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18 September 2014
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Glastonbury Lake Village
This site, near Taunton in Somerset, was excavated in the early 1900s and dates back to around the 1st century BC. It yielded a number of finds among which were five wheel spokes and an unfinished nave. Part of the site was evidently a wheelwright’s workshop. The nature of the peaty soil has meant that these wooden artefacts survive today and are exhibited in the local museum.

Equally incredibly the spokes were of a length consistent with the known diameter of the Wetwang wheel and the nave (central hub) was within half a centimetre in length of that at Wetwang. We had measurements at Wetwang but no clues as to the style and form of these components. The Glastonbury finds provided us with that.
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Holme Pierrepont
Holme Pierrepont is a small village near Trentbridge in Nottinghamshire. Although an entire vehicle was not found at this site, it is important because it offers a very good example of an Iron Age wheel. In fact it is the only known example of a multi-felloed wheel of the period to be found in the UK.

The felloes (pronounced 'fellies') are arcs cut from a board of timber. In this instance, there were six, each abuts with its fellow to make up the rim. This is the same method that is used today. We were relieved to have this example to draw on because other Iron Age wheel remains suggest that the rims were often made from a single piece of wood. This would have presented technical problems in creating such a continuous curve, without the grain lifting. A proposed solution that might have been employed in the Iron Age was to grow the timber to shape by staking saplings round a former wheel. Sadly we didn’t have time for this.
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Lake Neuchatel
Lake Neuchatel lies in the cradle of the Swiss Alps near Fribourg at a point of crossing between the Rhine and Rhone valleys. It was at the heart of the Iron Age culture known as La Tene (c 500 BC–0 BC). In the 1870s, the eastern end of the lake dried out and horde after horde of precious objects were discovered. Stylistically distinctive these and later finds have characterised what is known as La Tene art.

Among these finds were the remains of a yoke, which can be dated to around 200 BC. It was found together with equine skeletons, indicating that it was for use with horses. In this respect it is a unique find and has a number of interesting features. There are slots for the terrets (rein rings) and pommels at each end, which provide tying off points for the strap that secures it to the horses.
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Chariot trials in Egypt
Egypt 1998, on the Giza plateau, in the shadow of the great Pyramid. A fabulous golden chariot was being harnessed up. It was a replica of one, which had, miraculously, survived totally intact in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Local craftsman had built the replica based on the original which now resides in the Cairo Museum. The wood, the leather, the bronze, everything had survived so it was fairly certain that what was being built would be very close to the original. But would it actually work? How easy would it be to shoot a bow and arrow from the galloping platform? This was where I came in. I was to test it and assess the accuracy and efficiency of an Ancient Egyptian chariot archer.

In the glare of the desert sun I mounted the platform and set the chariot in motion. At first everything went well, then things began to go horribly wrong. After just 50 metres, the wheels fell off (a lesson in the importance of linchpins and the importance of checking that they had been fitted before setting off). But that wasn’t the only problem. The intention had been to drive the horses under yoke; that is without a rigid collar and traces (collar and traces, still used today, weren’t known about until the Chinese developed them in the 5th century AD). Unfortunately the Egyptian horses that we used had not been trained for driving under a yoke. The results were nearly disastrous.

The Egyptian horses were driving horses but had never before been driven as a pair. They hadn’t even met each other before. Their hindquarters swung out, they jibbed at each other and put intolerable strains on the yoke, threatening to pull everything apart. Some lashings broke and others slipped. I was faced with panicking horses under a skewed yoke. It could no longer hold them in place and yet they were still joined to the chariot which was itself now threatening to break apart or be toppled over.

Fortunately I got the horses steadied. We effected some makeshift repairs and decided that we had to put false traces on in order to keep them straight. After this things went relatively smoothly and I was able to shoot some arrows and actually hit some targets but it was a sharp reminder of the perils of putting archaeology into practice.
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Published: 28-01-2005

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