Rise and Fall

Objects as History Week 7


This class was used for discussing instructions related to our Week 8 project. We were to make a timeline, selecting one object and showing its evolution through history. I wanted to choose something which would have significance throughout all ancient civilisations, and something battle related. And that’s how I ended up choosing the chariot.

I’ve always thought of chariots as mighty vehicles of war. Used to gain a height advantage against the enemy, as well as use it to plough through troops. While this is partially correct, I was surprised when I started researching about the topic based on different civilisations. I have an idea of what a chariot should look like based on mythology and related paintings that I’ve seen. So in my head it was always grand and guilded, with detailed engravings and a parasol on top. Turns out, war chariots in the ancient world were actually made to be as light and simple as possible. If I had to break it down, I’d say it’s basically a pedestal on wheels, with a stick protruding from the base.

Most history about chariots comes from literary work during ancient civilisations. Starting from the very first one, Sumerian chariots were recorded on a block called the Royal Standard of Ur, which showcases the lifestyle of this civilisation.

I also found out how chariots were never initially intended for war. They looked like they were used for trade and agriculture. Keeping all this rambling aside, one might wonder, why the chariot in the first place? Why not directly mount a horse? The answer to this lies in evolution. Around 4000BCE, horses were still not strong enough to support the weight of a human directly and weren’t fast enough. A chariot allowed the user to harness the power of 2 to 4 horses together, sometimes even 6.

I learnt that geography plays a very significant role in determining what the chariot looked like and even its usage. A chariot would usually prefer a hard and flat landscape, and so any civilisation with this relief had standard shaped heavy chariots. A good example is the Hittites, located in the Anatolian plateau. A contrast to this were the Egyptians, who had to deal with desert and softer ground. Thus they made their chariot as light as possible, to avoid increasing surface area and sinking into the ground. This also made their chariot fast.

I kept researching about chariots till I had enough to use in my timeline. The toughest part for me was finding relevant dates. This is because ancient civilisations themselves don’t take place one after the other. They overlap in terms of time periods, with a difference in location. So a civilisation could begin at a very different time, and the introduction to the chariot for that civilization could be very different. An example is Egyptians themselves. The civilisation begins around 3500 BCE, but chariots were only introduced to them after the Hyksos invasion in 1750 BCE. That’s pretty ’recent’, given the timeline of the Egyptians. However, I tried my best to find a mid way time period in such cases.

One of my favourite parts of chariot history was chariot racing games held by the Romans and Greeks. We’re talking full-blown IPL level matches, teams, betting, and a crazy fan base. These two civilisations basically decided that since chariots were useless on their rocky Mediterranean terrain anyway, they’ll make a commercial sport out of it instead. People went as far as it took to book the best seats in the bullet-shaped Circus Maximus arena. These were usually at the ’tip’ of the bullet, where the sharp turn and small radius caused the maximum chariot crashes. We’re not so different from our ancestors after all!

I finalized ten chariots in total:

  • Sumerian chariot
  • Eurasian chariot
  • Egyptian chariot
  • Hittite chariot
  • Assyrian chariot
  • Persian chariot
  • Chinese chariot
  • Indian chariot
  • Greek chariot
  • Roman chariot

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