Interpreting the VMFA’s Düver Terracottas


1.1 In the mid-1960s, architectural terracotta pieces from the site of Düver in central Anatolia appeared for sale on the international art market. In 1978, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquired a set of these terracotta pieces, presumably from Düver, dated to the third quarter of the sixth century BCE (Mayo 1981).[.1] The VMFA’s collection of Düver terracottas includes fifteen figural plaques and nineteen plaques with geometric designs that look distinctively Phrygian.[.2] There are also two antefixes and a few fragmentary architectural pieces in the collection. Other museums including the Louvre, the Getty, and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum also purchased sets of architectural terracottas from Düver (Åkerström 1964, Cummer 1970, Buzzi 1999, Mayo 1964, Thomas 1965). Since the pieces were looted and sold to different museums, only limited research has been undertaken on the terracottas and little is known about the specifics of their context. This paper focuses on the decoration of the fifteen figural plaques in the VMFA’s collection. The liminal location of Düver as well as the unique decoration of the plaques provide the opportunity for in-depth analysis from multiple angles. Connections with other Anatolian civilizations, Greece, and the Achaemenid Empire are apparent in the technology and decoration of the plaques. The plaques convey the complex cultural identity of the people living at Düver, expressed through the combination and reinvention of art from Western and Eastern cultures.

1.2 The figural plaques from Düver are part of a larger roofing system. The architectural terracotta elements from the site once composed the roofing systems of at least two buildings, possibly temple or palace structures (Mayo 1981, 35; Kahya 2012, 13-14; and M. Waelkkens et. al. 2000, 184). Examining all the surviving terracotta elements shows that the construction of these roofs is exclusive to Anatolia, with similar examples at Sardis in Lydia, Neandria in Aeolia, and Pazarli in Phrygia (Glendinning 1996, 108). Sardis, the capital of Lydia, became an important production center for terracotta roofing elements due to its location between the regions of Ionia and Phrygia (Ateşlier 2010, 226). The rise of the kingdom of Lydia in the mid seventh century likely facilitated the spread of tile roofing technology east into Asia Minor. The Düver terracottas date to the period during which terracotta roofing systems were most popular (Glendinning 1996, 101 and Åkerström 1964, 49).

1.3 Two things make the Düver terracottas particularly fascinating. First, the decoration of the plaques is distinctive. Each figural plaque is made from the same mold, and features a rider on horseback and a griffin. But each plaque and each figure are uniquely painted, so that no two figures are painted with the same decoration. Second, the site of Düver is located in northwest Pisidia, a region between the major civilizations of Phrygia, Lydia, and Lycia. During the sixth century, the rise of the Achaemenid Empire influenced local art across Anatolia. How did the people of Düver, exposed to cultural and artistic trends from a variety of bordering regions, understand their cultural identity? The Düver plaques are typically described in auction catalogs and museum literature as “Phrygian,” but this is an oversimplification (Mayo 1981, 29-31 and Cummer 1970). The variety of decorative elements and the creative freedom expressed on the terracottas allow us to understand the identity of the people of this region in a more nuanced way. The decoration of the Düver plaques exemplifies the greater trend of cultural borrowing and hybridization that is apparent elsewhere in Achaemenid Anatolia, as well as the multicultural identity of the upper class during this time. Borrowing, recombination, and reinvention of artistic styles reflect the international influences in the region.

The Figural Plaques of the VMFA Düver Terracotta Collection

2.1 The VMFA Düver terracotta collection consists of fifteen figural plaques (Vermeule).[.3] Ten plaques are nearly complete, with horse, rider, and griffin intact, and five are fragmentary, with only the horse or the griffin preserved. All fifteen of the plaques are made from the same or nearly identical molds. They consist of a central panel on which the figures of the rider, horse, and griffin are molded, bordered by a molded ground line (socle) below and two tiers of decorative molding above. Most tiles include the socle and fragments of a single tier of upper molding. When the socle and upper molding are preserved, the tiles are 43.5 x 35.5 cm (Figure 1) (Mayo 1981, 31). There is a wide variation of decoration of the socles and upper moldings.[.4] The figural decoration features a horse and rider on the left side of the plaque, and a griffin on the right side. Both the horse and griffin are facing to the right, and the rider is depicted in profile, also facing to the right. The horse’s hind legs are planted, with both legs visible, and the front legs are raised in the air. The rider places his right hand on the horse’s neck, with his left hand resting on the upper part of the horse’s mane. The griffin is walking, with each of its four legs visible. Its tail is curled upwards, and its beak is open with its tongue extended. The figures are decorated with black and red paint, applied to the orange color of the terracotta (Mayo 1981, 31).

