The Origin of the Bronze Age Chariot

 

The Standard Of Ur

The chariot appeared first in the form of ponderous battle wagons in Sumeria during the third millennium B.C. From this period the famous Standard of Ur shows a column of four wheeled battle carts being deployed alongside spear wielding infantry. It is clear that even at this early date the chariot had become a specialized component of combat. Soldiers in the chariots are shown wielding hand-axes and javelins and wearing different armor from their infantry comrades.

Each chariot is depicted with a driver and a warrior who would hurl the javelins and axes at the enemy. The early chariots moved slowly and likely were used in support of the infantry. The first chariots were heavy and relied on the plodding but strong wild asses of Mesopotamia known as onagers to pull them into battle. An early sign of the chariots elite status can be seen in an ancient text that flatteringly compares Shulgi, the King of Ur, to one of these onagers. Due to their association with chariots the onager for a time rose in status above all other beasts of burden.

The Standard of Ur

The Standard of Ur showing early chariots.

 

The Evolution Of The Wheel

Chariots pulled by onagers were used until at least the nineteenth century BCE At this time the evolution of wheels from solid wooden discs, to wheels with spokes and light weight but durable rims became possible. This innovation allowed for a war-chariot that was reliant upon speed. Eventually, with these lighter chariots and the evolution of the harness from the yoke, charioteers would come to employ horses instead of onagers. This began a centuries long effort to breed horses suited to pulling the chariot into battle.

The technology to build fast-moving weapons platforms marked a revolution in warfare, and the chariot became an increasingly important component in the armies of Bronze Age kingdoms. The final evolution of the chariot as a weapon came with the addition of the composite bow as its main weapon. Wielding a bow accurately from a moving chariot took a lifetime of training and the equipment itself was expensive requiring specialized artisans. However the result of this innovation was that for centuries highly trained bowman would dominate the battlefields of the Near East from fast moving chariots.

The Chariot Spreads Across The Near East

There are indications that the use of horse-drawn chariots may have spread into Asia Minor as early as 1700 BCE It is relatively certain however, that by 1650 BCE the proper war-chariot, with an archer and a driver was in use in Syria by Umman Manda, King of Halab/Aleppo. Several generations later, when Hattusilis I king of Hatti went to war, it is attested that the Hittites had come to rely on chariots as well. It was also around this time period when the enigmatic Hyksos, are said to have brought chariot warfare to Egypt, thereby completing its diffusion across the Near East .

Tutankhamun's reconstructed chariot

Tutankhamun’s reconstructed chariot

By the time the first King of Mitanni came into power over a confederation of Hurrian speaking peoples during the late 16th century BCE, all the essential elements of chariot warfare had all come into play. The Hittites would modify their chariots to carry an extra crewman while the Egyptians would adjust the axle to the rear to enhance maneuverability.

The chariot had gone from being a prestige vehicle that supported the infantry to becoming a fundamental component of every Near Eastern kingdom’s army. The subsequent cost of outfitting massive chariot forces and training elite warriors to use them was to become the main military expense of Late Bronze Age kingdoms.

Sources

Roaf, Micheal. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. (Oxford, Andromeda Books,2004)