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Work Head of a bearded man

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Bearded head of a man

© 2006 RMN / Gerard Blot

Near Eastern Antiquities
The Middle East after Alexander's Conquest

Benoît Nicolas

This head of a man with beard and mustache dating from the 1st century AD reflects both the general conventions of Parthian art and local characteristics of the art of Elymais, a region of southwestern Iran from which the head originates. It also constitutes one of the rare vestiges of great composite Parthian statuary, whose existence it - along with pieces from Susa and Shami - helped confirm.

Head of a bearded man

During the excavations at Susa in 1934, two Parthian heads were found at site no. 4 in the Royal City: a queen's head in marble and this head of a bearded man in limestone. The stone, of mediocre quality, is dotted with little holes that may formerly have been concealed with putty. The large almond-shaped eyes have an iris in low relief, but no pupils. The thick eyebrows, forming two protruding arches, are incised with oblique lines, as are the pointed beard and mustache. Similar incisions trace the wrinkles on the forehead and between the eyes. Though its tip is damaged, the straight line of the nose remains discernible. The hair is styled in a complex manner: sinuous, triangular tresses have been wound back onto the sides of the head; in the center, a long, thick lock of hair follows the same movement. A thin groove running around the sides may indicate the presence of a metal element formerly embedded in the hair - a headband, hair arrangement, crown or diadem - but which is now missing.

Multiple influences

This head reflects both the general characteristics of Parthian art and local particularities related to the art of Elymais (southwestern Iran). It is made up of a combination of conventional features (the eyes and eyebrows) and naturalistic details (the modeling of the cheeks and wrinkled brow) deriving from the Hellenistic portrait tradition. The beard and mustache were common features in Persian art, and occasionally found on Arsacid coins. The wrinkles on the brow have parallels in the sculpture of Masjid-e Suleiman and Kalchayan; the symmetry of the arched eyebrows are reminiscent of certain heads found in Luristan, while the eyes and incised details are closer to the bronze statuary of Shami. The arrangement of the hair remains unique in the sculpture of the period, in which hair is shown longer. The highly linear tracing of lines, the flat modeling and roughly treated surface indicate that the piece does not date back to earlier than the 1st century AD, when it is thought to have been made.

Part of a statue

The traces of a mortise on the neck indicate that this is a vestige of a life-sized statue. The head was sculpted separately, then added to a body, and held in place with a wooden or metal pin. This two-phase composition may be due to the insufficient supply of local artists, who were capable of making the body but obliged to order the head from a reputed workshop; or it may go back to ancient metal statuary, traditionally executed in two stages. Whatever the case, this composite statue illustrates a type of art that was uncommon in Parthian Iran. The female head in marble mentioned above and other examples found at Shami corroborate the existence of this tradition, probably related to the demands of grand statuary that could only be generated by large cosmopolitan cities such as Susa.


Amiet Pierre, Suse, 6 000 ans d'histoire, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1988, p. 142, fig. 90.
Contenau Georges, Arts et styles de l'Asie Antérieure d'Alexandre le Grand à l'Islam, Paris, Larousse, 1948, p. 79, pl. XIX.
Contenau Georges, de Mecquenem Roland (sous la dir. de), Archéologie susienne. Mémoires de la mission archéologique en Iran, t. XXIX, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1943, p. 63, pp. 187-191, pl. VIII.
Ghirshman Roman, Iran : Parthes et Sassanides, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "L'Univers des formes", 1962, p. 98, fig. 109.
Kawami, Trudy S., "Monumental Art of the Parthian Period in Iran", in Acta Iranica, 26, 3e série, vol. XIII, Leiden, Brill, 1987, pp. 136-137, p. 220, n 59, pl. 70.

Technical description

  • Bearded head of a man

    1st century AD

    Royal City of Susa

  • Stone

  • R. de Mecquenem excavations, 1934 , 1934

    Sb 790

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, Iran, eastern Mediterranean
    Room 16, temporarily closed to the public

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