Wetwang: A Chariot Fit for a Queen?

By Mike Loades
Archaeologists couldn't believe their eyes when they realised the size of the object they were uncovering at Wetwang. Relive their experience, and assess the discoveries they made as a result of this extraordinary find.
A Roman coin depicts a war chariot in action 

Chariot, cart or carriage?

Excavations carried out at Wetwang, in East Yorkshire, in 2001, revealed the remains of a vehicle that had been deliberately buried almost 2,500 years ago. But what kind of vehicle was it? Was it just a cart or was it something more than that? There was an apparently high-status human burial alongside the vehicle, so it quickly seemed possible that this 'cart' might well have been a carriage, or even a chariot.

'They decided to attempt to recreate the Wetwang find ...'

To throw light on the discussion and find out more about the way the vehicle was used, the archaeologists involved decided to reconstruct the past. They decided to attempt to recreate the Wetwang find, based on the evidence at the burial site and on existing research concerning Iron Age chariots. And they planned to test it out in field trials, to see how it performed.

British chariots

Image of a strap union
An iron strap union is uncovered at the dig
Chariots were in use in Britain from around 400 BC, perhaps earlier. The most famous British charioteer was, of course, Boudicca. She lived in the first century AD, some 400 years later than the Wetwang find and 100 years after Julius Caesar, who visited these shores in 55 and 54 BC and wrote about encountering British chariots in battle.

Despite these and other references, archaeologists remain reliant on excavations to provide clues to the role of chariots in the lives of our ancestors.

Chariot finds in continental Europe have much in common with those found in Britain, and tell us that Iron Age north European chariots were all very similar in design.

'... detailed information about how it all looked and worked was missing.'

They had two spoked wheels, a fixed axle and a low, rectangular platform, joined to a pole, for the passengers. The pole was attached to a wooden yoke which rested on two ponies’ backs near the neck. The chariot would have been drawn with one pony on each side of the pole.

The reins ran back from the ponies’ heads to the driver’s hands via terrets (metal rings), which were mounted onto the yoke. Evidence from Wetwang revealed that this find featured five terrets, four of which would have been for the reins, and the researchers were keen to establish the function of the fifth.

With all this in their heads, the archaeologists were getting a reasonable idea of the parts of an ancient Briton's carriage, and how these may have been used, but detailed information about how it all looked and worked was missing.The only pictorial representations were on a few Roman and native Iron Age coins and an Etruscan gravestone called the ‘Padua stele’, in northern Italy.

The reconstruction would have to take account of all this evidence, and add to it clues drawn from chariot construction from other cultures and the evidence provided by the rest of the Wetwang excavation.

The evidence

Image of Wetwang horsebits
Bits from a horse's bridle are revealed by x-ray
The location of the surviving metal parts - terrets, linchpins, iron tyres, nave hoops, bits and strap unions - could be easily identified at the site of the dig.

There was also a near rectangular stain which indicated the approximate shape and dimensions of the vehicle body and provided information about component types and their dimensions. This was consistent with the evidence from other finds and provided useful clues, but there was more.

'Careful recording ... provided important information about the shape and size of the vehicle.'

The nature of the soil, clay intermingled with flint and chalk, meant that where the wooden structure had decayed in a few places there were tell-tale empty spaces in the filling. Careful recording in three dimensions of all the other finds in the grave also provided important information about the shape and size of the vehicle.

From the voids in the wooden structure, the archaeologists were able to detect the length and shape profile of the axle - a curious indented shape.

Studying the dimensions of the axle also revealed that the height of the ponies was only 11 hands, which is short by modern standards, although, judging from the evidence of excavated horse skeletons elsewhere, typical of Iron Age native stock. The stain where the decaying wood had discoloured the earth also revealed that the vehicle had three solid sides and an open front.

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.

Mobile missile platforms

Image of statue of Boudicca
How the Victorians interpreted Boudicca's chariot advance
For the field trials, the archaeologists working on the reconstruction looked to the original sources to illustrate how contemporary vehicles performed. They found that Caesar gave a good account of how British chariots were used against his Roman troops on the battlefield.

'They begin by driving all over the field and hurling their javelins. Then they jump down from the chariots and engage on foot. In the meantime their charioteers retire a short distance from the battle and place their chariots in such a position that their masters, if hard pressed by numbers, have an easy means of retreat to their own lines.' Gallic Wars IV: 1 Julius Caesar

So, it seems British chariots were used both as mobile missile platforms and as a form of battlefield taxi for high-status warriors. We cannot be certain that this description of their first-century BC battlefield application would apply to how they were used in the fourth century BC, but it seems possible that what Caesar witnessed was the continuation of a long-standing martial tradition.

Vehicle of war

Image of model chariot
Earlier interpretation of chariot evidence, based on finds from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey
There are also literary descriptions in Roman sources to two-wheeled vehicles being used as normal non-military transport. So the evidence can support a broad interpretation of the word chariot - high performing and warlike at one end of the scale, and rather more like what we might call a finely decorated trap at the other.

These differences in interpretation are not uncommon in archaeology, and as new finds are uncovered the debate will shift in emphasis. Despite the room for doubt there remains considerable evidence to support that the find at Wetwang could well be a chariot. But what did it look like and how did it work?

'... the requirement for the driver to sit throws up a significant design problem.'

