Transportation by Land

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Transportation by Land


Early Four-Wheeled Vehicles. The earliest evidence for wheeled vehicles in Mesopotamia is in the form of pictographic proto-cuneiform signs on clay tablets from Uruk, dated to the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e. Pulled by oxen, the vehicles appear to have been sledges equipped with a roofed superstructure. Rather than being dragged across the ground, they have been set on wheels or rollers. During the third millennium b.c.e., two- and three-dimensional representations of two-wheeled carts and four-wheeled wagons were typically depicted in military contexts. The four-wheeled vehicle termed a battle car was narrow, with low sides and high front breastwork topped by an open rail. The vehicle had solid composite-disk wheels pieced together from three boards; these wheels rotated on the ends of round axles fixed beneath the wagon. Two pairs of onagers, or wild asses, were yoked on either side of a low, straight, central draft pole and were controlled by lines from the driver to rings in the animals’ noses. Behind the driver might stand a second man armed with an ax, sickle sword, or javelins. The battle car may have served as a mobile firing platform for the javelin thrower. On mosaics from Ur and Mari, the onagers are shown as if leaping over fallen enemy, but such depictions are likely an artistic convention. As the vehicle was in all probability neither fast nor particularly maneuverable, it likely more often served to transport officers to and from the battlefield and for public displays.

Two-Wheeled Vehicles. During the third millennium b.c.e., two distinct sorts of two-wheeled fighting vehicles were in use; strictly speaking, neither was a chariot in the accepted sense of the word. One of these vehicles, termed a platform car, is known from terra-cotta models; it was more or less a two-wheeled version of the four-wheeled battle car, in which a single rider could stand on die platform of the cart or sit on a small bench-like seat at the rear of the vehicle. The second kind of cart, known from stone relief plaques and three-dimensional models, has been termed a straddle car, because the driver sat or stood with his legs on either side of an extension of the yoke pole while his feet rested on the axle or on footrests just in front of it. The vehicle had no sides; a crossbar mounted on two uprights directly in front of the driver provided the only handhold as well as a place to mount a quiver of javelins. A straddle car represented on a plaque from Ur is drawn by four onagers and appears to have a leopard skin draped over the seat with a high saddle-like cantle at the rear. It must have been no mean feat for the driver to retain control of the speeding vehicle while hurling a javelin, thrusting a spear, or wielding an ax.

Chariots. The earliest representations of the true chariot began to appear early in the second millennium b.c.e. on cylinder seals and seal impressions from Kültepe (ancient Kanesh, the site of an important Old Assyrian trading colony) in Anatolia and, shortly thereafter, from Syria. Although superficially resembling the platform car, the early chariot must have been significantly faster and more maneuverable, and it gradually replaced both the platform car and the straddle car. Drawn by horses, which are capable of greater speed than onagers or oxen, the true chariot was equipped with spoked wheels spinning freely on the ends of a longer axle, probably mounted toward or at the rear of the box, an innovation that improved stability and permitted a wider carriage that could carry two riders side by side. The riders could stabilize themselves against a waist-high railing that enclosed both sides and the front,

necessitating mounting the vehicle from the rear. During the second half of the second millennium b.c.e., the chariot achieved its full potential as a fighting vehicle and became the mainstay of fighting forces throughout the ancient Near East. The newest lightweight chariots, complete examples of which have been excavated from Egypt, were drawn by two horses controlled by reins attached to a mouth bit rather than a nose ring. The charioteer—equipped with shield, helmet, and scale corselet for protection—was armed with the latest technology, the powerful recurved composite bow, fashioned from layers of wood, horn, and sinew. In the first millennium b.c.e., changes in battlefield strategy, which included the introduction of the horse-mounted cavalry, reduced the effectiveness of the chariot in battle. As a consequence the chariot was increased in size and returned to its earlier function of transport and display. Nonetheless, Assyrian palace wall reliefs show the king, with drawn bow and arrow, standing in a speeding chariot during battle and ceremonial lion or bull hunts, the latter probably within the grounds of a royal game preserve. According to the Greek historian Xenophon, the Persian battle formations of the fourth century b.c.e. included scythe-chariots, so called for having scythes fitted to the axle trees and stretching out slantwise; other scythes protruded under the chariot seats, facing the ground, so as to cut through all they encountered.

Riding. Unlike a draft animal, which bears little if any of the weight of the vehicle it must pull, a ridden animal must bear the full weight of its rider. However, a ridden animal can proceed over terrain and up and down grades that would be impassable to animal-drawn sledges and wheeled vehicles. An Akkadian period (circa 2334 - circa 2193 b.c.e.) seal impression from Kish appears to show a javelin-wielding man seated bareback on an onager. The rider is seated astride the animal, his legs drawn up as if to grip better the animal’s flanks. A seal impression from Kültepe (early second millennium b.c.e.) appears to show a rider seated sideways on some sort of packsaddle atop an equid. Evidence from the late third and early second millennia b.c.e. suggests the increasing frequency of riding various types of equids by officials and couriers; oxen continued in their role of mount. In the latter half of the second millennium b.c.e., the introduction of the horse and the mouth bit for control did not bring about a significant increase in riding, even in military contexts where the horse-drawn chariot was now dominant. The use of the ridden horse in warfare first became important when Assyrian troops on campaigns in the mountainous north and east were forced onto the backs of their horses; there they came into contact with the peoples of Transcaucasia, who have a tradition of horseback riding. During the ninth century b.c.e., Assyrian mounted troops operated in pairs; riding bareback at full gallop, one warrior drew his bow and shot his arrow while the second rider controlled the reins of both horses. By the seventh century b.c.e., improvements in reining permitted armored Assyrian mounted troops, armed with bows and arrows or spears, to function individually. As skilled as they were at harassing and raiding, Persian horsemen during the latter half of the first millennium b.c.e. were, despite their numbers, no match for true cavalry fielded by Alexander III (the Great) of Macedon, whose mounted troops were trained to function as a unit.

Pack Animals. The most commonly attested pack animal was the donkey, a domesticated descendant of the wild ass. It was able to carry considerable loads over terrain too difficult for wheeled transport or other pack animals, such as oxen or camels. During the Old Assyrian period (circa 1910 - circa 1740 b.c.e.), merchants used caravans of donkeys to carry goods from their home city of Ashur on the Tigris to the trading colony at Kültepe (ancient Kanesh), which lies at the crossroads of east-west and north-south routes on the Anatolian plateau, a journey of 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) that took five to six weeks. During the eighth century b.c.e. dromedaries (one-humped camels), which may have been domesticated by Arabian nomads by as early as the third millennium b.c.e., began to be used in caravans to transport incense and spices from southern Arabia to Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Syria. During the seventh century b.c.e., the Assyrians used camels as pack animals during military campaigns.


Mary Littauer and J. H. Crouwel, Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East (Leiden: Brill, 1979).

Paula Wapnish, “Camels,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, 5 volumes, edited by Eric M. Meyers (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), I: 407-408.

Xenophon, Anabasis, translated by Carleton L. Brownson, revised, with a new introduction, by John Dillery, Loeb Classical Library, 90 (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study, 2 volumes, translated by M. Pearlman (New York, Toronto & London: McGraw-Hill, 1963).

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Transportation by Land

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