Homer’s Horses – Part II

I’m going to start 2019 with a continuation of how I ended 2018: The Homeric epic. Having seen how horses were described and used with chariots in The Iliad, I now want move to the perspective of the horses themselves and their living conditions.

The agency of horses

Homer’s horses are not simply passive tools used by humans in their violent conflict. They are instead perceived as social actors who are both brave and cowardly, and who have invested interests in the well-being of their owner and driver -not to mention, a great desire to win. They are fearsome yet make mistakes or refuse to perform certain tasks.

For example, horses are described as being afraid,

… not even
[Hector’s] swift-footed horses would attempt it for him, but stood
whinnying loudly at its very edge: the wide ditch
terrified them
Book 12, l. 50-52

As we saw in Part I, horses form strong bonds with their human owners and trainers, and when losing them, they may feel corresponding levels of grief. This happens when Patroclus dies and the horses of Achilles are devastated:

But the horses of Aeacus’ grandson, far from battle,
had been weeping ever since they heard that their charioteer
had fallen in the dust at the hands of man-slaughtering Hector.
Automedon, the stalwart son of Diores, kept lashing them
with repeated blows of the swift whip, and many times
he spoke to them with soft words, and many times with threats;
but they had no wish either to go back to the ships by the broad
Hellespont, or to join the Achaeans in the fighting,
but as a grave-pillar that stands over the burial-mound
of a dead man or woman stays in place, firmly fixed,
so they stayed motionless, harnessed to the beautiful chariot,
their heads drooping to the earth; and hot tears
flowed from their eyes to the ground, as they mourned
in longing for their charioteer; and their thick manes were soiled,
hanging from the yoke-pad along both sides of the yoke
Book 17, l. 425-440

Horses are also attributed with ‘personhood’ and individuality. This is perhaps best expressed in the explicit naming of horses. Here we can stay with the horses of Achilles

So Automedon led the swift horses under the yoke for him –
Xanthus and Balius, a pair who flew with the winds’ blast,
whom Podarge the storm-mare had borne to the West Wind
as she grazed in a meadow beside the waters of Ocean.
In the trace-reins he harnessed the blameless Pedasus,
the horse that Achilles carried off when he took Eëtion’s city;
though it is mortal, it could keep up with immortal horses.
Book 16, l. 148-154

Xanthus and Balius are immortal horses, the offspring of divine beings. They are of course fitting for Achilles, who himself has a divine mother. But obviously a horse does not have to be immortal to be famous, as Pedasus proves. In the above quotation, Automedon speaks to the horses. This happens a number of times, and Xanthus even replies:

Then from under the yoke the glancing-footed horse Xanthus
spoke to him; it had bent its head down, and all its mane
was drooping to the ground from the yoke-pad beside the yoke,
and the goddess Hera of the white arms had given it speech:
‘We shall surely bring you back safe this time, huge Achilles;
but the day of your death is near at hand, and it is not we who
will be its cause, but a great god and your powerful destiny.
It was not through our sloth or carelessness that the Trojans
stripped the armour from the shoulders of Patroclus
Book 19, l. 404-412

Hector also speaks to his horses – rather confusingly, one of them is Xanthus’ namesake (the name probably refers to the light colour of the coat, but is also used for humans). Interestingly, we hear that were at least partly in the care of Andromache, Hector’s wife. Not only does she serve them wine (!), she also prioritises them above Hector, at least in this particular instance:

So he spoke, and summoned his horses, and said to them:
‘Xanthus and you, Podargus, Aethon and bright Lampus,
now is the time when you must repay me for the lavish care
that Andromache, daughter of great-hearted Eëtion,
gave you, serving you mind-cheering wheat, and mixing it
with wine, to drink when the spirit urged you, before she
served me, I who am proud to be her tender husband.
So come, press on as fast as you can …
Book 8, l. 184-191

It is important to note here that these are human impressions. I am not here making any claims about how horses experience their world. This is about how Homer – and by extension the ancient Greeks – perceived horses as having agency. That is, as experiencing feelings, having desires and intentions, and acting upon them, with greater or lesser success. It is an entangled (if unequal) relationship where both parties actively influence the world of the other.


Mares and stallions

It’s often assumed that only stallions are suitable for warfare and that they are the most prestigious. The Iliad features both mares and stallions, as we have already seen in several instances. There is no indication that stallions are preferable to mares. When lineages are recounted, both dame and sire are mentioned. Mares and stallions take part in the battle,

Meanwhile Neleus’ mares, sweating, were carrying Nestor
out of the battle, and with him Machaon, shepherd of the people.
Book 11, l. 597-599

… and we saw how both mares and stallions are named and can be fast enough for chariot racing:

soon the swift
mares of Pheres’ grandson Eumelus broke into the lead, and
keeping pace with them came the stallions of Diomedes,
the horses of Tros.
Book 23, l. 375-378

Donkeys and mules

Horses are not the only equids in The Iliad. But Homer’s donkeys and mules do not get to go to war or compete in races. They get to haul heavy loads of wagons and plough the soil. They get to carry the dead back from the battlefield at the end of the day.

A donkey makes a rare appearance in a rather unflattering simile as being stubborn and gluttonous:

As when a stubborn donkey, passing a cornfield, defies the boys,
driving it, and though many sticks have been broken on its sides
it goes into the field and causes havoc in its deep crop, and
the boys beat it with sticks, but their strength is weak, and they
drive it out with difficulty, only when it has had its fill of food
Book 11, l. 558-562

Mules are not painted in a much better light. The only real compliments they receive are that they are better at ploughing the soil than oxen (Book 10, line 352) and that they are very strong (Book 17, lines 742-743). Their star role is when they help bring back the body of Hector when Priam goes into the Achaean camp to beg for Achilles’ mercy. Neither donkeys nor mules are ever named or otherwise individualised.

