Old Kingdom leather fragments reveal how ancient Egyptians built their chariots

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 22 Apr 2013

Rare leather fragments uncovered recently in the depths of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square will help Egyptologists to solve the mystery of the Pharaohs’ leather chariots

Ikram and Veldmeijer with chariot fragments

During routine archaeological research as part of the Ancient Egypt Leatherwork Project (AELP) carried out by Salima Ikram, Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Andre Veldmeijer, head of the Egyptology section at the Netherlands Flemish Institute in Cairo, a collection of 300 leather fragments of an Old Kingdom chariot were uncovered at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Ikram describes the discovery as very important and the collection as “extremely rare.” Only a handful of complete chariots are known from ancient Egypt, and of these, only one heavily restored in Florence and one in the Egyptian Museum have any significant amount of leather.

“Even then, they are largely unembellished and not as well-preserved as the fragments we found,” asserted Ikram. Although horse-drawn chariots are often illustrated in ancient Egyptian artwork, she said, archaeological evidence that goes beyond wooden frames is rare due to their organic nature, as leather fragments seldom survive.

“The fragments are in a much better shape than we originally anticipated, and we were able to achieve a sense of how the leather unfolds,” Ikram pointed out, adding that the fine condition that the leather was in suggests that it may have been preserved in a tomb.

The archaeological team is now studying the technology and resources used to make the leather chariots in order to reconstruct a complete exact replica of an ancient Egyptian royal leather chariot in 2014.

“The team is also going to test hypotheses about the uses of the different pieces of leather, which may prove to be a challenging endeavour,” said Ikram.

She explains that studies on the newly discovered leather fragments reveal that some pieces are folded over in a crumpled state, and the reconstruction of certain portions while trying to maintain accuracy in reproducing the technologies used might be more difficult than anticipated.

The AELP started in 2008 working on all leather artefacts on display at the Egyptian Museum. During the work, Ikram and Veldmeijer came across a 1950s publication by Robert Jacobus Forbes titled Studies in Ancient Technology with a black and white photograph of ancient reigns and horse harnesses, evidently intact and said to exist at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Thrilled by Forbes's findings, both Egyptologists sought the help of museum curators to locate a cache of leather items related to an ancient chariot, including parts of the bow-case.

Ikram and Veldmeijer documented, examined and conducted analytical studies of the technology and resources utilised. They categorised the leather into two main groups based on colour and sturdiness. The leather fragments have been numbered and described, and include nave hoops, neck straps, gauntlets and parts of the bow-case. The remnants evidently comprised all parts of the chariot.

“Everything we saw about the chariot leather was new,” affirmed Ikram, adding that it provided a revelation on how the chariot was put together in terms of the technologies and materials used.

“Our examinations also disclosed how drawstrings served as the means of securing leather components over the skeleton of the chariot.”

According to a press release sent from the AUC press, the findings fit in with a larger multidisciplinary and holistic research venture on leatherwork in ancient Egypt, which also includes the study of other fragmentary chariot pieces, such as those originating from the tombs of Thutmose IV (Carter and Newberry, 1904), Amenhotep II (Daressy, 1902) and Amenhotep III (Littauer and Crouwel, 1985, 1968 and 1987), as well as the leather finds from the Amarna period (Veldmeijer, 2010). This larger project is directed by Veldmeijer and Ikram.

“Chariots introduced the notion of roadways for faster wheel conveyance, revolutionising the way Egyptians moved through the landscape and pioneering means of transportation and warfare,” said Ikram.

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