2.2 The horses differ in color and decoration. One horse is black, and many have necks and legs painted in colors that contrast the color of their bodies. A double-banded decoration across the knees and hocks of the horses is common on many of the plaques. Six horses have triskeles or tetraskeles markings on their hindquarters. The trappings of the horses are decorated differently, with striped or stippled designs on the reins, and ornaments of various shapes hanging from the breastplates. Each griffin is also uniquely painted, with differences in the representation of their wings and different color patterns, as well as the presence or absence of a painted topknob or curling tendril on their head. The riders, too, feature different painted decoration on their sleeves and pants, and one is clean-shaven as opposed to bearded (Figure 2).

2.3 The Düver plaques were looted from their original context, split up into lots, and sold on the art market. We do not know which plaques belong together, or the sequence of the plaques on the buildings.[.5] There are two figural plaques in the VMFA collection that differ significantly from the others. One plaque has a brownish-gray fabric instead of the usual warm orange color, and the three-pointed ornaments adorning the horse’s breast collar are unlike the ornaments on any of the other plaques. Another plaque stands out from the rest of the collection because it does not have any evidence of red paint. The horse on this plaque is also the only one with a neck that is painted to contrast the color of its body, and the features of the horse are different as well, with the eye placed much lower on the face and depicted with a rounder shape (Figure 3). The differences in fabric color, decorative elements, and style show that more than one artist was decorating the plaques, and support the idea that the plaques adorned multiple buildings.

Style and Iconography

3.1 The overall decorative scheme of the Düver plaques, which relies upon the repetition of the figures of horse, rider, and griffin, is drawn from the decoration of Ionian and Lydian pottery. The relief outlines around the figures and the forms of the figures echo Wild Goat, Chian, and Klazomenian pottery styles (Cook and Dupont 2003). In Ionia and Anatolia where these styles of pottery were produced, figural motifs on architectural terracottas were common, but in mainland Greece and Italy, they are virtually unknown. Additionally, this type of continuous decorative motif, as opposed to self-contained panels, is relatively rare. It is known only at Düver with these plaques, at Larisa in Aeolis, and at Murlo in Etruria (Ramage 1978, 38). Popular pottery styles coming to the region from the west informed the design of the terracottas. The plaques essentially reapply popular pottery decoration styles to architectural elements.

3.2 The horses on the Düver plaques are especially comparable with those in Lydian art. They have the arching necks and high tail carriage that characterize horses depicted on objects from Sardis (Shear 1928, 223). The Düver horses bear a strong resemblance to a pair of horses inscribed on a silver alabastron from Basmacı in Eastern Lydia, dated to the first half of the sixth century BCE (Özgen and Öztürk 1996, 230 and Kazım 1991, 8).[.6] Both sets of horses adopt the same stance, and the rendering of the necks, bellies, and legs of the horses are very similar. In addition, the treatment of the manes of the two horses on the alabastron is echoed in the depictions of manes on the terracottas. The right horse on the alabastron has a wavy mane with separate locks of hair defined, while the left horse’s mane is illustrated with straight lines. The horses on the Düver plaques have both wavy manes and straight manes (examples of each are seen on Figure 1 and Figure 2). The plaques are molded to show wavy manes, but the artists have chosen to paint over the molded decoration onto the background of the plaques in order to illustrate straight manes (visible on Figure 1 and Figure 4). The details of the Düver horses’ tack are also extremely similar to those of the alabastron horses, including variations in decoration of the reins, breast collars, and saddlecloths.

3.3 Other horses on Lydian architectural terracottas also parallel the Düver horses. The Pegasus figures on an architectural terracotta plaque from Sardis are very similar to the Düver horses (Ramage 1978).[.7] They share the same rearing pose and similarly rendered body parts. The Pegasus is differentiated from the background with a dark outline surrounding the molded figure, like the Düver horses. The Düver horses also bear similarity to a fragment of an architectural terracotta depicting a horse’s head from Sardis dated to before 550. As with some of the Düver horses, the mane of this horse is molded to create the appearance of waves, and an incised line separates each wave (Ramage 1978).[.8] The form of the Düver horses draws upon precedents in Lydian art.

