The ancient land of Thrace encompassed a large area now divided into Bulgaria, southern Romania, eastern Yugoslavia, northeastern Greece, and European Turkey. The first inhabitants of Thrace came from the northern part of Europe and appeared at least as early as the second millennium B.C. Thracian tribes of the mid-first millennium B.C. adopted some of the decorative traditions and nomadic habits of their Scythian neighbors to the east, but they had closer cultural relations with European prehistoric peoples and preserved many of the traditions of the European Bronze Age. From the mid-first millennium, such objects as ceremonial helmets, armor, cups, and ornamental gear for horses—worked from silver and sometimes gilded—have been discovered in graves and in finds that must have been the buried hoards of Thracian princes and chiefs.
This silver beaker is a fine example of fourth century B.C. Thracian workmanship. It probably was made in the region of present-day Romania or Bulgaria, as similar beakers have been found in a princely tomb at Agighiol, near the delta of the Danube in eastern Romania. The beaker is raised from a single piece of silver with a stamped, chased, and repoussé design. The decoration depicts a horned bird of prey holding a fish in its beak and clutching what seems to be a hare in its claws. The bird is flanked by one horned and two antlered animals, and, facing the large bird, a tiny bird of prey hovers over the horned animal. Almost opposite the large bird is a staglike creature with eight legs indicating two stags. His antlers extend into a border of tines ending in bird heads that circle the upper portion of the cup. Around both the rim and the base of the beaker runs a pattern of overlapping semicircles; below, the pattern is fringed with scrolling that suggests waves. On the bottom of the cup a winged, griffinlike monster chews an animal leg and grasps a small beast in its clawed feet.
Although certain contemporary Scythian and Iranian stylistic influences can be seen, the iconography of these scenes is clearly Thracian and probably refers to a native myth or legend. The monstrous bird of prey with land and water creatures in its grasp appears to symbolize dominance over land and water. Though a precise interpretation of the iconography remains uncertain, scholars have suggested that these animals were symbols associated with a heroic ruler and served as protective spirits, avatars, and tribal totems.