Lindner (2020): Chariots in the Eurasian Steppe

Miscellanea Archaeology & Prehistory Lindner (2020): Chariots in the Eurasian Steppe

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    Carlos QuilesCarlos Quiles
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    Open access Chariots in the Eurasian Steppe: a Bayesian approach to the emergence of horse-drawn transport in the early second millennium BC, by Stephan Lindner, Antiquity (2020).

    Abstract (emphasis mine):

    In Eastern Europe, the use of light vehicles with spoked wheels and harnessed horse teams is first evidenced in the early second-millennium BC Sintashta-Petrovka Culture in the South-eastern Ural Mountains. Using Bayesian modelling of radiocarbon dates from the kurgan cemetery of Kamennyj Ambar-5, combined with artefactual and stratigraphic analyses, this article demonstrates that these early European chariots date to no later than the first proto-chariots of the ancient Near East. This result suggests the earlier emergence of chariots on the Eurasian Steppe than previously thought and contributes to wider debates on the geography and chronology of technological innovations.


    In Western Eurasia from 3500 cal BC, if not earlier, goods were mostly transported by heavy vehicles with disc wheels, pulled by bovids (Burmeister 2017: 69–71). For the entire third millennium BC, the nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists of the Yamnaya Culture and subsequent Catacomb Culture used such four- and occasionally two-wheeled vehicles on the Eastern European Steppe (Kaiser 2007, 2010: 141–51). Around 2000 cal BC, a cluster of settlements (some heavily fortified) of the Sintashta-Petrovka cultural complex emerged between the Southern Trans-Urals and northern Kazakhstan (Zdanovich & Batanina 2002: 121–38, fig. 1; Koryakova & Epimakhov 2007: 66–98). Here, modes of transport diversified, with the introduction of light, two-wheeled carts with spoked wheels, pulled by domesticated horse teams. First attested in cemeteries at Sintashta moglia (or Sintashta SM), Krivoe Ozero or Kamennyj Ambar-5 (KA-5) of the Sintashta-Petrovka cultural complex (Figure 1), these vehicles, designed specifically to transport humans rather than goods, underwent major changes to become horse-drawn chariots in Eastern Europe’s Middle Bronze Age (c. 2500–1800 BC; Gening et al. 1992; Anthony & Vinogradov 1995). To date, the bulk of research concerning the evolution of light and fast vehicles has concentrated on the ancient Near East (e.g. Littauer & Crouwel 1979, 1996). This article uses radiocarbon-dating models of burial contexts to demonstrate the importance of looking to the region farther north in order to understand the wider context of these technological developments.

    There are currently three main Old World regions with archaeological evidence for such early chariots around the turn of the second millennium BC: the ancient Near East with its Bactrian periphery, the Central Eurasian Steppe and the Carpathian Basin. This article concentrates on evidence from the northern part of the Central Eurasian Steppe, examining archaeological, stratigraphic and radiocarbon data in order to produce a more accurate chronological framework for the emergence of early chariots and the use of horses as traction animals in the Central Eurasian Steppe. To accomplish this, a Bayesian model is presented to refine previously published radiocarbon dates for the Sintashta Culture from the Kamennyj Ambar-5 kurgan cemetery, located in Chelyabinsk Oblast in southern Russia.

    Chariots Eurasian Steppes

    Figure 1. Burials with evidence of Sintashta-Petrovka Culture chariots and cheekpieces (white dots), and other sites of importance for different innovations in transport (black dots) during the late third and early second millennia BC (figure by the author).


    This article has evaluated the available radiocarbon dates from the Southern Trans-Urals region in order to explore the hypothesis that the region was a possible centre of technological innovation. The first chariots depicted on cylinder seals from the Karum II period at Kültepe in central Anatolia date to c. 1900 BC. Within the Bayesian model of the AMS radiocarbon dates for the sampled burials of kurgans 2 and 4 at KA-5, the date of the chariot-grave 8 in kurgan 2 is of particular significance. The radiocarbon model provides a more probable date range for this burial as 1950–1880 cal BC (at 95.4% confidence). Although the grave 8 assemblage suggests a late phase within the Sintashta Culture, its date (in the second half of the twentieth century BC, according to the Bayesian model) is not later than the first pictorial sources from the Karum II period (generally dated to the late twentieth and early nineteenth centuries BC). Furthermore, there is strong evidence for the use of light chariots in the early phase of the Sintashta Culture in the form of pits for spoked wheels and typologically older types of ceramics and horse tack from, for instance, graves 11 and 12 in the Sintashta SM cemetery. Early chariots and horse teams in the Sintashta-Petrovka cultural complex are therefore likely to have emerged in the decades around the turn of the second millennium BC, just as the range of radiocarbon dates indicate.

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