You have seen the ancient depictions of the pharaoh alone in his chariot with his bow drawn, the horses running in lockstep, as the battle raged around him. And if you are like me, you have wondered if these are historical depictions or artistic license. Few people know the specifics of New Kingdom chariots like Kathy Hansen, who appeared as one of the experts in the NOVA special “Building Pharaoh’s Chariot”. Last Spring Kathy took some time to answer these questions and others for Em Hotep. After some delays (all of them my fault) we are finally able to bring the results to you…
This interview has its genesis in an email discussion I had with Dr. Philip Femano, an independent researcher and writer in the field of Egyptology. We had both recently viewed the NOVA special “Building Pharaoh’s Chariot” (2013) and Phil had some questions. He noted that in Egyptian art chariots are depicted (usually) with the horses running in lockstep—both horses put the same leg forward at the same time. He also noted that archers were often depicted firing their bows from chariots without a driver handling the chariot for them. Phil and I wondered if these were examples of artistic license, or if these depictions represented real life. Phil was also fascinated by the innovative spoke technology of the chariot wheel. It was a great conversation, but we had assumed it would probably end there.
But then we learned that Kathy Hansen, one of the “stars” of, and a primary expert on, the NOVA special on New Kingdom chariots was to be a speaker at the American Research Centers in Egypt 2013 Annual Conference. Additionally, Kathy would be leading an excursion to the International Museum of the Horse where she would give an extended presentation on the New Kingdom chariot these on which she had worked. It struck me at that point that there just might be an interview opportunity here, so I contacted Jeff Novak (ARCE, North Texas) who was coordinating the event, who put me in touch with Kathy Hansen who agreed to make some time for me at the conference. Thus, an interview was planned! (To my fellow bloggers, take note—it never hurts to ask for some face time!)
I think Phil might have been even more excited than I was! After some back and forth we hammered out what questions I would ask Kathy, and I think the end result is a fine interview with some surprising answers to our questions. I want to take this space to both acknowledge and thank Phil. He made this interview happen in ways too numerous to mention, and it is with all sincerity that I say this interview is as much his work as mine. Thanks, Phil. Sorry about all the delays, and I hope you enjoy it!
Em Hotep: Before we get to chariots, I have to ask which came first for you, horses or Egyptology?
Kathy Hansen: The horses came first. I was born and raised on a cattle ranch, so I rode practically before I could walk. And we had farm horses, so I drove very early. I became interested in the history of the American buggy, which is designed for strength through flexibility, and when you go back through the history of utilitarian vehicles you end up with the chariot in Egypt. So when I was able to go to Egypt, I wrote a guidebook about it, and got to help Natnadia Lokma put Tut’s chariot back together at the Cairo Museum.
Em Hotep: It could be said that the opening act of the New Kingdom was the expulsion of the Hyksos by Ahmose I. Were chariots a part of what turned the tide against the Hyksos, and with the chariot, were the Egyptians using one of the Hyksos’ own weapons against them?
Kathy Hansen: One of the really big advantages that chariots give in warfare is a raised, centered command post. So you don’t have people running around trying to chase down who is in charge; there is no question where the command post is. Now whether that was enough of a difference from the Hyksos to really give a decisive advantage, I don’t know. My gut feeling is that the advantage that the chariot gave developed over two to three hundred years during the New Kingdom.
I’m not really sure of how immediately successful it was and even if it was brought in by the Hyksos. So where did it come from? I’m sure it came from the East, and the earliest Egyptian chariots appear to have had four spokes and other qualities of early design. The Egyptians did not originally have sidelines like we see later in the New Kingdom, so I think the chariots gradually developed over time into the design we see in the Ramesside Period when they became very effective for the type of warfare for which they were used.
Em Hotep: When you were looking for horses to pair with the recreated chariots your team built for the NOVA documentary, “Building Pharaoh’s Chariot”, I imagine you using ancient Egyptian eyes. In other words, I see you putting yourself in the place of your ancient counterparts who were pairing horses up for chariots that would enter the battlefield. What sorts of things were you looking for that you think the ancients would have been looking for as well, and how do you think the process might have been different for the ancients than for your team?
