyes and long, drawn out muzzle. It has been beautifully carved with exquisite form and proportions by someone obviously highly skilled at gem-working. This piece’s minute size, along with the inclusion of two tiny drilled holes behind the forelegs suggests it would have been hung as a pendant from a necklace, perhaps as an apotropaic charm.
Agate was one of the most commonly used stones throughout antiquity for gem carving, due to its clearness and precise and dramatic bands of colour running through the stone that add a distinct decorative element. This example has superb veins of thick brown running through it, which have been utilised by the objects maker to accentuate the curves of the sculpture. It is a particularly hard stone that is labour intensive to carve, but allowed minute detail and stunning results.
Robert Symes book ‘Hard Stones from the Ancient World’ contains a particularly similar small agate bull. Similarly carved using the natural stripes of the agate to enhance the curvature of the animal modelling, it is of a similar miniature size and designed to be probably also worn as a pendant. Combined they speak of a mystical zoomorphic belief in the apotropaic qualities of certain animals, as well as the high level of skill attained by their master carvers.
Private European collection.