Context and its Consequences: The Mystery of Median Art

Author: Bridget Bracken

Sub-editor: Pamela Piechowicz

Image Credit: Medes and Persians at eastern stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis. Wikipedia Commons.

The Iron-Age Iranian peoples known as the Medes, and the classification of their art, are one of the most controversial topics in Near Eastern archaeology. Whether there is art that can be classified as definitively “Median” and what exactly “Median” means is hotly debated among scholars, and has been for decades. Issues include that not enough evidence exists to create a cohesive category, that some scholars appear to have jumped to conclusions about what is Median, and that art appears to be made to fit the category of “Median” rather than letting the art that is known to be Median define that category. This essay will explore these issues through a series of case studies of some of the most clear and most controversial examples of potential Median art. First, the Oxus Scabbard, followed by the Ziwiye Treasures, and, finally, the Kerkenes Daǧ Ivory. Each example will serve to illuminate some of the issues associated with labelling art as Median, and will aid the argument that, while the Medes certainly created art, we do not currently have enough evidence to assuredly define it as uniquely Median. 

What We Know (and Don’t Know) About the Medes 

The Medes and their empire are somewhat of an enigma. Due to the total lack of writing from the Medes themselves, their history is quite murky compared to that of other contemporary cultures. Some critical points that we do know about the Medes will be outlined below. These are pertinent because they will determine whether the Medes should be understood as a culture that created art, and thus whether the debate surrounding Median art is worthwhile. In the seventh-century BCE the Medes were a strong empire that had a collective identity, a governmental system ruling over their united tribes, and enough power to effectively defeat the Assyrian Empire. Ramzmjou argues that “art is an inevitable and inseparable part of human nature,” and given that even “the most primitive people” are known to have created art, surely the Medes, who were so strong in so many other areas, must have also done so. 

To further the argument that the Medes must have had some sort of an artistic tradition, in ancient times the Medes were “a people specifically linked with luxury arts,” by contemporary cultures. This indicates without a doubt that they must have created art, or else there should be no reason for this connection. Reliefs and written records from Assyria further reveal that Median cities were looted of art when they were sacked, indicating that there must have, at some stage, been art there. The Medes also had a distinct dress style which makes them discernable in images (Fig. 1). The existence of a unique dress style indicates an appreciation of aesthetics that suggests an increased likelihood of artistic production. However even in ancient times, the Medes were conflated with the Persians by other cultures. This is important to note because it shows that even then their identity was not fully distinct from that of other cultures. 

One of the most prominent issues with Median art has been that a distinct style of Median art has not yet become clear. As Dusinberre astutely points out, “military encounters and transcultural exchanges go hand in hand,” and with the Medes being a widespread empire, any art created by them would have been influenced by that of the many other Near Eastern cultures they came into contact with. This enigmatic potential has created an unfortunate tradition of categorising any work that appears to be syncretistic of Near Eastern styles as Median, despite a lack of commonality among these artworks (aside from the fact that they do not fit elsewhere).

Fig. 1. Example of Median Dress From Reliefs at Apadana. After Razmjou, 2005.

The Oxus Scabbard 

The Oxus Scabbard (Fig. 2) was once referred to as “the first secure specimen of Median art.” Despite the confidence of this label, its worthiness is still debated. The Scabbard is a complicated artefact, with decorative elements that cannot clearly be confined to those stylistically linked to a singular Near Eastern culture. The hunt scene depicted at the top of the scabbard (Fig. 3), for example, has “apparent Assyrian influences,” while other influences on the scabbard include the Uratians and Scythians.

Fig. 2. Oxus Scabbard.
Fig. 3. Illustration of Hunt Scene on the Oxus Scabbard. After Stronach, 1998. After Stronach, 1998. 

Regardless of the cultural melange of influences that are visible in the Oxus Scabbard, it has been attributed to the Medians by a number of scholars. The predominant reason scholars have argued for the Oxus Scabbard to be categorised as an example of Median art is due to its similarities to the akinake scabbards that are ubiquitous with representations of Medes in the Audience Hall reliefs at Persepolis (Fig. 4). 

Fig. 4. Akinake Scabbard from the Audience Hall Reliefs. After Stronach, 1998.

