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Chariots and Harnesses in Ancient Egypt

Ms. Kathryn Hansen is an independent scholar who has been involved with horses and riding since childhood. Her love of horses and conservation work for the Shasta College Museum and Research Center took her to scholarly research on chariots and harnesses, as a result of which she has become a recognized expert on the topic.

Ms. Hansen introduced her topic – Ancient Egyptian Chariots and Harnesses – by noting that she became interested in them because chariots are one of only two vehicles built for strength through flexibility (the other is the American buggy).

Chariots were known early in the history of the Middle East and were pulled by onagers (wild asses), but came relatively late to Egypt. They first appeared in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period then became prevalent during the New Kingdom. Ms. Hansen worked as a consultant on the reconstruction of one of the chariots from the tomb of Tutankhamun for the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky where she became intimately familiar with the construction and materials used in New Kingdom chariots.

These lightweight vehicles - the sports cars of the ancient world – were very light and very nimble in battle. They had:
• Two wheels, made of wood
• One axle, also of wood
• The wheels, axle and pole comprised the gearing
• A pole from the axle, running between the two horses (such a chariot must have two horses) at the end of which is a perpendicular yoke.
• Above the axle is the body of the vehicle.
• Various types of wood were used, depending on the part being constructed.
• All areas where wear would occur were leather covered.
Egyptian chariots were made exclusively of wood and rawhide. The wheels were constructed of six U-shaped half-spokes each of which included a section of the hub, a design which made the wheel solid and stable. The flanges added to either side of the hub helped to stabilize the wheel. The wheel rims were made up of fellies which are the segments of the wooden rim into which the spokes are inserted– two to a wheel. The tires on the outer edge of the wheels were made of rawhide, stretched around the rim while wet and allowed to dry in place.

The D-shaped body of the chariot sat in front of the axle, was framed from wood, and was covered with leather. The floor, which was also D-shaped, was formed by a lattice of woven leather thongs which made it very springy and allowed the riders to bounce with the vehicle. The chariot was large enough to hold two – the driver and an archer. Ms. Hansen noted that the Tutankhamun chariot can be lifted with ease when it does not have its leather cladding. The horses used with these chariots were small, probably slightly smaller than modern day Arabian.

Atop the axle was a floor plate (at the rear of the body), which was laced to the axle with leather thongs. The yoke pole fitted into a receiver at the center of the axle (between the axle and floor plate) and ran forward under the body and was laced to the front. From there it curved in a shallow S-shape to a perpendicular yoke that rested at the base of the horses’ necks.

Paired slits on each side of the axle anchored leather straps that attached to the pole directly in front of the body and thus served as struts to prevent the axle and wheels from twisting around the pole if they hit an obstacle. At the struts attachment to the pole, leather traces ran forward to fasten to either end of the yoke, together forming an X-shaped support system for the entire vehicle and distributing the draft forces from the horses.

Very little is left of harnesses from ancient Egypt. We do know that their function, as is true of modern harnesses, was to provide draft, steer and brake the vehicle. Draft to move the vehicle forward was delivered through a combination of U-shaped neck forks and breast plates, a forerunner of the collared harnesses of today. The neck forks, which rested at the base of the horses’ necks were attached to the yoke and held in place by the breast plate. To apply draft, the horses pushed into the breast plates. Contrary to some beliefs and artistic representations, the breast plates were designed not to ride up the horses’ necks and cut off their breathing, but to lie at the junction between the neck and the chest, in the same position as modern harness. A hold back strap, which ran from the outside leg of the neck fork and attached to the pole in front of the yoke served as a brake, kept the harness from sliding forward if the horse ducked his head, and enabled the driver to back the vehicle if necessary.

The bridle was used for steering with reins attached to a snaffle bit with long cheeks. Dropped nose bands were attached to the headstalls (system of straps that hold the bit into the horses’ mouths) and bit cheek pieces equipped with peg-like projections to hold them in position were attached atop these nosebands. Two lines were held in each hand by the driver. The left lines controlled the left horse; the right lines the right horse.

Sidelines – two to a chariot – were formed of spindle-like wood dowels with a spike-carrying disk inserted in the center. Thongs at either end attached the outside of the bit and the top of the neck fork forcing the horses’ heads away from each other. In addition, the sidelines kept the horses in line while stopping, and possibly added enough control to enable the drivers to direct the pair with the lines around their waists, as depicted in a number of artistic representations.

Not only did the Ancient Egyptians use chariots for transportation, sport and as a noble class designation, but they also applied them in the field of battle. Tacticians speculate that the Egyptian cavalry could have been deployed in ranks, charging into battle, the archers loosing their arrows, and then the driver turning the chariot 180 degrees and retreating between the oncoming files to allow the archer to rearm. Such tactics would create infinite loops of attacking vehicles rather like primitive versions of automatic weapons fire.

Chariot construction demonstrates the Ancient Egyptians’ technical design ability, for the vehicle is carefully crafted from various types of wood and skins, both rawhide and tanned leather. Both the chariot and harness, developed as a unit, combined to allow Ancient Egyptians to collect (rock back) their horses. Such collection enabled them to field vehicles that were very maneuverable, very fast and could “turn on a dime.”
This extremely light weight vehicle coupled with collected horses created maximum flexibility in Ancient Egyptian chariots, providing them with transportation, sport, hunting platforms, and a cavalry unequaled in the Near East that conquered most of their know world.

—Nancy Corbin and Kathy Hansen