3.4 The three-spoked triskeles symbols on the hindquarters of the horses demonstrates the complexities of cultural borrowing in the region during this period. The triskeles is most readily associated with Anatolian coins, particularly Lycian coins minted during the dynastic period that began circa 520 BCE (seen on Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 4) (Bryce 1983, 42). The triskeles was especially prevalent on coinage during the reign of Kuprlli in the first half of the fifth century BCE (Bryce 1983, 42). It has also been found on Lydo-Persian stamp seals (Boardman 2000, 118). The four-spoked symbol on one of the Düver horses has parallels in swastika marks on masonry at Sardis, and in tetraskeles symbols found on Lydo-Persian stamp seals and Anatolian coins, as well as on the walls of Tall-i Takht at Pasargadae, probably made by Lydian masons (Figure 4) (Boardman 2000, 118).[.9] On brickwork, triskeles and tetraskeles symbols were used by Anatolian workers to identify either individual craftsmen or teams of craftsmen (Boardman 2000, 118). It is clear that the triskeles and tetraskeles symbols were common in the visual repertoire of Anatolia, but the use of the symbols on animals has a history in the East.

3.5 Triskeles depictions circulated throughout ancient artistic traditions until the symbol eventually became the trademark of the kingdom of Lycia. As far as it is possible to identify a chronological period and location, the use of whorled marks like the triskeles and tetraskeles on animals originated in Mesopotamia, most likely with influence from Egypt (Vollgraff-Roes 1953, 41). The convention of depicting lions with whorls was common in Assyrian art (Volgraff-Roes 1953, 42). Some scholars theorize that lions in Mesopotamian and Egyptian art were often painted with swirls in order to emulate the rays of the sun, emphasizing their connection to sun gods. Perhaps this artistic convention reflects life: in the Egyptian and Assyrian courts, actual lions kept as pets or for hunting were perhaps painted with swirls (Volgraff-Roes 1953, 43). Mesopotamian art also features bulls and boars, both animals that are connected with the sun, decorated with swirls (Volgraff-Roes 1953, 45). It is possible that Lycians adopted the triskeles as their special symbol because their main deity was a sun god (Volgraff-Roes 1953, 46). It seems that the triskeles and tetraskeles symbols have an Eastern origin, but they were appropriated by Anatolian cultures and applied in new ways. Perhaps the triskeles symbols on the Düver horses indicate a solar connection, which would be appropriate for a temple, or to highlight the aristocracy’s connection with the divine. The marks could also be depictions of brands that were actually used on horses, or perhaps the horses were painted with triskeles symbols for special ceremonies (Boardman 1970, 25). The decorations on the Düver terracottas are dated to a period that is apparently the intermediary between the use of whorled marks in the East and the claiming of the triskeles by Lycian dynasts. They raise questions about the relationship with this area of Pisidia with the kingdom of Lycia.

3.6 Like the triskeles, the figure of the griffin is an image that developed over centuries, readapted by various cultures as it became popular around the Mediterranean. In general form, the griffins on the Düver plaques closely resemble griffins depicted on Wild Goat Style, Chian, and Klazomenian pottery (Glendinning 1996, 114). In their details, though, the griffins represent a combination of typically Western and typically Eastern elements. In the eastern Mediterranean region, griffins were generally depicted without a topknob and tendril descending from their head, but in the East these features were common (Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 3) (Goldman 1960, 64). Though there are no topknobs or tendrils molded on the plaques, the artists of the Düver griffins used paint to depict some, but not all, of the griffins with these features. There is even one griffin with a topknob without a tendril (Figure 4). Additionally, there are two types of wing decoration apparent on the Düver griffins. The fan style of wing decoration is apparent on Wild Goat, Chian, and Klazomenian pottery, but the horizontal stripes are rare (Figure 4).[.10]

3.7 From the decoration of the Düver griffins, it is apparent that the artists were familiar with ways of depicting griffins in both Eastern and Western visual traditions. The type of griffin on the Düver plaques, with the body and head of a lion, has its origins in Assyrian art, but griffins imagery traveled back and forth across the Mediterranean for centuries, traded between cultures and modified as it circulated (Goldman1960, 64 and Crowley 1998, 174). The artists considered all of the variations and modifications of griffin depictions equally appealing and acceptable to use in combination with each other. The combinations of features also point to the personal creativity of the artists and add to the general liveliness of the plaques. The Düver griffins exemplify an apparently effortless blending of Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern styles of art, and show how over time the distinctions between regional styles became increasingly hazy.

3.8 In contrast to the Western elements of the horses and griffins, the dress of the riders, with tunics and trousers, looks immediately Eastern, prompting most museum acquisition reports to identify the riders as Persian (Åkerström 1964, 53). However, the clothing of the riders is not a sure indicator of their nationality (Gates 2002, 105). During the Achaemenid period, local elites were adopting the dress, mannerisms, and styles of the Achaemenid court in an effort to assert their power and identify themselves as aristocrats (Brosius 2011, 143). Additionally, non-Persian people might choose to wear typically Persian clothing, especially when they were participating in activities associated with Achaemenid court life, like hunting or riding horses (Tuplin 2011, 156). Another interpretation is that trousers and tunics may in fact be more generally Eastern, and thus also commonly worn in Anatolia, rather than specifically Persian (Baughan “Persian Riders” 2008, 28-29).

