Vidhyanath Rao vidynath at MATH.OHIO-STATE.EDU
Fri May 29 20:40:52 UTC 1998

This is my promised post about practical details concerning chariots.
This is based on reports of experiments with reconstructed vehicles in
the references I gave in March. These are requirements forced by
mechanics and horse anatomy. If you disagree with the necessity of
these features in a practical chariot, you need to build a chariot that
is like what you think the old I-Ir chariot was like and show by
practical experiments that it is practical. Without such a
demonstration (or a re-analysis of Vedic texts that shows that the
usual picture of Vedic chariot needs to be changed), the practicality
of the Vedic chariot must remain in doubt. How many Indologists would
accept existence of flying machines in ancient India that do not fit
the requirements of aeronautics, purely on the basis of the epics and
the puranas?


1. Yoke placement: The withers of horses are sensitive and it would not
do to put a load on them for any length of time. The yoke must be
placed ahead of the withers (on the neck) or behind the withers. In the
former case, a girth makes no sense. The girth will pull the yoke down
when tightened. It will also rub against the join of legs and body and
irritate the horse.

2nd m. BCE chariots all seem to have used a neck yoke. At some point,
Greeks switched to the dorsal yoke (Spruytte suggests that this was
during the geometric or archaic period). Confusion of the two led des
Noettes to reconstruct a harness with yoke on the withers and a girth.
[He was also grinding his own axe, about technological reasons for
slavery in the ancient world.] Unfortunately this idea continues to
exert an influence: Sparreboom, who lists Spruytte in his references,
for unstated reasons assumes that Noettes' reconstruction of harness is
correct and was used everywhere in the ancient world.

2. Backing element: The necks of horses become narrower as it
approaches the head. Without any further device, when the chariot slows
down (whether approaching a turn or stopping), the neck band will slide
up and put pressure on the throat. The so called girth in Near Eastern
representations is actually a backing element. That this had no role in
securing the yoke is proved by the fact this is always shown loose in the
Near Eastern representations..

Of course, with the dorsal yoke, there has to be a girth to secure the
yoke to the horses. But this is totally different kind of harnessing.

3. Yoke saddle: Yoke saddle functioned like a very primitive horse
collar. [Again, failure to appreciate the real nature led to strange
conclusions. It was assumed that this was a functionless ornament and
was thought to have been mounted with the fork up. Some museum
(Florence?) even showed a reconstructed chariot thus (corrected some
time in the 70's). Several months ago, I saw a book about horses in
Barnes and Nobles (published by them) which showed a photo of the old,
incorrect reconstruction.] So with the yoke saddle, the horse pushes
that with its shoulders, and this is transmitted via the yoke and the
pole to the chariot. This leaves too many links to break, but is

But without it, the horse is pulling by its neck and this is hard to
reconcile with fast, maneuverable chariot. Noettes, based on his
reconstruction, concluded that ancient harnessing limited the load to
about 500 kg. But, once the chariot is in motion, force is needed to
overcome mainly the friction between the wheel and the axle. This is
proportional to the velocity (and to the load). So a chariot weighing 30
kg and carrying two men with their gear, weighing let us say 70kg each,
with the horses in a trot (a chariot with horses always in a walk is
hardly a great improvement over older vehicles) and going up a slope of
1 in 150 would put more strain than walking horses pulling 500kg on
level ground. [When you go up a slope, you need to overcome gravity
continuously. Based on the value of  friction of wood on wood greased
with animal fat given in ``Mechanics of pre-industrial technology'', a
slope with sine of 1/105 would make the force needed to overcome gravity
equal to the force to overcome friction between the wheel hub and the

4. Hub construction: It is hard to get tight fit between a wooden axle
and a wooden wheel/hub. In Egyptian chariots found the the tombs,
this was overcome by making the hub quite long. This will reduce the
vibrations in the axle (try putting a rod in a ring, and then in a
short tube and wiggling the rod about) and reduce the strain on the
axle. There is also a side effect of increasing the wheel base and
making the chariots more stable in fast turns. Conversely, without some
such arrangement, the `chariot' will be more prone to breakage due to
vibrations and to tipping over in fast turns.

5. Axle placement: With a neck yoke, it is important to keep the yoke
down at all times to avoid undue pressure on the underside of horses'
neck. [Spruytte flatly states that shoulder traction is incompatible
with balanced loads unless the horses remain at a walk.] This is easily
achieved by placing the axle at the rear of the chariot. In the
reconstructed vehicle Spruytte used, about 15% of the load was on the
horses' neck, enough to keep the yoke down. With central axle, there is
every danger that the load would shift, causing the neck-band to rise.

The Near Eastern representations with central axles come from seals or
sealings where space was at a premium. Egyptian sculptures show all
chariots with axles in the rear.

Of course, with the dorsal yoke, there is no need for this. It would be
better to use central axles to reduce the load on the horses.

6. Horse size: The horses in the ancient world were small by modern
standards, mostly fitting into the category of large ponies or smaller.
This means that the vehicles of the time must be light enough for these
horses to pull at trot or gallop. It also means that the horses were not
that much of an improvement in power over hemiones or ass-hemione
hybrids. [Hemiones have been clocked at 60 kmph or faster and are said
to be capable of maintaining 20-25 kmph for hours. By 3nd m. BCE
standards, that is break neck speed. It is the failure to domesticate
hemiones that led to the eventual discontinuation of their use.] Since
these were in use already in Sumerian times, the assertions that the
`chariots' of the steppes were a secret weapon that would have unnerved
the people of the Near East or that it made the I-Ir warriors invincible
is a flight of fancy. And it also removes one more objection to gradual
evolution of chariots. If, as Witzel is apparently willing to admit now,
steppe chariots were `relics', this objection becomes stronger.


Let us turn to Sanchi representations and Sparreboom's reconstruction:
The Sanchi representations often show the yoke high on the neck. This is
not feasible if a girth was also used to secure them as Sparreboom
reconstructs. Some of the Sanchi representations also show a true girth,
running around the body of the horse. But they are well behind the yoke,
which leaves them without any clear purpose. In some cases, there is a
strap running to the yoke from the girth. Sometimes this strap is tied
to the tail. In other cases, this strap itself seems to run around the
horse's body. But in some cases this strap shows bends that are not
compatible with it being under tension. In addition the axle is always
placed centrally under the chariot body, which is problematic with a
neck yoke.

For these reasons, I cannot agree with the conclusion that these show a
realistic chariot. The likely explanation is clear once we realize the
Greek influence on Indian sculpture of this period. The artist is
probably mixing up Indo-Greek chariots with dorsal yokes, ox-carts (one
of the Sanchi reliefs shows a vehicle with two spoked wheels being
pulled by oxen) and hear-say reports of chariots with neck yokes.
So for the Vedic chariots we are left with only the textual evidence.

If you are going to insist on realism of Sanchi representations, the
only possible conclusion is that the Indian chariot was an hodge-podge
of features, thrown together without clear understanding of harnessing
and was never practical the way Near Eastern chariots were. There goes
the alledged mastery of chariotry by I-Irs, the Kikkuli treatise and the
rest of it.



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