The Emergence of Bronze Age Chariots in Eastern Europe

By Kuznetsov, P. F. | Antiquity, September 2006 | Go to article overview

The Emergence of Bronze Age Chariots in Eastern Europe


Kuznetsov, P. F., Antiquity


Introduction

The first appearance of war chariots with harnessed horses is one of the most intriguing problems in Old World prehistory. The horse-drawn chariots occur in burials featuring horses, items of harnesses and pieces of armament, in cemeteries concentrated in the Volga-Don forest-steppe in eastern Europe and the southern Trans-Ural steppes in the west of Asia (Figure 1). This paper puts the chronology of these chariots on a firm basis, using 17 radiocarbon dates from 11 burials in 4 cemeteries (Figure 2, Table 1).

[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]

These dates are of great importance both for the emergence of chariots and the domestication of the horse. The first appearance of chariots was theoretically preceded by a long period of horse domestication, which may or may not have included the training of the horse for riding (Kovalevskaya 1977: 21, 61). Horse bones and burials are found in early Copper Age sites starting in the fifth millennium BC (Kuznetsov 1998: 138). Bone assemblages in early settlements suggest that horses were used as food, but whether they were also used for transport is a moot point. According to traditional theories, horse domestication follows the sequence: hunting--taming--riding--harnessing to chariots. However, there are only some indirect arguments allowing us to place horse-riding before chariot-towing. In military history, war chariots appear first and cavalry later. Some feel that early riding could have been carried out without a bridle and bit, or with just a soft bridle, that would leave few traces. However, a soft bridle made only from leather straps and hair cord would not be effective for military use since it could not provide a rider with a stable platform on a saddle and literally 'tied his hands'. On the other hand, it may be that riding horses was not first invented for military use, but to help pastoralists to control their herds (Anthony: 1995, 561).

The early chariot burials are characterised by a number of rather distinctive features, including horse sacrifices with either complete skeletons or individual bones (Figure 3), parts of chariots or the imprints of spoked wheels, disk-shaped cheek-pieces with spikes, rich armament (spears, war axes, quivers of arrows, and massive daggers), and adornments such as broad grooved bracelets and gold temple pendants. Some burials were double, with the burial of an adult man and an adolescent, who had probably made up the crew of the war chariot.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

Traditionally Bronze Age chronology has been deduced from the decoration of the disk-shaped cheek-pieces; the similarity between this decoration and Mycenaean circular ornament implied a derivation from documented early civilisations (Leskov 1964). But this derivation seemed to challenge the Eastern European origin of the objects. A new reason for questioning the origin of this important ornamental style is the revision of Bronze Age chronology in Central Europe, made possible by radiocarbon dates and dendrochronology. A significant result of this research is the revision of the whole cultural-chronological sequence of Europe and its shift towards an earlier period (Housley et al. 1990:207-15; Forenbaher 1993: 218-56; Manning et al. 2001). The appearance of the new Bronze Age chronology meant the disappearance of a stylistic basis for dating eastern European cultures. New programs of absolute radiocarbon-dating can solve this problem, and the first syntheses have now appeared in Russian archaeology (Trifonov 2001; Epimachov & Koryakova 2004).

Radiocarbon dates

Our dating programme has provided 17 radiocarbon dates from 11 burials in 4 cemeteries (Table 1, Figure 2). Sampling followed the principle of pars pro toto (Kuzmina 1994: 166). The samples were dated in different specialised laboratories: Kiev (index Ki); Leningrad (index Le); the University of Arizona in the USA (index AA); Oxford University in England (index OxA); Institute of Geology, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow (index GIN).

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