Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The wheel and the chariot

Posted by Fredsvenn on July 1, 2015

The Bronze Age

History of the wheel


Larger carts may be drawn by animals, such as horses, mules, or oxen. They have been in continuous use since the invention of the wheel, in the 4th millennium BC. The history of the cart is closely tied to the history of the wheel, a circular component that is intended to rotate on an axle bearing.

The wheel is one of the main components of the wheel and axle which is one of the six simple machines. The invention of the wheel has also been important for technology in general, important applications including the water wheel, the cogwheel (see also antikythera mechanism), the spinning wheel, and the astrolabe or torquetum.

Wheels, in conjunction with axles, allow heavy objects to be moved easily facilitating movement or transportation while supporting a load, or performing labor in machines. Wheels are also used for other purposes, such as a ship’s wheel, steering wheel, potter’s wheel and fly wheel.

Common examples are found in transport applications. A wheel greatly reduces friction by facilitating motion by rolling together with the use of axles. In order for wheels to rotate, a moment needs to be applied to the wheel about its axis, either by way of gravity, or by the application of another external force or torque.

The English word wheel comes from the Old English word hweol, hweogol, from Proto-Germanic *hwehwlan, *hwegwlan, from Proto-Indo-European *kwekwlo-, an extended form of the root *kwel- “to revolve, move around”. Cognates within Indo-European include Icelandic hjól “wheel, tyre”, Greek kúklos, and Sanskrit chakra, the latter both meaning “circle” or “wheel”.

Early wheels were simple wooden disks with a hole for the axle. Because of the structure of wood, a horizontal slice of a tree trunk is not suitable, as it does not have the structural strength to support relevant stresses without failing; rounded pieces of longitudinal boards are required. The spoked wheel was invented more recently, and allowed the construction of lighter and swifter vehicles.

Models of two-wheeled carts from c. 3000 BCE found at Altyn-Depe (the Turkmen for “Golden Hill”), a Bronze Age (BMAC) site in Turkmenistan, near Aşgabat, inhabited in the 3rd to 2nd millennia BC, abandoned around 1600 BC, are the earliest complete evidence of wheeled transport in Central Asia, though model wheels have come from contexts possibly somewhat earlier.

The Armenian hypothesis was proposed by Russian linguists T. V. Gamkrelidze and V. V. Ivanov in 1985, presenting it first in two articles in Vestnik drevnej istorii and then in a much larger work. Gamkrelidze and Ivanov argue that IE spread out from Armenia into the Pontic steppe, from which it expanded – as per the Kurgan hypothesis – into Western Europe. The Hittite, Indo-Iranian, Greek and Armenian branches split from the Armenian homeland.

The Armenian hypothesis argues for the latest possible date of Proto-Indo-European (sans Anatolian), roughly a millennium later than the mainstream Kurgan hypothesis. In this, it figures as an opposite to the Anatolian hypothesis, in spite of the geographical proximity of the respective suggested Urheimaten, diverging from the timeframe suggested there by as much as three millennia.

Robert Drews, commenting on the hypothesis, says that “most of the chronological and historical arguments seem fragile at best, and of those that I am able to judge, some are evidently wrong”. However, he argues that it is far more powerful as a linguistic model, providing insights into the relationship between Indo-European and the Semitic and Kartvelian languages.

He continues to say “It is certain that the inhabitants of the forested areas of Armenia very early became accomplished woodworkers, and it now appears that in the second millennium they produced spoked-wheel vehicles that served as models as far away as China. And we have long known that from the second millennium onward, Armenia was important for the breeding of horses. It is thus not surprising to find that what clues we have suggest that chariot warfare was pioneered in eastern Anatolia. Finally, our picture of what the PIE speakers did, and when, owes much to the recently proposed hypothesis that the homeland of the PIE speakers was Armenia.”

  1. Grepin, reviewing Gamkrelidze and Ivanov’s book, wrote that their model of linguistic relationships is “the most complex, far reaching and fully supported of this century.”

Some scholars argue that the chariot was most likely a product of the ancient Near East early in the 2nd millennium BC. Archaeologist Joost Crouwel writes that “Chariots were not sudden inventions, but developed out of earlier vehicles that were mounted on disk or cross-bar wheels.