Mules as pack animals, from the palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, 7th c. BCE. British Museum 124879

The hardships of being a Homeric horse

Being a horse in Homer’s world could be tough. There may be times when they would get to graze in large herds in green pastures. But references to how horses are treated when pulling the chariot do not point a particularly pleasant picture:

So [Agamemnon] spoke, and his charioteer whipped the fine-maned horses
towards the hollow ships, and they flew willingly on;
their chest were covered in foam and spattered beneath with dust
Book 11, l. 280-282

Not much is said about the specifics of everyday training of horses in Homer, but passages like these provide a hint as to the methods used. The realities of war is an altogether different category.

whip handle
Egyptian whip handle, 14th c. BCE. The Met 26.7.1293

Ugly war

War is ugly. The Iliad is in many ways a long, detailed narrative of the gore of war. Limbs are torn off, bones broken and brains mushed. For horses too, it is far from a pretty affair. In one instance, the gods have been interfering on both sides but then left the battle to sit next to Zeus and simply watch. Achilles is left to continue his mad rampage, slaughtering the Trojans and their single-hoofed horses (Book 21, line 351).

We get an explicit description of the death of Achilles’ trace horse when Patroclus has borrowed the chariot and horses to go fight in Achilles’ place:

Sarpedon threw second at him with his shining spear and
missed Patroclus, but hit the horse Pedasus with the spear
on its right shoulder; it screamed as it grasped its life away,
and fell bellowing in the dust, and the life flew from it.
Book 16, l. 466-469
Scene of battle with chariot and warriors. The Met 56.171.9. Horses and mules were part of war even in modern times. Large numbers were lost during WWI.


As if the violence of battle wasn’t enough, humans subjected horses to yet another type of untimely death: that of sacrificing them (and other animals) to supernatural beings. Horses were probably not the most common sacrificial animal, but their deaths must have been quite a spectacle. When Achilles kills Lycaon and throws him into the river, he says to him,

Not even this clear-flowing, silver-swirling river will help you,
this river for whom you have for many years sacrificed bulls
in plenty, and hurled single-hoofed horses alive into its eddies.
Book 21, l. 130-132

Of course the most notorious sacrifice in The Iliad is the one performed by Achilles at Patroclus’ funeral. This large sacrifice included “many strong sheep and shambling, crook-horned cattle”, four strong-necked horses which were “hurriedly flung onto the pyre”, nine dogs whose throats were cut, and 12 young Trojan men (Book 23, lines 161-177). There is a slightly different rationale behind the sacrifice of each animal here. Sheep and cattle are standard sacrificial animals, and it is particularly important that their fat is distributed in the prescribed manner. The dogs were Patroclus’ own, and seem to have been sent with him (or perhaps assumed to not want to live without him). The Trojans were sacrificed as a fairly basic kind of revenge for Patroclus’ death. The horses are less clear given that they are not the ones Patroclus drove in life. Those would be Achilles’ own divine horses, and he is obviously not willing to part with them. Instead, the ones actually sacrificed were probably substitutes.

It is possible that in some instances, it was considered a great honour to be a sacrificial victim. There is no indication of that in this particular event, and as a wise man (i.e. Nietzsche) once remarked, no one ever let the animals speak for themselves.

Keeping horses

It’s not all bad news for Homer’s horses. We are told of how they are fed and something apparently happily munching away at their manger. There is even an awareness of the realities and practicalities of war, where there is not always enough supplies for everybody. This was the concern of Pandarus when he decided not to bring his horses and chariots to the war:

Here I do not have horses, or a chariot that I can mount;
yet in Lycaon’s halls you must know that I have eleven chariots,
fine ones, freshly built, brand new. Over them cloths
are spread, and next to them pairs of horses
stand, champing on white barley and emmer wheat.

wanting to spare my horses, in case they ran short of fodder in
places where men are crowded together, and they used to plentiful food.
So I left them behind, and I came to Ilium on foot
Book 5, l. 192-196, 202-204

During the horserace that Achilles puts on at Patroclus’ funeral games, Menelaus attempts to spare his horses for fear that they and their chariot will be hurt (Book 23, l. 433-437).

Horses are even at times spoiled, as when Andromache took care of Hector’s horses, or when Patroclus groomed Achilles’ horses:

a kindly man, who would often pour smooth olive oil over
their manes after he had washed them down in bright water
Book 21, l. 281-282

Note, though, how it is not their owner taking care of them, but a helper, groom or charioteer.

Homer’s horses were not given a choice as to whether or not they wanted to take part in the Trojan war. Other than that, they are every bit as versatile in their mood and actions as their human – and divine – counterparts.

2018-12-28 13.59.42
Scene of chariot with four horses on Greek vase from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Homer’s Horses – Part I

The Iliad and The Odyssey are some of the oldest literary classics in the world. Their epic stories of the horrors and glory of war, pride, long journeys and the squabbles and interference of gods and goddesses have held our imagination for millennia. They continue to have relevance today, in particular concerning the realities of violence and war, and the attitude and representation of women

Horses feature prominently in The Iliad. With very few exceptions, they star as chariot horses. What is fascinating for me, and I think for the study of human-animal relations, is that Homer’s horses are frequently attributed with agency and intention. They make deliberate choices based on their feelings and desires. Another feature is the way humans are described as having horse-related skills. One of the characteristics of the Homerian poetry is the ample use of epithets, and many of them are in fact only understood in equine terms.

I will get back to these themes shortly. First, a bit of background to set the scene. Homer’s works are thought to date to around the end of the 8th c. BC. The events themselves are envisioned as taking place much earlier, although exactly when is still a matter of debate. Certainly many elements refer to earlier times, and some even as far back as the Bronze Age. But it is difficult to disentangle, and we cannot assume that the story is an accurate reflection of Bronze Age conditions. The Iliad is divided into 24 ‘books’, and may originally have been performed (as it also was later on).

