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Work Bead necklace

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Piece of jewellery composed of beads

© 2010 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities

Herbin Nancie

This necklace is a remarkable example of jewelry from Achemenid Persia. It was discovered in 1901 by Jacques de Morgan during excavations in the Acropolis in Susa, in one of the few Achemenid sepulchers to have survived intact. The Achemenid dynasty was founded by Darius I, known as Darius the Great (522-486 BC). He recognized the strategic importance of Susa, the former Elamite capital, making it his own capital in the plains to match Persepolis, the capital of the highlands.

An agate necklace

The necklace consists of 65 agate beads. The two largest are carved medallions measuring three centimeters in length and two centimeters across. These two beads were probably worn at the throat. Then there are 14 round beads a centimeter in diameter alternating with 11 hexagonal beads the same size, all decorated with a band round the middle. There are also 36 smaller olive-shaped beads, decorated with a white stripe round the middle, dividing them into two equal halves. The necklace is completed by two elongated beads. The necklace was strung in the form on display after it was found in 1901. The craftsmen who originally carved the beads used the veins of the agate to heighten the overall decorative effect. Very few pieces of Persian jewelry have survived, although the love of Persian dignitaries for costly luxuries is well documented.

A necklace found in an Achemenid sepulcher

The beads were found in one of the few surviving Achemenid tombs, one of Jacques de Morgan's most significant finds. The body was laid on its back in a bronze sarcophagus shaped like a modern bathtub. The sarcophagus would originally have been placed in a vaulted tomb. Two coins from Arados dated between 350 and 332 BC were found in the tomb, indicating that the burial took place at the end of the Achemenid era. The upper part of the body was richly attired in jewelry made of gold and precious stones. Other costly items were placed alongside the legs. All the items taken from the grave are now on display in the Louvre. The identity of the deceased remains a mystery, although illustrations of men wearing similar types of jewelry would tend to suggest that the body was that of a man. Further evidence is provided by a text by the Greek historian Arrian, which records that Cyrus the Great was buried in a tomb in Pasargades with gold jewelry encrusted with precious stones.

Precious stones from far-flung lands

The beads for this and similar pieces of jewelry were imported. Myths such as the epic of Gilgamesh reflect the value of such stones. In this legend, Gilgamesh undertakes a quest for immortality which takes him to the garden of the gods. There, he finds trees whose fruits, leaves, and flowers are made of delicate gemstones. This legend originally refers to the precious stones imported from far-distant lands lying to the east of Mesopotamia, beyond the Zagros mountains. The myth Lugal-e recounts the war which the stones, born to the monster Asakku, fought against the gods. After winning the war, the gods divided the stones into two groups - ordinary stones and precious gemstones, the latter blessed by the gods. This myth is thought to have been written to commemorate the victorious expedition of King Ur-Nammu, founder of the Ur III empire (2112-2094 BC) and of Gudea, Prince of Lagash (2120-2100 BC), who set out to open up the trading routes closed off by the fall of the Akkadian empire. A fragment held in the Louvre (AO 7748, Hymn to the god Ninurta and birth of the league of stones) recounts part of this episode.


Tallon Françoise, La Cité royale de Suse : trésors du Proche-Orient ancien au Louvre, Exposition, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17 novembre 1992-7 mars 1993, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1992.
Tallon Françoise (sous la dir. de), Les Pierres précieuses de l'Orient ancien : des Sumériens aux Sassanides, Exposition, Paris, musée du Louvre, 22 septembre 1995-18 décembre 1995, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1995.

Technical description

  • Piece of jewellery composed of beads

    Achaemenid period, c. 350 BC

    Acropolis, Susa

  • Agate

  • J. de Morgan excavations, 1901 , 1901

    Sb 12070

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Iran, Persian empire during the Achaemenian period: palace of Darius I to Susa, 6th–5th century BC
    Room 307
    Display case 4: Furniture from the tomb of an Achaemenid prince (Susa, 4th century BC)

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Additional information about the work

Slide Oi-Cheong Lee 1992 + photograph of AO 7748 and technical record