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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

When is a Chariot a Chariot?

Following the recent circulation of  some Early Bronze Age  Georgian "chariots" with 4 wheels. These are probably more accurately referred to as ("pleasure" or "prestige") "carriages" as described by the likes of Staurt Piggott to denote a variation of light, usually spoked-wheeled prestigious (and perhaps ceremonial) transport for rulers or elites, that they could sit on/within. These would have never have been used as mobile military platforms in battle, nor were they even theoretically capable of being used so because of the design. These pleasure carriages were probably used for official processions, transporting images of the gods, in this context the funerary procession and burial, and perhaps elite weddings in a similar manner to "Royal Carriages" used to this day.

I wrote the following to Ancient and Medieval military expert Mike Loades on what I have been finding about the fluid use of chariot in academic archaeological publications:

      When is a chariot a chariot? Well this is one of a number of questions I am working on in my current Ph.D thesis on early chariots in the Ancient Near East and adjacent regions. Astonishingly enough chariots have not been studied in great detail in their own right until recently (largely from the eighties onwards and even then more of a gradual trickle of information), before that it was always either broadly in very little detail, site/object specific or in relation to larger debates like horse domestication, migrations of various ancient peoples because of this there is no universal standard of exactly what a chariot is, but rather a loose set of ideas about structure and function. So in English language literature a (True) chariot is generally considered to be a light vehicle with 2 spoked-wheels, usually drawn by horses (at least capable of being drawn by horses even if in some cases mules, donkeys or oxen could be used when it wasn't in battle) and at least theoretically capable of being used in warfare (whether or not that was actually the case is perhaps less important, eg a raceing chariot, a ritual chariot, a funerary chariot), a hunting chariot). We tend to class civilian 2/3 wheeled vehicles as carts, heavy four wheeled vehicles as wagons and 4 wheeled vehicles but with spoked wheels as carriages. Howrver not everyone uses these terms all the same way. French research papers will tend to class many kinds of vehicles as chariots, German literature will call most of these wagons - sometimes a more specific term is used but sometimes it is not. Russian academic literature has different tendencies again and different attitudes pre and post the collapse of the Soviet Union. In other cases in other countries chariot is used more to evoke a link to antiquity, or to describe any prestigious elite vehicle rather than a technical term for a specific kind of vehicle. Depending on one's own first language, what language the material is being published in, where and for who the information is being circulated to, ideological and personal motivations and preferences - there are many factors that can influence exactly what is being called a chariot in a given context. Finally to complicate it further there are examples of vehicles, either found whole or in part, sometimes only as partial impressions as the organic material has long ago rotten away, as well as models, and visual representations such as in some sculpture and rock art where it is not always clear whether a vehicle belongs to one or another, or is a transitionary form or something different again.

So all chariots are vehicles but not all vehicles are chariots, and not all vehicles that get called a chariot really are chariots depending on your point of view. Context and the details of any individual vehicle are the best ways to decide if what you are looking at is a chariot.

Based on what seems to be the emerging trend in research written in English, but not set in stone just yet either, I would suggest that if a vehicle has 2 spoked wheels and is light enough and maneuverable enough to be capable of being drawn by horses as a mobile fighting platform for warfare, then it can be considered to truly be a chariot.


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