Achaemenid Echoes in the Wall Paintings of Akchakhan-Kala

Minardi, Michele. 2020. Achaemenid Echoes in the Wall Paintings of Akchakhan-Kala, Chorasmia, and their Broader Significance for Central Asia. Journal of Asian Civilizations 43(2).

(from Minardi 2020, fig. 5.)

In recent years the Karakalpak-Australian Expedition (KAE) carried out archaeological fieldwork at the royal Chorasmian seat of Akchakhan-kala unearthing a large corpus of wall paintings. This imagery was made during Stage 3 of the life of the site’s main complex, beginning between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD and ending in the early 2nd century AD. Among the formal elements employed in this imagery, an unanticipated use of Achaemenid iconographic models is apparent. Most of these archetypes have already been introduced in recently published articles. However, the question regarding their source and ways of transmission was left open to further inquiry. This paper aims to refine the argument and to give way to further analysis and discussion in attempting a clarification of what has already been sustained. Eastern Iranian Chorasmia once was under the Achaemenid sway, and its very foundation as a polity was quite probably due to an intervention of the Persians. But the Akchakhan-kala’s paintings were produced much later than the time of the Achaemenid Empire’s demise. What we may therefore be witnessing is the persistence of Achaemenid iconography as an artistic legacy, the origins of which would be reasonable to track in a centre of the “Upper Satrapies”. Despite the scarcity of available evidence on the very existence of an Achaemenid aulic art and heritage in the East, it is here argued that it might be possible to consider the new Chorasmian evidence as its “echo”, although the chronology of the original transmission into the polity of such a legacy is still elusive. This paper will also introduce a further, and previously neglected, element issuing from the Akchakhan-kala’s mural art and belonging to the set of Achaemenid visual “echoes”: the motif of the stylized lion’s heads with curled mane. Of clear Achaemenid ascendency, this motif decorates the shoulder area of the kandys worn by one of the colossal Avestan deities from the site’s columned throne hall. This painted fabric decoration confirms the substantiality of the basic interpretation of the “Achaemenid echoes” coming from Chorasmia, allowing at the same time to development of some further assumptions.