The Iliad tells the story of the last part of the decade-long siege of Troy by the Greeks – also known as Achaeans or Danaans. Achilles is the main hero of the Greeks, and the fighting is prolonged because he refuses to fight during most of the narrative due to a disagreement with his king, Agamemnon. The rest you must read for yourself, if you have not done so already. In case you haven’t, or don’t already know the story, this is your spoiler alert. Heroes will die. Horses will die. If you don’t want to know who and how, stop reading now. 

Homer map


Every recurring character in Homer is associated with some kind of epithet, or standardised descriptive label, if you will. These can be based on characteristics such as physical attributes, skills or associated objects (usually parts of armour). In this system, a number of humans are referred to based on their skills with horses, features which are apparently considered positive and giving the person status. These are some of the horse-related epithets used:

‘Horseman’: Nestor, Pyleus, Tydeus, Phoenix, Oeneus
‘Breaker of horses’: Agamemnon, Castor, Thydeus, Dioemedes, Antenor, Hector
‘Whipper of horses’: Pelops, Menestheus, Orestes, Oïleus
‘Horse-driver’: Tydeus, Peleus, Phoenix, Oeneus
‘Supreme in horsemanship’: Admetus

Certain regions or peoples can have similar attributes:

Trojans: ’Breaker of horses’
Argos and Tricce: ’Rearer of horses’
Phrygians: men with nimble horses, fighters from horses
Danaans: swift-horsed
Cadmeians: whippers of horses
Ilium: rich in horses
Land of Eneti: home of a strain of wild mules
Maeonians: horse marshals
Pylians: chariot-fighters
Thracians: horse-breeding

Hades is described as ‘master of famous horses’, while Zeus is ‘driver of horses’, so the gods too can have skills associated with horses. The horses themselves are described as  swift-footed, huge gleaming, high-stepping, snorting, single-hoofed, fine-maned, loud-whinnying/loud-neighing, powerful, and as having powerful necks.


Magnificent horses

Generally speaking, Homer’s horses have a positive vibe about them. They are prestige animals associated with high status and can cause great amazement. Indeed, Dolon (one of the Trojans) describes the horses of the Thracian king Rhesus as,

… the finest and the biggest I have ever seen:
they are whiter than snow, and they run like the winds.
Book 10, l. 436-437

In turn, Nestor exclaims,

They are amazing, and look to me like the rays of the sun.
I am always meeting Trojans in battle – I can claim that
I do not hang back by the ships, aged warrior though I am –
but I have never seen or clapped my eyes on such horses.
Book 10, l. 547-550



In The Iliad, horses are almost exclusively used with chariots. Mostly a pair of horses pull a chariot, but occasionally we hear of four horses or two horses and a third ‘trace’ horse acting as an extra. The chariot carries two men: a charioteer who navigates the horses, and a soldier or warrior. The soldier is the hero and main fighter and rarely drive the chariot himself. Every important hero in the story has his own chariot and personal charioteer. Some charioteers are particularly famed, most obviously Achilles’ close companion Patroclus. As we will see, he was loved so much that even the horses grieved for him after his death.

Despite strong bonds between charioteer and horses, and charioteer and warrior, charioteers can be replaced. After Hector’s charioteer Eniopeus is killed by Diomedes,

Bitter grief for his charioteer crowded thick into Hector’s heart,
but he left him, distressed though he was for his companion,
to lie there, and went in search of another bold charioteer, and
not for long did his horses lack a master…
Book 8, l.124-127

The chariot was primarily used for transport to the battlefield, and perhaps more importantly, to flee the fighting or escape a pursuer. But they do also end up in the middle of the action, and spears are hurled rather haphazardly on the battlefield, hitting both humans and horses. There seems in particular to be a certain sport in hurling off charioteers while in full motion, as this happens repeatedly. However, most often the warriors step down from the chariot in order to actually fight.

There are indications that just as today, it was desirable to have a pair of horses that were of similar build and colour:

The finest horses belonged to the son of Pheres,
now driven by Eumelus; they were swift as birds, and were alike
in coats and age, their backs dead level measured by the rule.
Apollo of the silver bow had raised them in Pereia,
both mares, and they carried in them the terror of Ares.
Book 2, l. 763-767

Chariots and horses are some of the favourite spoils of war, and when a warrior has been killed, not only is his armour stripped from his body, his chariot and horses are also sent back to the victor’s camp. When the horses have served their duty, Homer is persistent in noting that they are unyoked.


Chariot racing

Horses and chariots were also used for horse-racing. At Patroclus’ funeral, Achilles commissions a number of competitions, and the first one is a chariot race. Homer describes it at length. There are five contestants: Eumelus with swift mares, Diomedes with Aeneas’ famous stallions from Tros, Menelaus with Agamemnon’s mare Aethe and his own horse Podargus, Antilochus with horses bred in Pylos, and Meriones, whose horses are simply qualified as fine-maned. Notice how in the case of racing, the heroes themselves do the driving (and take the glory).

It’s not a Ben-Hur kind of chariot race, but it’s pretty close:

…the horses quickly galloped over the plain,
leaving the ships far behind; under their chest the dust
rose and hung in the air like a cloud or a whirlwind, and
their manes streamed behind them, blown by the wind’s gust.
The chariots at one time bent low to the earth that nurtures many
and at another bounded high in the air; their drivers stood
in their chariots, and each man’s heart was beating hard
in his desire for victory, and each man was calling out to
his horses, as they flew across the plain in the clouds of dust.
Book 23, l. 364-372
Archaic black-figure vase showing chariot racing at a funeral. The Met.

It even includes a bit of ‘cunning’ with Antilochus trying to get the upper hand by taking the inner lane on the turn (on his father Nestor’s elaborate instructions), and Eumelus’ horses being forced off the track. Unsurprisingly, Diomedes takes the win. He quickly claims his prize, then unyokes his horses. In that order. The first prize was a woman and a tripod. The second prize was a mare pregnant with a mule-foal. This was clearly a highly desirable reward and it causes some friction between the contestants.

