The American Research Center in Eygpt

Building Pharaoh's Chariot

Building Pharaoh's Chariot

Building Pharaoh's Chariot

The telephone call came out of the blue.  The ARCE San Antonio office wanted to know if I would be interested in talking with someone about ancient Egyptian chariots.  “Of course,” I replied.  I e-mailed the contact, and thus began a wonderful collaboration with Martin O’Collins, the director of TV6, a production company that films educational television programs, among them, NOVA.  TV6 wanted to build and drive ancient Egyptian chariots. Was I interested?  You bet.

Sayed Muhammad (horse trainer) and Mike Loades (ancient weapons expert) testing the chariots and mobile archery platform (Photo and Article: Kathy M. Hansen)

Connected to horses my whole life (learning to ride and drive shortly after I learned to walk), I became interested in the American buggy.  Through conservation work on these vehicles, I learned that the buggy was designed for strength through flexibility.  Going back in history, only the Egyptian chariot (with the possible exception of the Roman racing chariot) was designed according to the same principles.

Earlier, during work in Egypt in 1981, I met Nadia Lokma, the conservator who was restoring the sixth chariot from Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was mainly stored in boxes.  We worked together to assemble it, learning a great deal about the chariot itself.  But the harness had melted into a gooey mess; only a few gold covered fragments remained.  Although depictions on temples and tombs revealed the main principles of the neck yoke harness that ancient Egyptians employed, the details remained obscure.

Sayed Muhammad working the horses while NOVA team members look on (K.M. Hansen Photos)

Over the next ten years, I viewed reliefs, artwork, and artifacts available in Egypt, Europe, England and the U.S.  I studied excavation reports, archaeological materials and worked with several Egyptologists including Candy Keller, Bill Murnane, Edgar Push, and Lanny and Martha Bell, among others.  Although the general harness design was clear from the illustrations, (and demonstrated in broad outlines by Spruytte), the details were not apparent.  Mary Littauer, internationally known expert and author of The Chariots of Tutankhamun and Related Equipment, and I discussed them extensively. It was not until I was invited to head a project to reconstruct such a harness for the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, KY that I could put these ideas into practice.

In Lexington, with a team that included a carpenter, saddler, blacksmith and conservator, we recreated a full-scale model of an ancient Egyptian harness and chariot.  Here we could delve into harnessing details, working out the rawhide lacing; the bit and rein attachments, etc.; and applying modern equestrian knowledge and equipment to the information I had collected.  In the process, we validated the accuracy of the ancient artwork and integrated existing artifacts into the design.  All that remained was to try it on live, moving, and unpredictable horses.  That chance came with the phone call from the ARCE office.

Over a year in the planning, the NOVA project was spearheaded by Richard Reisz, producer, and Martin O’Collins, director.  The team included Robert Hurford (chariot reconstruction), Oliver
Graham (research), Mike Loades (ancient weapons) and Magdy Rushidy, our Egyptian man of all trades who smoothed our way.  We met in Cairo at the end of May 2012 and began reconstructing two chariots: a lightweight one based on the Tano materials in the Egyptian Museum (under study by Andre Veldmeijer and Salima Ikram); and a heaver “electrum” type based on the texts at Karnak.  At that time I met Sayed Muhammad, the incredible horse trainer with whom I was to work.  Together we selected and bought four (two pair) half-Arabian horses that were the approximate size and conformation of those depicted in the artwork.  We had four weeks to design and create the harness, and to train the horses to accept and pull the chariots.  We had to teach them to go willingly to the bit, work together as pairs, and condition them to accept the ancient Egyptian harness and manner of driving. During this time, the chariot makers were building the vehicles, so they were not ready to use with the horses. Thus the TV6 located a chariot from a local film production company that we used to break the horses. This chariot and harness were of the dorsal yoke variety, and thus, by serendipity, we were able to directly compare the two ancient harnessing systems: the dorsal and the neck fork.

Sayed Muhammad (l.) and Mike Loades (r.) accustom horses Nova (l.) and Akmar (r.) to the filming site at Dashur: (K.M. Hansen Photos)

We started filming July 4th and finished on July 12, 2012. During the first week, we tested strength and durability, driving the chariots in all types of terrain: up and down hills, both perpendicular and horizontal to the slope, and through water.  The horses had learned to handle the vehicles well; starting, stopping, and spinning it around one wheel.  The chariots proved remarkably sturdy, if lightweight, even surviving one horse’s kicking fit.  It also served well for an archery platform, with our weapons expert able to peg targets with the bow and arrows at a full gallop. Throughout this work, we learned how best to drive a pair hitched to chariots using the ancient harness styles.  We could produce collection (the posture shown on the artwork) and we demonstrated that the “rowels” not only kept the horses from squabbling, but also prevented them from running sideways from under the neck-forks. We also discovered, however, that the knots we used on the harness tended to slip and the pads, including one modeled on an artifact in the Egyptian Museum tended to slip back and rotate around the horses’ backs.  We were unable to solve these issues in the time allotted for the project.

The trip back to Egypt after 20 years enabled me to catch up with a number of colleagues.  I made new and wonderful friends, both Egyptologists and on the TV6 production crew.  The project also provided me with an opportunity to evaluate the suppositions we had made regarding the vehicles, harnessing, training, and driving.  We verified the use of the bit prongs to keep the bit from slipping on the noseband and the effectiveness of the noseband and the “rowels” to produce collection. But we also came back with more puzzles to solve, unanswered questions and the promise of the next field season.

About the author: An ARCE member for over 30 years, Kathryn Hansen is an expert in horses and ancient Egyptian chariots and harness.  She has traveled repeatedly to Egypt, studying artifacts, including one of Tutankhamun’s chariots and the gold harness fragments. She has published in JARCE, The Carriage Journal, and various national and international magazines and books, including authoring Egypt Handbook and contributing to the 2nd edition of Penguin’s Guide to Ancient Egypt.  Her work cumulated in designing the display at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, KY (USA) followed by NOVA/TV6 project to test the designs.  She is a Public Health Microbiologist and Clinical Laboratory Scientist who cross-trains emergency responders and laboratory personnel in bioterrorism response.  She lives in far northern California where she continues to train horses and explore the mysteries of ancient Egyptian chariots, horses, and harness.



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