This development can best be traced in the Near East, where spoke-wheeled and horse-drawn ‘true’ chariots are first attested in the earlier part of the second millennium BC.” and were illustrated on a Syrian cylinder seal dated to the 18th or 17th century BC.

The earliest known chariots have been found in Sintashta burials, and the culture is considered a strong candidate for the origin of the technology, which spread throughout the Old World and played an important role in ancient warfare. Sintashta settlements are also remarkable for the intensity of copper mining and bronze metallurgy carried out there, which is unusual for a steppe culture.

The oldest testimony of chariot warfare in the ancient Near East is the Old Hittite Anitta text (18th century BC), which mentions 40 teams of horses (in the original cuneiform spelling: 40 ṢÍ-IM-TI ANŠE.KUR.RAḪI.A) at the siege of Salatiwara.

Since the text mentions teams rather than chariots, the existence of chariots in the 18th century BC is uncertain. The first certain attestation of chariots in the Hittite empire dates to the late 17th century BC (Hattusili I). A Hittite horse-training text is attributed to Kikkuli the Mitanni (15th century BC).

The Hittites were renowned charioteers. They developed a new chariot design that had lighter wheels, with four spokes rather than eight, and that held three rather than two warriors. It could hold three warriors because the wheel was placed in the middle of the chariot and not at the back as in the Egyptian chariots. Hittite prosperity largely depended on Hittite control of trade routes and natural resources, specifically metals.

As the Hittites gained dominion over Mesopotamia, tensions flared among the neighboring Assyrians, Hurrians, and Egyptians. Under Suppiluliuma I, the Hittites conquered Kadesh and, eventually, the whole of Syria. The Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC is likely to have been the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving some over five thousand chariots.

The chariot and horse were introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos invaders in the 16th century BC and undoubtedly contributed to the military success of the Egyptians. In the remains of Egyptian and Assyrian art, there are numerous representations of chariots, which display rich ornamentation.

The chariots of the Egyptians and Assyrians, with whom the bow was the principal arm of attack, were richly mounted with quivers full of arrows. The Egyptians invented the yoke saddle for their chariot horses in c. 1500 BC. The best preserved examples of Egyptian chariots are the four specimens from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Chariots can be carried by two or more horses.

Chariots figure prominently in the Rigveda, evidencing their presence in India in the 2nd millennium BC. Among Rigvedic deities, notably Ushas (the dawn) rides in a chariot, as well as Agni in his function as a messenger between gods and men.

The earliest archaeological evidence of chariots in China, a chariot burial site discovered in 1933 at Hougang, Anyang in Henan province, dates to the rule of King Wu Ding of the late Shang Dynasty (c. 1200 BC). Oracle bone inscriptions suggest that the western enemies of the Shang used limited numbers of chariots in battle, but the Shang themselves used them only as mobile command vehicles and in royal hunts.

The earliest records of chariots are the arsenal inventories of the Mycenaean palaces, as described in Linear B tablets from the 15th-14th centuries BC. The tablets distinguish between “assembled” and “disassembled” chariots. Herodotus reports that chariots were widely used in the Pontic–Caspian steppe by the Sigynnae.

The Trundholm sun chariot is dated to c. 1400 BC. The horse drawing the solar disk runs on four wheels, and the Sun itself on two. All wheels have four spokes. The “chariot” comprises the solar disk, the axle, and the wheels, and it is unclear whether the sun is depicted as the chariot or as the passenger. Nevertheless, the presence of a model of a horse-drawn vehicle on two spoked wheels in Northern Europe at such an early time is astonishing.

In addition to the Trundholm chariot, there are numerous petroglyphs from the Nordic Bronze Age that depict chariots. One petroglyph, drawn on a stone slab in a double burial from c. 1000 BC, depicts a biga with two four-spoked wheels.

Models of two-wheeled carts from c. 3000 BC found at Altyn-Depe are the earliest complete evidence of wheeled transport in Central Asia, though model wheels have come from contexts possibly somewhat earlier. Judging by the type of harness, carts were initially pulled by oxen, or a bull. However camels were domesticated within the BMAC. A model of a cart drawn by a camel of c. 2200 BCE was found at Altyn-Depe.

The Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) is the modern archaeological designation for a Bronze Age civilisation of Central Asia, dated to ca. 2300–1700 BCE, located in present day northern Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan, centered on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus River).