The race at the funeral games have just two horses, but there are other examples where four horses were used, as a team from Elis illustrates:

four prize-winning horses, together with their chariot, had been
on their way to the games, intending to race for the prize
of a tripod
Book 11, l. 699-701

In another case, we get a glimpse of other equestrian games happening, with what seems to be some kind of stunt,

As a man well skilled in horsemanship, who from many horses
has harnessed together four and drives them at speed
from the plain towards a great city, along the public way,
and many people marvel at him, changing his stance but
all the time keeping secure on his feet, while the horses fly along
Book 15, l. 679-684

Although the word ‘drives’ is used here, this is probably a description of a riding stunt rather than a chariot being involved.


Gods have horses too

Even gods have horses and chariots, which they use to travel from place to place. Their horses are of course immortal (but not named), eat immortal fodder and both they and the chariots are apparently mostly made of gold and bronze. A selection from a passage concerning Poseidon’s horses is just one example:

There he went, and yoked his bronze-hoofed horses to his chariot,
swift-flying horses, their manes flowing with gold,
and armed himself in gold, and picked up his whip,
golden and finely made …
… Poseidon the earthshaker reined in his horses and
unyoked them, and threw immortal fodder before them,
for them to eat; around their hoofs he fastened golden tethers
Book 13, l. 23-36   
Gold chariot with four horses, found in Tajikistan. 5th-4th c. BCE. British Museum.


Pedigree and breeding

Most competitive equestrians today will consider the pedigree of a horse before buying one. There is a reason that the breeding industry is so big. Bloodlines are important indicators of a horse’s potential. Specific characteristics are selected, depending on how they are to be used – for example, speed, body build, leg movement, mental attitude or even coat colour.

This is by no means a recent development. Already in the third millennium in the Near East, we hear of some cities being famous for the equids they breed. In The Iliad, we also have examples of horses with long lineages which are carefully memorised, and as we saw from the epithets, some places were famous for their horses.

Unsurprisingly, the most famous horses have some association with the gods, as for example Aeneas’ horses:

You must know, they are of the same stock that Zeus wide-
thunderer gave to Tros as compensation for his son Ganymedes,
for they were the best of all horses under the dawn and the sun.
Anchises, lord of men, bred from this bloodstock by deceit,
by putting mares to the stallions without Laomedon’s knowledge.
From these six foals were born in his halls, and of these
he kept four for himself, and raised them at his manger,
and he gave two, provokers of panic, to Aeneas.
If we were to capture these we would win glorious fame.
Book 5, l. 265-273

Or King Erichthonius,

who became the richest of all mortal men; he had
three tousand mares of his own grazing in meadows on
marshland, delighting in their tender young foals; and while
they were at pasture the North Wind was seized by desire for
them, and lay with them in the likeness of a dark-maned horse,
and they conceived and gave birth to twelve foals.
Book 20, l. 220-225

Elis is one of the places known for their fine horses, and capturing mares with foals during a campaign against them makes for particularly good booty:

and one hundred and fifty head of chestnut horses,
all mares, many of them with their suckling foals.
Book 11, l. 680-681

That is all for now. In Part II of Homer’s Horses, I will look at how horses are attributed with agency, and the kind of life that a (war)horse might expect to live in the Homeric world.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!


The horse versus the rest: Depictions of equids in the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt

This blog post is written by the wonderful Lonneke Delpeut, who is an expert on horses in ancient Egypt. We met at a conference in Stavanger, with my favourite title so far: Horses, moving. Those two words encapsulate my subject and my approach very neatly, with horses the subject (and of course other equids, let’s not forget) and ‘moving’ expressing a sense of agency and intention – horses moving and being moved. Lonneke presented a fascinating paper on images of Egyptian horses, with an important distinction between what is being depicted and how it is being depicted. She kindly agreed to contribute with a post here, and I have very much been looking forward to it, so here we go


by Lonneke Delpeut

With the introduction of the horse in Egypt at the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty (1550 B.C.), the artists and craftsmen responsible for making the beautiful depictions in tombs and temples had a new animal to display. They had to transform a three-dimensional being into something flat. Luckily, the artisans had plenty of experience depicting all kinds of four-legged animals, so the horse might have been new, but the appearance of it would be inspired by other animals. There are other equids that had been known in Egypt, namely the zebra (Equus grevyi and Equus quagga) as well as the wild ass, the Equus asinus. Two types of donkeys had been known in Egypt since the Old Kingdom, the time of the pyramids, namely the domesticated donkey (Equus Africanus asinus) and its ancestor that was still hunted, namely the Equus Africanus. Lastly, the horse was introduced relatively late, completing the collection of equids in Egypt. Since donkeys had been depicted in Egypt for a very long time, and one had to draw the horse based on something, the first depictions of the horse look a lot like donkeys. Most prominently alike is the way their legs are displayed in exactly the same: all four on the ground but apart from each other. This is how the Egyptians indicated movement by four-legged animals; the artist had to be sure that the observer knew the animals were moving forward.

Most important for the Egyptian artist was for the observer to identify the concept he was trying to convey correctly. This means that beside the shared characteristics between donkeys and horses, the Egyptians had to put in some horse-specific features too. These features in the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty were especially important since the horse was new; in Egypt as an animal, but also as a depiction. One of these features was the colour of the horses’ coat. We see that many horses show white (which means grey) and chestnut coat colours at the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty (fig. 1), which distinguishes them from donkeys, who are always grey with white. We know that the Egyptians were well aware of the fact that white-coloured horses are not truly white, since in many cases the snout is depicted as grey and their eyes are brown. We can even tell the difference between young and old horses, since in one Theban tomb, the tomb of Menkheperreseneb (TT86) the manes are depicted a darker kind of orange (a sign of a young horse) than the other pair of horses. Another factor that shows the pictorial difference between donkeys are horses are the manes that are depicted flat in the neck. This is a feature that changes further on in the Eighteenth dynasty. These features are horse-specific to distinguish the horse from the donkey.