3.9 Lydian influence is apparent in the facial features of the riders. Glendinning points out that the faces of the riders resemble the “Lydian dandy” featured on a tile from Sardis from the second quarter of the sixth century (Glendinning 1996, 114). Examples of similar facial features, with large almond-shaped eyes and a dramatic arching brow, can be seen on an architectural terracotta from Sardis dated to 560 (Ramage 1978, 15).[.11] The man on this tile also wears a shirt with maeander decoration, which is echoed on the sleeves of many of the Düver terracotta riders (Figure 4). The riders, like the griffins and horses, present a mixture of elements drawn from a variety of artistic traditions.

3.10 A rider on horseback paired with a griffin is a rare combination in ancient art. The pairing of a griffin with a horse sans rider is common in East Greek art; however, the unbalanced composition of each plaque, with the rider taking up the whole height of the panel and the griffin occupying only half, would never have been acceptable to Greek artists (Åkerström 1964, 51 and Vermeule). The variation in heights creates a creative and visually interesting “undulating effect” when the plaques are aligned side-by-side (Mayo 1981, 31). The repetitive nature of the pattern indicates that the plaques are not individual tableaus meant to tell a story. Rather, the figures are symbolic. Since the rider is not carrying any weapons and the griffin appears to be moving at a dignified walk rather than running away, it is evident that this is not a hunt. The stately rider accompanied by a heraldic griffin conveys a sense of power, wealth, and nobility, appropriate for a temple or palace context. The combination of international elements of each figure on the plaques extends to the composition of each plaque as a whole. This hybridity of inspirational international styles paired with creative local composition has resulted in pieces that are well suited to representing the wealth and ascendency of the civilization at Düver.

3.11 Further originality is apparent in the instances in which the painted decoration of the plaques strays from the molded design. The straight manes of the horses are painted over the shapes suggested by the mold, which forms the horses’ manes in waves (Figure 1 and Figure 4). The straight manes encroach into the background of the plaques. The tendrils and topknobs of the griffins are all painted on the background, not on molded pieces (Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 4). Additionally, the legs of the riders are molded with a straight line from hip to ankle, but some of the riders have pants that are painted across the molded line, drooping away from the leg rather than laying flush to it (Figure 1 and Figure 4). All of these deviations from the lines dictated by the mold show that these details were important to the artists, so much so that they wanted to paint them clearly even though they were not included in the design of the plaques. Though clearly familiar with and inspired by Eastern and Western artistic traditions, the artists of the Düver plaques were confident in working creatively and departing from established modes of decoration.


4.1 It is clear that the depiction of the horses and to some extent the riders on the Düver plaques are drawn from Lydian art, but the overall decoration of the plaques is not simply Lydian. The decoration of the plaques shows a recombination and reinvention of various artistic styles into a creative product that is relevant to the inhabitants of Düver. The artists drew upon various styles with ease, and were comfortable combining elements into the sort of art that they felt best represented them. Since the plaques once decorated a temple or palace, they are evidence of the multicultural identity of elite members of society at this time.

4.2 After analyzing the decorative elements of the horse, rider, and griffin on the Düver terracottas, we can better understand their complexity. The forms of the figures are very Lydian, and yet the site is in Pisidia. Additionally, these plaques were displayed in close association with geometric plaques that imitate patterns familiar from Phrygian art. The griffin and the triskeles are motifs with a long history, and no single culture can lay claim to them, though in a few decades the triskeles will have become a symbol of Lycia. The Düver terracottas are internationally-informed pieces that speak to the cultural borrowing in Anatolia during the sixth century BCE. We might imagine that these plaques decorated a grand temple, with the stately griffins escorting elite riders on parade, with the symbols on the horses referring to solar deities. Or, the riders could represent the aristocratic rulers who lived within a palace adorned by the terracottas, proudly declaring their wealth and power through associations with the griffin, and their divine connections through the triskeles symbols. The use of the triskeles as a symbol of personal identification and ownership on stamp seals and on bricks provides good evidence that the triskeles on the horses are brands, used as symbols of aristocratic power.

4.3 The artists who created the Düver plaques, and the people of Düver who looked at them every day, were familiar with a variety of artistic traditions, and felt able to express themselves through combining them. The unique decoration of each figure points to the creativity and personal whimsy of the artists who painted the plaques. Reappropriation, reinvention, and recombination of existing styles and images resulted in pieces that were entirely suited to the tastes and identity of the site. Despite drawing from an international pool of styles and images, the pieces are distinct from all of them.



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