Bactria was the Greek name for the area of Bactra (modern Balkh), in what is now northern Afghanistan, and Margiana was the Greek name for the Persian satrapy of Margu, the capital of which was Merv, in modern-day southeastern Turkmenistan.

In the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley and Northwestern India, we find toy-cart wheels made of clay with lines which have been interpreted as spokes painted or in relief, and a symbol interpreted as a spoked wheel in the script of the seals, already in the second half of the 3rd millennium BC.

The earliest known examples of wooden spoked wheels are in the context of the Andronovo culture, dating to c. 2000 BC. The earliest fully developed true chariots known are from the chariot burials of the Andronovo (Timber-Grave) sites of the Sintashta-Petrovka Proto-Indo-Iranian culture in modern Russia and Kazakhstan from around 2000 BC.

This culture is at least partially derived from the earlier Yamna culture. It built heavily fortified settlements, engaged in bronze metallurgy on an industrial scale and practiced complex burial rituals reminiscent of Hindu rituals known from the Rigveda and the Avesta.

The Sintashta-Petrovka chariot burials yield the earliest spoke-wheeled true chariots. The Andronovo culture over the next few centuries spread across the steppes from the Urals to the Tien Shan, likely corresponding to the time of early Indo-Iranian cultures.

Chariots figure prominently in Indo-Iranian mythology. Chariots are also an important part of both Hindu and Persian mythology, with most of the gods in their pantheon portrayed as riding them.

The Sanskrit word for a chariot is rátha- (m.), which is cognate with Avestan raθa- (also m.), and in origin a substantivisation of the adjective Proto-Indo-European *rot-h-ó- meaning “having wheels”, with the characteristic accent shift found in Indo-Iranian substantivisations.

This adjective is in turn derived from the collective noun *rot-eh “wheels”, continued in Latin rota, which belongs to the noun *rót-o- for “wheel” (from *ret- “to run”) that is also found in Germanic, Celtic and Baltic (Old High German rad n., Old Irish roth m., Lithuanian rãtas m.).

Soon after this, horse cultures of the Caucasus region used horse-drawn spoked-wheel war chariots for the greater part of three centuries. They moved deep into the Greek peninsula where they joined with the existing Mediterranean peoples to give rise, eventually, to classical Greece after the breaking of Minoan dominance and consolidations led by pre-classical Sparta and Athens.

Celtic chariots introduced an iron rim around the wheel in the 1st millennium BC. The spoked wheel was in continued use without major modification until the 1870s, when wire wheels and pneumatic tires were invented.

Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the second half of the 4th millennium BC, near-simultaneously in Mesopotamia (Sumerian civilization), the Northern Caucasus (Maykop culture) and Central Europe, so that the question of which culture originally invented the wheeled vehicle is still unsolved.

Ox carts, proto-chariots, were built by the Proto-Indo-Europeans and in Mesopotamia as early as 3000 BC. The original horse chariot was a fast, light, open, two-wheeled conveyance drawn by two or more horses that were hitched side by side, and was little more than a floor with a waist-high semicircular guard at the front.

It was initially used for ancient warfare during the Bronze and the Iron Ages, but after its military capabilities had been superseded by other vehicles, the chariot was used for travel, in processions, for games, and in races.

The horse drawn wheeled vehicle probably originated in Mesopotamia about 3000 BC. The earliest depiction of vehicles in the context of warfare is on the Standard of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, c. 2500 BC.

These are more properly called wagons or carts and were still double-axled and pulled by oxen, or a hybrid of a donkey and a female onager, named Kunga in the city of Nagar which was famous for breeding them. The hybrids were used by the Eblaite, early Sumerian, Akkadian and Ur III armies.

Although sometimes carrying a spearman along with the charioteer (driver), such heavy wagons, borne on solid wooden wheels and covered with skins, may have been part of the baggage train (e.g., during royal funeral processions) rather than vehicles of battle in themselves.

The Sumerians had also a lighter, two-wheeled type of cart, pulled by four asses, but still with solid wheels. The critical invention that allowed the construction of light, horse-drawn chariots was the spoked wheel. The earliest spoke-wheeled chariots date to ca. 2000 BC. The spoked wheel did not appear in Mesopotamia until the mid-2000s BC.