Fig. 1. Syrians bringing horses, Tomb of Rekhmire. The Met.

Another difference between donkeys and horses is the work they do. Donkeys are often depicted as beasts of burden, and even though horses pull chariots, they are only used as a mode of transportation for human beings. This is contrary to donkeys, which were used to carry heavy bags of grain, they are used to plant seeds by walking them into the ground and are never shown depicted in front of chariots. The only other equid that is allowed in front of a chariot, is a hybrid. It is uncertain whether the Egyptian hybrids were mules or hinnies, but they are most certainly hybrids since they show characteristics of both horses and donkeys. In fig. 2 for example, we see a depiction from the tomb of Nebamun, now in the British Museum in London. The upper part shows two horses in front of a chariot, and the lower part shows two hybrids in front of a chariot. The coat colour and the tail belong to donkey-like features while the chariot, the ears and the size belong to horse-like features. The fact that they are depicted so closely to each other is no coincidence; the observer is challenged to immediately tell the difference between the horses and the hybrids.

Fig. 2. Wall painting from Tomb of Nebanum, Thebes. The British Museum.

Another significant difference visible in this scene is the behaviour of the animals and their grooms. The horses have their heads raised, their feet seem restless, and the groom holds the reins tightly with both hands, standing behind the chariot. The hybrids however are eating from a trough that is standing on the ground, and their groom is sitting on the chariot with his back to the animals. He had such confidence in the calm, resting hybrids that he can afford to not pay constant attention to them. This is in strong contrast with the horses’ groom, who cannot afford to let them out of his sight. This partly shows the actual difference in behaviour between horses and hybrids, but it is also a feature that helps the observer distinguish the hybrids from the horses. Another important difference is that the horses seem to have been castrated, since only the phallus sheath is visible, while the hybrids still show all possible masculine gender markers: they are stallions, without a doubt.

The Egyptians had to be sure the observer identified the horses as such. At the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty, they did this by making sure the colour and the manes were depicted differently from those of donkeys, but as time goes by, the horse starts to develop its own pictorial characteristics. Not only are they depicted differently, they are also used differently, as donkeys are never depicted pulling chariots. This so to say ‘privilege’ was mainly reserved for our beloved noble animals: the horse.


If you want to learn more, here’s some recommended reading to get you started:

J. Baines, ‘Theories and Universals of Representation’ in: Art History (vol. 8, no. 1; March 1985).
M. Bibby, ‘The Arrival of the Horse in Egypt: New Approaches and a Hypothesis’, in: R. Ives, D. Lines, C. Naunton (eds), Current Research in Egyptology III: December 2011 (BAR IS 1192; Oxford, 2003).
J. Clutton-Brock, P. Raulwing, ‘The Buhen Horse: Fifty Years after its Discovery (1958-2008) (Journal of Egyptian History 2.1-1; 2009).
D. Laboury, Tradition and Creativity: Inter-iconicity, in: T. Gillen, (Re)productive Traditions in Ancient Egypt (AegLeo 10; Liege, 2017).
A.R. Schulman, ‘Egyptian Representations of Horsemen and Riding in the New Kingdom’ (Journal of Near Eastern Studies 16, 1957).

Chariots of Fire and modern-day carriage driving

Last week I visited the lovely little town of Moulton, just a few miles east of Newmarket. There I went to meet Lesley Young, who is a veterinary cardiologist and who does carriage driving with her two ponies, Roscoe and Grumpy. As Lesley opened the door, I hear her two dogs barking inside, defending the kitchen, apparently. Almost inevitably, horses and dogs go together. Even in the Bronze Age of the Near East and Greece there is a link between the two animals. Or perhaps more accurately, the people that interact with horses also tend to have dogs.

Image result for moulton cambridgeshire
Moulton Packhorse Bridge

Lesley took me to visit Roscoe and Grumpy, and to see how she trains carriage driving. Roscoe and Grumpy are both small ponies with big personalities and a charming amount of cheek. They brought back memories of several wilful ponies and battles of stubbornness. Even so, they were both incredibly well-behaved, especially considering Roscoe’s narrow escape from being eaten by various roots and pieces of plastic (which have claimed many victims in the past). Roscoe is a strong white pony who clearly loves the work of the carriage. Grumpy, who earned his name not through moodiness but by being one of seven, is an older gentleman of chestnut disposition. He suffers from laminitis, which is partly kept in check by him still being active, but the work is of course kept much lighter for him. It is clear that they both enjoy pulling the carriage and cantering across the fields with it.

The carriage used by Lesley is a four-wheeler, which seems to be common for competitive carriage driving. It is a bit heavier than one with two wheels, but also much easier to drive. Two wheels require constant balancing, is harder on the horse and topples over more readily. This is an important point to keep in mind when thinking of the Late Bronze Age chariots used across the Eastern Mediterranean. They would have needed a lot of training and skill to drive, and one can only guess at the number of accidents that happened. Today, there are safety measures every step of the way, but accidents do still occur, and they can be quite serious. So training and experience in how the horses might react to situations become even more important.

But to return to the carriage: Lesley’s can be transformed into either a one-pony or two-pony carriage. A different system is needed in each scenario. The main difference is that one pony requires a pole on either side of the pony, while for two you have a pole in between them that they are both attached to – which is also the system we find in the Bronze Age, where there are no definite examples of one-equid vehicles. 

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The carriage set up for one pony

We started by taking Roscoe out on his own. The harness is a rather complicated criss-cross of straps, buckles and reins. The front consists of the girth around the belly, neckstrap and breastcollar. The weight of the carriage is pulled primarily on the shoulders. This is an arrangement more suitable for horses than the broad collar that is more commonly used for draft cattle. The broad, short strong neck of cattle makes the collar work well. It is also the kind of harness we see in the earliest Mesopotamian depictions of equids in front of wheeled vehicles, and indeed with especially large cold-blooded breeds of horses today. The best example is perhaps our lovely Standard of Ur. Later depictions show something in between the modern and the third millennium examples, where the collar seems to have been lowered a bit, with less pressure on the airways of the horse.