In these reliefs Medes, and only Medes, are shown to be carrying akinake swords and scabbards. Because of this association, some scholars have suggested that this style of scabbard is quintessentially Median. By virtue of this logic, the Oxus Scabbard, for all its similarities, must also be quintessentially Median. However, despite being the only group of people to be represented wearing akinake swords and scabbards at Persepolis, the style was in fact widespread by the slightly later time of the Achaemenid Empire. As such, the style cannot be understood to be uniquely Median, and thus does not constitute enough proof to justify the Oxus Scabbard as a “secure specimen” of Median art. Consequently, to attempt to strengthen the argument of the Oxus Scabbard as an example of Median art, scholars have turned to its multitude of stylistic influences for evidence. Due to the complicated nature of its design, Boardman comes to the conclusion that “the origin of the Oxus scabbard must lie in an area well permeated with the arts of Mesopotamia, but open to the influence of Anatolian/Greek decoration.” He follows this by saying that it therefore comes as no surprise that the scabbard has been associated with the Medes, as their empire perfectly fits this criteria. The issue with applying the category of Median art to the Oxus Scabbard by this logic is that “so little is known of Median art that no particular feature of the sheathing can be cited as characteristically Median or specifically non-Median.” While it is certainly possible that the Oxus Scabbard could be an example of Median art, the evidence that suggests this outcome is circumstantial and thus not substantive enough to be certain without more, similar, and equally distinctive examples. 

The Ziwiye Treasures 

The Ziwiye Treasures are an excellent example of the unfortunate but common tactic of both antiquities dealers and scholars to deem any Near Eastern art that does not fit neatly into any other category as Median art. The Ziwiye treasures are particularly problematic in that they were not professionally excavated, and thus lack any proper archaeological context, including the location in which they were found, and any other objects they may have been found alongside. Despite their questionable origins, scholars have put extensive effort into attempting to  understand where this multitude of objects fit into the historical record culturally. In this process, art from the traditions of “the Mannaeans, Assyrians, Urartians, Cimmerians, Scythians, Babylonians, and the Greeks,” has been recognized within the Ziwiye treasures. Amongst these artworks, there are some that combine stylistic elements of the aforementioned cultures, and it is some of these works that have been suggested to be Median. The reason for this suggestion is that they cannot be clearly attributed to a singular other culture. 

Despite this tenuous reasoning, the certainty of this proposition by Barnett was such that he went as far as to “claim as an archaeological reality” that the Ziwiye treasures must have come from the tomb of a Median ruler. Despite the confidence of this assertion, Barnett later stated, contradictorily, that it is “impossible to differentiate” Median art from that of other Near Eastern cultures. The problematic nature of the categorization of artefacts as Median art here becomes self-evident. Though scholars are capable of making compelling arguments for the labelling of certain works of art as Median, the fact remains that many of these artworks receive this label simply because there is no better label for them. In categorising objects this way, the category of Median art becomes murky, as it gets complicated by a jumble of artefacts that might or might not be what the category suggests they are. This creates potential for items from other cultures to be categorised wrongfully as Median, disjointing the historical records of possibly many ancient Near Eastern societies. Thus, the uncertain classification of artefacts as Median without definite proof is harmful rather than productive. It serves to confuse what is certainly Median with what is an amalgamation of Near Eastern artistic styles. The eager Median art classification of particular Ziwiye Treasures exemplifies this issue beautifully. As Muscarella expertly puts it, “stray Near Eastern objects cannot meaningfully be accepted as Median artefacts” if we ever wish to be able to really understand Median art. 

The Kerkenes Daǧ Ivory 

The site of Kerkenes Daǧ, and the ivory that was found therein, play an important role in determining the existence of Median art. The city lies in a highly strategic location on the Anatolian plateau, and it was both constructed and subsequently abandoned within the 6th century BCE. For reasons that this essay does not have the scope to examine, Kerkenes Daǧ is widely accepted to have been an important Median site at the time of its occupation. The city was destroyed in near totality by an intense fire, which led to its abandonment. Consequently, very little art has been recovered. Those finds that have been made at Kerkenes Daǧ, however, indicate “a certain level of luxury and artistic taste” which make a compelling case for the possibility of a strong artistic tradition.