The domestication of the horse was an important step toward civilization, and the clearest evidence of early use of the horse as a means of transport is from chariot burials dated c. 2000 BC. An increasing amount of evidence supports the hypothesis that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes (Dereivka centered in Ukraine) approximately 4000-3500 BC.

The invention of the wheel most likely took place in Europe. Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium BC, near-simultaneously in the Northern Caucasus (Maykop culture), Central Europe and Mesopotamia.

The earliest well-dated depiction of a wheeled vehicle (here a wagon—four wheels, two axles) is on the Bronocice pot, a c. 3500 – 3350 BC clay pot excavated in a Funnelbeaker culture settlement in southern Poland.

The Funnel(-neck-)beaker culture, short TRB or TBK from (German) Trichter(-rand-)becherkultur (ca 4300 BC–ca 2800 BC) was an archaeological culture in north-central Europe. It developed as a technological merger of local neolithic and mesolithic techno-complexes between the lower Elbe and middle Vistula rivers, introducing farming and husbandry as a major source of food to the pottery-using hunter-gatherers north of this line.

The culture is seen as non-Indo-European, representing the culture of what Marija Gimbutas termed Old Europe, the peoples of which were later to be governed by the Indo-European-language-speaking peoples intruding from the east. The political relation between the aboriginal and intrusive cultures resulted in quick and smooth cultural morphosis into Corded Ware culture.

The culture is named for its characteristic ceramics, beakers and amphorae with funnel-shaped tops, which were probably used for drinking. One find assigned to the Funnelbeaker culture is the Bronocice pot, which shows the oldest known depiction of a wheeled vehicle (here, a 2-axled, 4-wheeled wagon). The pot dates to approximately 3500 BC.

The image on the pot is the oldest well-dated representation of a 4-wheeled vehicle in the world. It suggests the existence of wagons in Central Europe as early as in the 4th millennium BC. They were presumably drawn by aurochs whose remains were found with the pot. Their horns were worn out as if tied with a rope, possibly a result of using a kind of yoke.

A 2010 study of ancient DNA suggested the population of the Linear Pottery (also known as Linearbandkeramik or LBK culture), which preceded the TRB culture by some 1,500 years, had affinities to modern-day populations from the Near East and Anatolia, such as an overall prevalence of G2. The study also found some unique features, such as the prevalence of the now-rare Y-haplogroup F* and mitochondrial haplogroup frequencies.

The oldest securely dated real wheel-axle combination, that from Stare Gmajne near Ljubljana in Slovenia (Ljubljana Marshes Wooden Wheel) is now dated in 2σ-limits to 3340-3030 cal BC, the axle to 3360-3045 cal BC.

The earliest remains in Eastern Europe of a wheeled cart were found in the “Storozhova mohyla” kurgan (Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, excavated by Trenozhkin A.I.) associated with the Yamna/Pit [Grave] Culture (3600–2300 BC), a late copper age/early Bronze Age culture of the Southern Bug/Dniester/Ural region (the Pontic steppe), that moved east into the region between 2800 and 2600 BCE.

The Yamna culture was preceded by the middle Dnieper based Sredny Stog culture, the middle Volga based Khvalynsk culture and Dnieper-Donets culture, while succeeded by the Catacomb culture in its western range and by the Poltavka culture and the Srubna culture in the east. It is a strong candidate for the Urheimat (homeland) of the Proto-Indo-European language, along with the preceding Sredny Stog culture.

In China, the wheel was certainly present with the adoption of the chariot in c. 1200 BC, although Barbieri-Low argues for earlier Chinese wheeled vehicles, c. 2000 BC.

The invention of the wheel falls in the late Neolithic, and may be seen in conjunction with other technological advances that gave rise to the early Bronze Age. Note that this implies the passage of several wheel-less millennia even after the invention of agriculture and of pottery:

9500–6500 BC: Aceramic Neolithic

6500–4500 BC: Ceramic Neolithic (Halafian), earliest wooden wheels (disks with a hole for the axle)

4500 BC: invention of the potter’s wheel, beginning of the Chalcolithic (Ubaid period)

4500–3300 BC: Chalcolithic, earliest wheeled vehicles, domestication of the horse

3300–2200 BC: Early Bronze Age

2200–1550 BC: Middle Bronze Age, invention of the spoked wheel and the chariot

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