The two reins are guided through rings on either side of Roscoe on both the girth and the neckstrap to Roscoe’s bit. In Bronze Age images, the reins go through just one rein ring which is centrally placed over the equids’ withers, also acting as a divider (remember the beautiful rein ring from Ur?). The remainder of Roscoe’s harness does not appear in the Bronze Age as far as we know. It consists of a crupper, and breeching, which helps work as a backing element that prevents the carriage from hitting the ponies when stopping and allows backwards movement.

The bridle has a safety measure which was known already in the Early Bronze Age: blinkers. Blinkers are small covers that shield the horse’s view to the sides and behind and thus prevent it from spooking and running wild. Horses are often most easily spooked by things from behind them, and the usual instinct is then to run, which can of course be very dangerous with a vehicle attached. Nice examples of the depiction of blinkers appear on Egyptian wall reliefs, as for example on one from Amarna shown below.

Once we’d made our way to the outdoor arena, Lesley practiced the dressage test she usually does with Roscoe when competing. I only recently discovered this is a discipline with carriages, and I find it very fascinating. The principles are surprisingly similar to dressage riding, with the way the body is held and tensed affecting the direction of the horse and carriage. As an aid partly substituting the legs, Lesley could use the whip to steer the pony. The whip is thus not used as a way of lashing or punishing the horse, but to steer and control the pace with slight nudges.

The way the reins are held has a wonderful parallel in certain ancient images. Lesley showed me how she would hold both reins in one hand, steering basically by twisting the wrist one way or the other. The other hand would instead hold the whip. The overall impression is strikingly similar to some ancient images, for example one of the ‘miniature marvels’ from the last blog:

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Hands and reins

We then took Roscoe and Grumpy out as a pair. Apart from the central pole, there are two main differences which are of interest in relation to the Bronze Age evidence. Firstly, even though there are two ponies, there are still only two reins. This is achieved by each rein splitting into two down the middle and one attached to the right side of each pony, the other to the left. This may explain the appearance of only a few reins on depictions like that on the Standard of Ur, but once the two-wheeled war chariot comes into play, two reins were sometimes used for each horse.

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Grumpy and Roscoe doing team work

Secondly, the use of the two ponies with Lesley’s carriage requires extra ballast. I got to be the ballast for Roscoe and Grumpy. That was simply fantastic! The backstepper (as it’s properly called, or groom) not only helps prevent tipping in general, but especially if the carriage is going at some speed round corners and the weight needs to be moved to keep the balance. This would have applied even more to those ancient war chariots with two wheels, and the second person often depicted next to or behind the driver may very well have had this kind of function.

Ivory game box from Enkomi (Cyprus) showing charioteer and archer, doubling as backstepper. British Museum.

Modern-day carriage driving is of course not the same as in third and second millennium BC Mesopotamia, Egypt or Eastern Mediterranean, but there is much to be learnt from it. I am most grateful to Lesley for letting me tag along and meet her, Roscoe and Grumpy.


Miniature Marvels

One of the first things that drew me to archaeology was these tiny little objects called seal stones. Occurring in almost any imaginable colour, each contains its own secret, revealed through contact with the earthly substance of clay. Every seal tells a story.

If you’re at all familiar with any of the regions of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, you would surely have encountered these little marvels. In the Near East, we find them most commonly in the shape of cylinders until the first millennium BC, while scarabs are common in Egypt, and stamp lentoid variations in the Aegean – and in typical mix-it-all-up manner, Cyprus has a bit of everything.



Seals are tiny objects engraved with a motif. They were used to secure – or authenticate – containers and correspondences. We find their ancient impressions on lumps of clay which were once used on vessels when shipped, and then broken when received or opened. They are also sometimes rolled out or stamped on cuneiform tablets. The motif would identify the owner of the seal or their representative. Sometimes it was accompanied by a small inscription, usually naming the owner and perhaps their family descent, status or occupation. Owners were often royalty or other high status individuals, but occasionally we get glimpses into more mundane occupations, as for example a cook and a nurse at ancient Urkesh in Syria (albeit a cook and a nurse working for the royal family).

So seals appear to have been primarily an administrative tool used by fairly wealthy individuals. But they could also function as amulets, have a talismanic effect and be worn as jewellery (nearly all seals are pierced so a string could be pulled through it). Seals were in most cases valuable items, not only due to the craftsmanship involved, but also the material they were made of. Various kinds of precious stones were used to make seals, including agate, lapis lazuli, quartz, obsidian, hematite and carnelian. The veining and semi-translucency of some would add to their magic effect. Examples in gold and other metals are also known, the Mycenaean and Minoan gold signet rings being the most famous. Others had gold caps added to the ends.

Since the seal is meant to be pressed or rolled onto unfired clay(1), they are carved in the negative, so that the inscription can be read – we therefore usually refer to the impression (ancient or modern) when describing the scene engraved.

Motifs and styles vary greatly. Many are miniature masterpieces, even if their primary function was not as a work of art. Some are as small as about the size of a finger nail. On this small surface, the craftsperson makes their mark. The information that can potentially be gained from these miniature images is immense. They often provide more detail than large-scale images. They are fantastic for studying ancient animals and human-animal relations. Animals are probably the most popular motif. A huge amount of real, mythological and hybrid animals are depicted, on their own, with human figures, or in a criss-cross of animal combat scenes.

Equids are usually depicted in chariot scenes, similar to what we saw on the Standard of Ur. These especially occur in the Early Dynastic III period, but do continue and change slightly during the second millennium BCE. In the Aegean, horses appear on seals from the early part of the Late Bronze Age.

