The Origin of the True Chariot

By Littauer, M. A.; Crouwel, J. H. | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Origin of the True Chariot


Littauer, M. A., Crouwel, J. H., Antiquity


Early spoked wheels in the steppes

The spoked wheel, together with horse draught and the bitted bridle, are usually considered the essentials of the war, hunting and (later) racing chariot, but it can be shown that these features alone are not enough.(1) The recent calibrated radiocarbon dating to c. 2000-1800 BC of light, horse-drawn vehicles from Sintashta and Krivoe Ozero, in northern Kazakhstan just east of the Urals, has revived the claim that the chariot originated in the steppe area rather than somewhere in the Near East (Gening et al. 1992; Kuzmina 1994: 163-457; Anthony 1995: 561-2; Anthony & Vinogradov 1985). The burials from which the northern datings come contain the remains of horses and the bone cheekpieces of soft-mouthed bits; of the vehicles there are in most cases only the impressions of their two, spoked wheels as placed standing in the graves [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The earliest southern documentation is provided by cylinder-seal impressions from the time of Karum II at Kultepe, central Anatolia, usually dated to the early 2nd millennium BC [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], and by a terracotta plaque from Uruk in southern Mesopotamia, possibly of slightly later date (Littauer & Crouwel 1979: figures 28-30; Garelli & Collon 1975: no. 46). The latter show equid-drawn vehicles with two spoked wheels.

We do not know what superstructure the Ural vehicles had. The soil impressions of the wheels, placed vertically in especially made slots in the bottom of the burial chamber, when combined with the dimensions of the chamber, give two basic measurements: the wheel-track or gauge (the distance between the wheels, 120 cm) and the maximum length of the nave (20 cm). As explained later, these dimensions would render the vehicle impractical at speed and limit its manoeuvrability. These cannot yet be true chariots. The Anatolian seal impressions and Uruk plaque show small passenger vehicles with light railings.

Such a vehicle would have had many limitations and, in the majority of cases, been inferior to a mount. It would have been ineffectual in herding free horses, the speed and agility of which it could not equal; for the same reason, it would have been of little use in hunting, unless the game were driven by beaters into nets or confined in a park, as later in the Near East and Egypt (Littauer & Crouwel 1979: 63, 95, 133). In many types of terrain such a vehicle would have had difficulty: thick woods, soft sand, deep mud, freshly ploughed ground, standing grain, high-grass prairie, steep or rocky terrain, bog, snow, ice. Its virtues of speed and lightness would have had no value on migration, where pack animals could have carried a bigger load. For travel, it would have been more comfortable to sit on a mount than to stand in a springless vehicle, and it would surely have been easier to replace individual horses than a team en route.

The chariot, moreover, was costly to make and to maintain, and draught teams had to be especially trained and to be matched in height and stride (Piggott 1992: 42-8). While chariotry eventually would enhance the conspicuous display of the great powers, such as Egypt or the Hittite empire, it was an adjunct of the greater military (Hofmann 1989; Schulmann 1979; Beal 1992; Littauer & Crouwel 1979: 90-94. Robert Drews (1988: chapters 5, 7; and particularly 1993: chapters 10-14) - incorrectly - assumes a prime role for chariots in the armies of Egypt, the Near East and Greece in the Late Bronze Age, eventually to be superseded by that of infantry). For warfare on the steppe, the mount would have been more suitable, as it was more comfortable for travel, and with a greater range than any vehicle of the time. If we may assume what seems most likely in a region where the horse had been domesticated for many centuries - that the mount was well known, we may wonder what could have inspired the invention of the chariot; a stimulus other than necessity must be found. …

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