A Sasanian cabochon garnet portrait seal
Lot 186
A Sasanian cabochon garnet portrait seal
£20,000 - 30,000
US$ 34,000 - 50,000
Auction Details
A Sasanian cabochon garnet portrait seal A Sasanian cabochon garnet portrait seal
Lot Details
A Sasanian cabochon garnet portrait seal
Iran, circa late 3rd-early 4th Century A.D.
The oval carbuncle finely carved with the profile bust of a man of high status, with typical long curly beard, the hair arranged in plaits, wearing a beaded pendant earring and a dress with two round brooches, inscribed in Middle Persian around the top and left edge with the owner's name, 'Mazdak son of Aŝtād', 17mm high


  • Provenance:
    English private collection, acquired by parental gift in 1980.
    Collection of Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894), the archaeologist, who reputedly acquired the seal during his excavations in Nimrud and Nineveh. By gift to his mother-in-law, Lady Charlotte Guest Schreiber (1812-1895). Thence by descent in 1956 to Frederick Ponsonby, 10th Earl of Bessborough (d. 1993).

    This fine quality carbuncle garnet seal is engraved with a portrait bust of a nobleman from the Mazdak family, a well-known name of the Sasanian elite, whose most infamous member was Mazdak the Heretic. This Zoroastrian prophet of 'proto-socialist' beliefs acquired a very strong popular following at the beginning of the 6th Century A.D. calling for social revolution. His subversive teachings were not tolerated by the nobility of the time and Mazdak and his followers were massacred. See J.L. Esposito, 'Mazdakism', in The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, New York, 2003, p. 198, and P. Crone, 'Kavad's Heresy and Mazdak's Revolt', in Iran. Journal of Persian Studies, British Institute of Persian Studies, vol. 29, 1991, pp.21–40.

    Although the man depicted on this seal is not wearing the typical domed headdress, kulaf, symbol of Sasanian high-ranking officials, both the outstanding quality of the carving and the engraving of his name on the gem are indicators of high status and, undoubtedly, wealth. For a similar garnet seal, although of inferior quality, showing a profile bust with the same hair style with parallel locks at the back and inscription around the edge, cf. C.J. Brunner, Sasanian Stamp Seals in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p.53, pl.11.

    Lady Charlotte Guest Schreiber was a great traveller and collector of ceramics and antiques, the majority of which are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the British Museum, London. She also however had a keen interest in archaeology and history and according to her journals complied by her son, 'with the aid of her brother's tutor, she studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Persian, for all things Oriental appealed strongly to her.' (Montague J. Guest (ed.), Lady Charlotte Schreiber's Journals: confidences of a collector of ceramics and antiques throughout Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Austria and Germany from the year 1869-1885, London and New York, 1911, p. viii.
  1. Madeleine Perridge
    Specialist - Antiquities
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