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Here, the fineness that makes seals so enticing is also what makes them challenging. The images are so small they can be difficult to see at all. It has even been suggested that some engravers were short-sighted. Added to this is common wear and breakage, and in some cases later re-cutting of the design. It is very difficult to take good photographs of a design, where resolution and light can make a big difference. Light from one side might miss certain details and the exact edge of the cut, and light from several angles or overexposure often means loss of depth. This loss of detail is an issue in many publications, and even more so in older ones.

To mitigate this, and to give a clearer image, drawings are made of the design. Drawings are also particularly useful for assimilating a single design when we have many partial ancient impressions of a seal, but not the seal itself. But they come with their own set of challenges, and there are many different styles of drawing. Details may again be lost, or even misrepresented.

A most admirable effort to comprehensively publish all Aegean Bronze Age seals and sealings has been made by the Corpus of Minoan and Mycenaean Seals project. This now also exists as a digital resource. In this case, every effort is made to take high resolution photographs of the ancient object, accompanied by drawings which are checked against the seal and corrected until every detail is satisfactory. The result is really quite wonderful, and it is entirely possible to use the database directly.

However, as a recent visit to the Ashmolean Museum reminded me, nothing beats seeing these objects directly, preferably with a magnifying glass at hand. This is where you get those little extra bits of information that can make all the difference – the shape of the ears and tail of an equid, for example. How the reins are attached or the position of the arms of a charioteer.

Equid on seals

Chariots and equids are sometimes engraved on seals. So we can learn more about the kind of chariots used, the harness and maybe even a bit about the situations in which they were used. The seal depicted above, another fine object from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, has two bands or registers. The lower register has equids in front of a four-wheeled chariot. This particular scene is very similar to the one on the Standard; it also has a row of what looks like soldiers with a prisoner, and a human body on the ground below the equids.

British Museum 89774

On another Near Eastern seal, we again have the four-wheeled vehicle, with each equid engraved separately. The charioteer is seated and the reins clearly go to the front of the animals’ muzzles, suggested the use of a nose or lip ring rather than a bit.

British Museum 1880,0428.1

Seals from the Aegean show the use of the new ‘true’ type of chariot. This is a two-wheeled spoked type, which makes for a much faster and lighter vehicle. Combined with a new way of communication with the equids with the use of two reins and a bit for each animal, this greatly improves manouvering. The charioteer stands rather than sits, and has a whip to encourage the equids – in this cases horses. The horses on this seal are walking or trotting. Together, all of these small details tells us a lot about how humans and equids interacted and how animals were managed and trained.

Till next time, here’s an altogether different class of miniature marvel:

(1) Some seals may also have been used for other purposes, for example dipped in paint and rolled on cloth to make textile designs.

Image credits


Newmarket: A town run by horses

So I went on one of my wonderful research visits to Newmarket, a town known as ‘The Home of Horseracing’. It is completely dominated by horses. I brought photographic evidence:

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The bars are run by horses (obviously)


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The roads are made by horses

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The trees are planted by horses

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The stable agents are horses

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The bins are made (and probably filled) by horses

The parks and playgrounds are known as ‘the Gallops’.

Bad jokes aside, it is clear that in Newmarket the racing industry is part and parcel of the life of the town. With my ancient Near Eastern-tinted glasses, this hub of all things equine made me think of Tell Brak (again!). Tell Brak – ancient Nagar in the late third millennium BCE – was famous for its equids. The archives in Ebla records how they procured equids from Nagar, sometimes even including their personnel, such as equine veterinarians. Nagar may also have had a caravanserai where equids could be stabled. Those equids were not used for racing (as far as we know), but speed is sometimes mentioned as a much desired quality of fine horses and donkeys.

Apart from a very interesting consultation with a vet, my main reason for visiting Newmarket was to see Pot8o and Hyperion. They are both equine legends. I’d been told they can be seen in the relatively new National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art in Palace House.

Hyperion was a small chestnut stallion, aptly named after the mythological Titan who gave birth to the sun and the moon (confusingly, Hyperion the horse’s mother was called Selene, the name of the moon goddess). He was born in 1930 and had many wins on the racecourse. But he is particularly famous as a sire of other great sires and dams. He died in 1960. His skeleton is on display in the Heritage Centre.

Hyperion had what is now commonly called ‘kissing spines’ (the spinal processes of the vertebrae touching each other, which can cause a significant amount of pain), visible here on the thoracic vertebrae.

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Pot8o (or Potoooooooo or Potatoes) was another chestnut racehorse. He was born in 1773. He was very successful both as a racehorse (winning 34 of 40 races) and as a sire. A skeleton found under a tree in Hare Park Stud and excavated in 2010 is thought to belong to the champion and can now also be seen in Palace House.



My favourite part of the Heritage Centre was probably the retraining programme. Flat racehorses typically have a very short career. They start as two-year olds and often only run a couple of years. Racehorses have a reputation for being difficult, too spooky and eager for any other purpose than running. However, most racehorses can be retrained and have a long lifespan as dressage, jumping or companion horses. The RoR (Retraining of Racehorses) does this, and they currently have four horses at Palace House. I was fortunate enough to meet two of them – Danbul (who only has one eye) was being trained in the new outdoor arena, while Jonnie Skull was hanging out in his box, getting ready to be lounged. Both beautiful horses.


To finish off, one of the displays in the Heritage Centre serves as a literal reminder of just how big a heart a horse has:

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Horse and human hearts

Stay tuned for next week’s Festival of Science, where we will have a stall with various animal bone games. More about this soon!


Image credits. Unless otherwise stated, images are by the author.
The Gallops: Bob Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Hyperion with jockey: Wikimedia Commons
Potoooooooo: Public domain

The Amarna Letters

For you, your household, your wives, and for your sons, your country, your chariots, your horses, your magnates may all go very well. [1]

This is a greeting so standardised in the Amarna Letters that sounds almost formulaic. It reveals the important role that horses and chariots had achieved in the affairs of the rulers of the Eastern Mediterranean by the 14th century BCE. They were essentially part of the extended royal household.