The word that Caesar uses to describe these conveyances is essedum. The root of the word implies a sedentary mode and this is confirmed by the few illustrations we have, which show a seated driver and a standing passenger. However, if the Wetwang chariot is to be compared with these military vehicles, the requirement for the driver to sit throws up a significant design problem.

Iron Age suspension

Image of part of suspension system
The 'Y' straps of the suspension system
In vehicles such as this, suspension is all important - a seated passenger is dependent on this if he or she is not be thrown to the ground by the jolting movement of the vehicle.

Chariots in other cultures are for standing on, not sitting on, so here was a nettle that had to be grasped. What was it about European chariots that not only necessitated the driver to sit down but enabled them to do so?

'This rough terrain ... necessitated a seated driver, as he would require a lower centre of gravity.'

The Egyptians, Chinese, Assyrians, Persians and Indians all used their chariots in plains warfare. European chariot remains, however, are found in rough country - coarse grassed, hilly, bumpy and rutted. Perhaps this rough terrain is exactly what necessitated a seated driver, as he would require a lower centre of gravity if he was to remain stable. But there was no evidence to demonstrate what the suspension system might have been like.

The grave find at Wetwang provided no clues, but there was something on Roman coins and on the Padua stele. All these depictions showed the vehicles to have two bowed arches on each side, and a 'Y' configuration in the centre of these.

So the researchers decided to build their reconstruction with these arched sides and to make the Ys into rawhide straps. The three-sided box platform could then be suspended from the Y straps like a hammock. The hope was that this would give adequate suspension.

Building the chariot

Image of wheel
The iron rim being attached to the wooden wheel
Although they had an idea of the dimensions of the chariot, and a clear idea of the shape of the axle, there was no evidence for the shape of the other parts. For this, they turned to other finds.

The nave and spokes were based on finds from Glastonbury Lake [wetwang_chariot_fact_file.shtml] village, and the wheel rim from one at Holme Pierrepoint [wetwang_chariot_fact_file.shtml] . The yoke was based on a find at Lake Neuchatel [wetwang_chariot_fact_file.shtml] in Switzerland.

'The paintwork ... set off the lavish splendour of the bronzed metalwork ...'

As a finishing touch the chariot was painted, using natural ochres from Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean - the mines there have been in existence for over 4,000 years. The paintwork not only set off the lavish splendour of the bronzed metalwork but was also in keeping with the Ancient Britons’ love of colour.

This was a bold statement and broke with the tradition of previous reconstructions, which have represented British chariots as functional vehicles in plain wood and wicker. But it was felt this interpretation did not correspond to the elaborate and prestigious nature of the finds at Wetwang.

Field trials

Image of turret for bearing rein
The bearing rein is passed through the central turret
The day of the field trials was a day of some tension as the present author had had a near disastrous experience [wetwang_chariot_fact_file.shtml] driving a reconstructed Egyptian chariot some years earlier.

The team wanted to do these trials properly, so trained their horses to perform under Iron Age conditions. Would it all work?

'Without traces a vehicle can easily become destabilised ...'

Before the 5th century AD, when the Chinese invented the rigid collar and trace system of harnessing still in use today, horses were harnessed by a simple yoke. A principal problem of the yoke-only system is that there are no ‘traces’. These are leather straps which attach from collar to vehicle and are the means by which it is pulled.

Without traces a vehicle can easily become destabilised - and no one wanted that to happen, so the horses were drilled with care.

The team also wanted to experiment with using a bearing rein with the fifth terret - this is a rein which runs from the inside of each horse’s bit, back via a central terret. By adjusting the length of this they could affect the carriage (or bearing) of the horses’ heads - this had a direct impact on keeping them on a straight path.


Image showing trials
The chariot takes to the field
The chariot performed brilliantly. The suspension system proved stable - it was possible to either sit or stand at walk, trot, canter and gallop over rough, bumpy terrain. It was even possible to throw javelins from the moving vehicle and hit targets of cardboard Romans.

Equally importantly, the ponies ran straight. The bearing rein was doing its job. The vehicle manoeuvred well, with a good turning circle and had terrific stability. On this basis, such a vehicle had all the attributes of being a chariot. Indeed, with its suspension and its five-terret system, this was a vehicle of immense sophistication - and it was considerably more advanced than the standing-only chariots of the Ancient and Roman worlds.

'... there must have been some sort of suspension for the vehicle to have any practical value.'

It may or may not be right to presume that the Wetwang vehicle had a suspension system based on the arch and Y-strap model. This was just an interpretation of pictorial evidence from coins, and there was no actual evidence from the grave to support it. What is certain, though, is that there must have been some sort of suspension for the vehicle to have any practical value.

A principal benefit of these trials was in establishing this as an essential element and thereby alerting archaeologists in future excavations to look out for relevant clues. Similarly, the interpretation of how the five-terret system was deployed was only informed guesswork. But it was a conjecture that was proved actually to work, and will therefore be a useful source of reference for any future discoveries.

These experiments, together with the team's decision to paint the chariot, may actually pose more questions than they answer, but that is the beauty of experimental archaeology - asking the right questions can inform the answers of the future.

So what is a chariot? The truth is that we still cannot be sure. Certainly the reconstruction provided enough evidence to support the possibility that the Wetwang find is indeed that of a war chariot, but equally the absence of any weapons on the site leaves room for doubt. As is the case so often in archaeology, the answer may lie in the next dig.

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-25
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