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18 September 2014
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Wetwang: A Chariot Fit for a Queen?

By Mike Loades
What is a chariot?

Image of chariot stud
Rose coral studs were used to decorate the bronze harness rings  ©
But how was the find to be classified? When describing vehicles, there are two factors to consider. What is its intended use and what is its design profile?

The dictionary defines a chariot as a two-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle used for war or racing, but the term has its own limitations, as when, for example, we refer to a ‘sports car’. By doing so we evoke certain design characteristics, but the label does not necessarily imply that the car is really intended for the race track.

Similarly, if we opt to describe the Wetwang find as a chariot, we must be careful not to automatically assume that it was used in war. There is no other evidence to support such an assumption and, critically, no weapons were found in the grave.

'This was certainly no cart.'

However, the word ‘cart’ implies either farm work or the transit of goods - not appropriate for a high-status burial such as this. The clues for its elevated function were in the surviving metalwork. The terrets were overcast in bronze and studded with coral. These were lustrous jewels proclaiming immense wealth and status. This was certainly no cart.

Was it then a carriage? The word carriage suggests a sedate conveyance, probably with purpose-made seating, high sides and a roof. Evidence had been found to indicate the vehicle’s low sides, but nothing else.

Its proportions also made it appear a much leaner, meaner machine than is implied by the word ‘carriage’. The real test of its function, it transpired, would be how it performed at the field trials. If it could travel rapidly over rough ground, corner tightly and have the appearance of a sleek, lightly built yet gorgeous and status-proclaiming vehicle then surely it was a chariot.

Experimental archaeology offered the best chance of solving this puzzle.

Published: 2005-01-25

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