Fig. 5. Kerkenes Daǧ Ivory. After Dusinberre, 2002.

The most intriguing of these objects is the Kerkenes Daǧ Ivory (Fig. 5). It is intriguing because of the mixture of techniques and stylistic traditions which all appear to have informed its creation. These include techniques and styles which were familiar in the Scythian Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Iran. Evidently, whoever created this Ivory panel had come into contact with a wide range of different cultures. It is known that the Medes had a widespread Empire, and thus this range of influences is fitting. Simultaneously, it makes it problematic to determine what is definitely Median due to the dearth of evidence, and the wide overlap with art of other cultures. 

Dusinberre, after an in-depth analysis of the artistic components of the Ivory, posits that “the virtuosity of the piece suggests that it must have been made by a highly accomplished school of ivory-working artisans,” and follows this up with the provocative statement that, despite this singular expertise, the Ivory is “the unique representative of such a school at this point.” This assertion leads into her contention that the term Median art should be used less to classify art as being distinctly Median in style, and should rather be used to categorise art that was evidently “produced by and/or used within a Median social context.” The strength of this contention lies in the fact that this interpretation of Median art allows a better understanding of Median culture, rather than having archaeologists and art historians get bogged down in the minutiae of minute stylistic details. Furthermore, in categorising art by the context in which it was used, it is more likely that patterns of Median art will become apparent, as sites that are confidently attributed to them are further excavated. The Kerkenes Daǧ Ivory is thus an important artefact to examine given not only its unique artistic elements, but also the Median context in which it was found, and what that can reveal about Median art more broadly. 


Median art is a complicated and controversial topic. Through illustrations of both compelling and controversial examples of Median art, this essay has argued that, while the Medes certainly created art, there is not currently enough evidence to categorise art as Median, without a Median context. The Oxus Scabbard is an example of the compelling arguments that can be made for Median art, and also serves as a reminder that because of the scarcity of evidence, uncertain categorization still occurs. The Ziwiye Treasures highlight the issue of scholars and antiquities dealers attributing artefacts to the category of Median art, without any further evidence than a wide range of Near Eastern stylistic influences. Finally, the Kerkenes Daǧ Ivory serves to show that the coalescence of Near Eastern styles should not preclude art from being defined as Median, but that the added Median context allows for a much more useful interpretation. Altogether, this shows that the label of Median art must be attributed more cautiously, in order to create a well-rounded and clear understanding of both the art and culture of the Medes.


Boardman, John. “The Oxus Scabbard.” Iran 44 (2006): 115-119. 

Dusinberre, Elspeth. “An Excavated Ivory from Kerkenes Daǧ, Turkey: Transcultural Fluidities, Significations of Collective Identity, and the Problem of Median Art.” Ars Orientalis 32 (2002): 17-54. 

Genito, Bruno. “The Medes: A Reassessment of the Archaeological Evidence.” East and West 36, 1 (1986): 11-81. 

Muscarella, Oscar White. “Median Art and Medianizing Scholarship.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 46, 2 (1987): 109–128. 

Muscarella, Oscar White. “‘Ziwiye’ and Ziwiye: The Forgery of a Provenience.” Journal of Field Archaeology 4, 2 (1977): 197-219. 

Razmjou, Shahrokh. “In Search of the Lost Median Art.” Iranica Antiqua 40 (2005): 271-314. 

Root, Margaret Cool. “Medes and Persians: The State of Things.” Ars Orientalis 32 (2002): 1-16. 

Stronach, David. “On the Date of the Oxus Gold Scabbard and Other Achaemenid Matters.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 12 (1998): 231-248. 

Summers, Geoffrey. “The Identification of the Iron Age City on Kerkenes Dağ in Central Anatolia.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 56, 2 (1997): 81-94. 

Summers, Geoffrey. “The Median Empire Reconsidered: A View from Kerkenes Daǧ.” Anatolian Studies 50 (2000): 55-73. Tuplin, Christopher. “Medes in Media, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia: Empire, Hegemony, Domination, or Illusion?” Ancient West and East 3 (2004): 223-251.

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