Kathy Hansen: Well, the first thing we were looking at was, of course, the physical characteristics. You want them to be about the same size and stride because you are harnessing them under a yoke. Any time you are harnessing horses under a yoke they have to be similar physically. We were looking for small horses because the chariots were small. But the most important thing I was looking for was temperament because we had a month and a half to break two teams to harness, hitch them to the chariots, and train them to go.
And the horses we found were absolutely incredible. They gave us their all and were easy to work with. Of course, part-Arab horses are very smart and very cool, and if you treat them right they are very quick to learn. As a matter of fact, you have to keep them very well focused on work because they are very creative. If they start to get bored they will start creating problems.
So basically the most important thing for us in selecting horses was temperament. But as for how this might have differed from the ancients, the ancients could afford to take 200 stallions and raise them together. Then they could look at them and say “That one goes to market, I’m not messing with him, but these two seem to work well.”
Em Hotep: In much of the ancient Egyptian art showing chariots, the horses are depicted running in phase—in lockstep. Do you think that is artistic convention or do you think the horses were actually trained to run in phase?
Kathy Hansen: No, I don’t think they were trained to run that way, they tend to do that on their own in pairs. When they have a yoke across their necks, even in the looser modern harnesses, when they are in draft they find out very early on that it’s easier to work together. In some pairs you will see that both inside legs go together, with some pairs you see that both outside legs go together. In the looser harness that I am most familiar with as a driver they go with the inside legs together.
What we found with the chariot was that, because they were inexperienced, they would run together sometimes, other times they would drop out of step, but the more we drove them the more they came together. But it was not something they are trained to do, and I don’t think it is just artistic convention that they are shown running with their legs together. When I did all of this research I trusted the Egyptian artists.
Em Hotep: Another common depiction in Egyptian chariot art is the image of a single warrior or archer in the chariot without a separate driver. Do you think it would be possible for an archer or warrior to be able to drive the chariot with his hands free for wielding weapons, or was this artistic license?
Kathy Hansen: When a warrior or archer is shown without a separate driver the reins are shown knotted behind his back. We did not try this, but we probably could have because it would have taken very small shifts of the hips to steer the horses. What we discovered, and we expected this from Greek texts, was that when you shorten the inside horse and extend the outside horse you could turn the chariot on one wheel. Our driver said that he was able to turn them with just slight movements of his fingers.
So a single person driving with his hips would have been possible. Whether or not you would want to do it for very long is different; I’d rather have somebody else in the vehicle with me. The one thing you learn about dealing with horses is that whatever can go wrong will. So whether or not that was an artistic thing or whether they actually did hunting that way, who knows? But it would be possible to do.
Em Hotep: Judging from tomb paintings, it seems that the chariot wheels originally had four spokes, which then developed to eight spokes, but then they seem to have compromised with a six spoke wheel. The reason for the six spoke wheel given in the documentary was that it was stronger than the four spoke but lighter than the eight spoke, and therefore easier to accelerate. Could another reason have been because of the difficult angle they had to bend the v-shaped spokes to fit eight inside a wheel?
Kathy Hansen: I think so. We used steam bending but I think the Egyptians wet bent. You can still get a good angle with wet bending. I live in Redding, California, which has very hot and dry summers and very wet winters. If you walk into a lumber yard after a wet winter and the wood has not been tied down you can see 2 x 4 boards bent at angles on their own. But in my own experimenting with wet bending the best I could get without fractures was about 60 degrees.
Em Hotep: So the six spoke wheel may have had as much to do with the limits of the bending methods as with the acceleration aspect?
Kathy Hansen: I would think so, but others on the team do not necessarily agree with me. But we were definitely in agreement on the four spoke design. I also think the four spoke chariots were used more for racing. Some of the tombs show four spoke chariots being pulled by what have been labeled as mules, but I don’t think they were mules, I think they were onagers, which are faster than mules. So the four spoke wheels were an earlier design that ended up being used for racing. I know I wouldn’t use the four spoke design on the battlefield.
Some additional photos from the New Kingdom Chariot display at the International Museum of the Horse at Lexington, Kentucky
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2013. All rights reserved.
All photography by Anne Snyder Payne is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without expressed permission. But Anne is pretty cool, so if you just ask she will probably let you use it.