The Amarna Letters is a collection of tablets found at the site of el-Amarna, the ancient city established by Akhenaten in the Egyptian 18th Dynasty. They are mostly letters written to the Egyptian pharaoh from various local rulers and vassals in the Near East and Cyprus. They were written in cuneiform, mainly Akkadian, but there are also a few in other languages.

By the 14th century BCE, the fast, light, two-wheeled chariot had become common and armies were considered significantly handicapped without it. Chariots now had spoked wheels, were pulled by two horses (as opposed to donkeys), and were accompanied by the use of bits with two reins. This was a great improvement to the earlier heavy vehicles and unwieldy communication system of the third millennium and beginning of second millennium BCE. Armies without a chariot division were seriously disadvantaged, although exactly how they were used during battle is still uncertain.

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Detail from Theban Tomb 56, Userhet hunting with white and chestnut horses.


The letters contain many references to the use of horse-drawn chariots for military purposes. For example:

Letter from Rib-Hadda, ruler of Ṣumur (a town in the Levant), asking the pharaoh for help (EA 103):

As the entire garrison has fled from Ṣumur, may it seem right in the sight of the lord, the sun of all countries, and give me 20 pairs of horses, and send an auxiliary force with all speed to Ṣumur in order to guard it. 

Or this letter from Artamanya of Siribashani (EA 201):

I am herewith, along with my troops and my chariots, at the disposition of the archers wherever the king, my lord, orders me to go. 

Chariots were not just used for battle, though. The period witnessed an excessive amount of ‘gift-exchange’ between rulers. Horses and chariot were part of the luxury goods that were exchanged. As in a letter from the Mitanni king Tushratta writes to the pharaoh (EA 19),

I herewith send as my brother’s greeting-gift: 1 gold goblet, with inlays of genuine lapis lazuli in its handle; 1 maninnu necklace, with a counterweight, 20 pieces of genuine lapis lazuli, and 19 pieces of hold, its centerpiece being of genuine lapis lazuli set in gold; 1 maninnu-necklace, with a counterweight, 42 genuine ḫulalu-stones, and 40 pieces of gold shaped like arzallu-stones, its centerpiece being of genuine ḫulalu-stone set in gold; 10 teams of horses; 10 wooden-chariots along with everything belonging to them; and 30 women and men. [2]

The rulers ostensibly send each other these fancy and expensive items as ‘gifts’, but in true social-contract fashion, the expectation is to receive even fancier ‘gifts’ in return. It is basically elite trade shrouded in diplomatic language. Despite this diplomatic framework, the language is sometimes less than subtle. In the same letter, Tushratta asks that in return,

May my brother send me in very great quantities gold that has not been worked, and may my brother send me much more gold than he did to my father. In my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as dirt.

We also hear of horse-drawn chariots used as appropriate escorts for royalty, and horses are used by messengers (probably ridden rather than pulling a chariot). Swift and white horses were particularly desirable; other sources suggest that white horses were preferred, and as a result, were more expensive.

Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari writes (ARM X 147),

About the white horses that are from Qatna, of which you are always hearing: those horses are really fine!

Unfortunately, the material of the Near East at this period does not include images that distinguish colour, but Egyptian wall paintings sometimes provide a hint. They show both white and chestnut horses, often together as a single team, and even dappled horses.

Detail of wall painting from the Tomb of Rekhmire with white and chestnut horses. Image credit

The Amarna Letters are invaluable as a source for the Late Bronze Age, and especially for the ‘international spirit’ of connections and trade between the regions of the Eastern Mediterranean that characterises this period in history. They also give us a wonderful insight into the way horses and chariots were seen and exchanged as highly valued prestige goods.


  1. The translations given here are adapted from William Moran’s The Amarna Letters (1992).
  2. The word ‘brother’ is not a biological marker here; it is used between rulers who consider each other equal.


The Standard of Ur

As a Christmas special, I want to talk about one of my all-time favourite objects from the ancient Near East, which is an enigmatic item known as The Standard of Ur. Obviously, it’s mostly a favourite because it has wonderfully rendered equids on it (I’ll come back to why I like these particular depictions so much). But it is also one of these kinds of objects that is an excellent representation of so many things. Its place in the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects is fully justified. Speaking of archaeological storytelling and object biographies, this is a great example of an object that can be used to tell stories going in many different directions, without contradicting each other.

The Standard of Ur, ‘War’ side. Image from The British Museum

‘Peace’ side. Image from The British Museum

The standard comes from an era and site in history that has become near-legendary. The site of Ur was in the area known as Sumer in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). We are back in about the middle of the third millennium BCE, and it was a time of some of the first real cities, the emergence of writing in administrative systems and a remarkable display of wealth in tombs of the elite. Ur was excavated in the 1920s and 1930s under the direction of Sir Leonard Woolley, and many of the finds went to the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The biography of Woolley is itself an intriguing one, reflecting ties between archaeology and intelligence agencies, with contemporaries such as Agatha Christie and T.E. Lawrence and interruptions by two world wars.

Woolley struck gold. Literally. Among many hundreds of tombs, 16 stood out for their more elaborate construction, a presence of human sacrifices and the sheer amount of wealth in terms of grave goods. They have since been known as the Royal Cemetery of the Early Dynastic period in Ur. Among the grave goods were jewellery, weapons, seal stones, fine vessels, musical instruments, statuettes, wheeled vehicles fully equipped with animals, grooms and drivers, and soldiers and ‘court ladies’ in all their regalia. The materials were made of silver, bronze/copper, wood, ceramics, stone, ivory, carnelian, lapis lazuli and shell, along with gold.

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The ED III Royal Cemetery at Ur


The standard was found in the Royal Tomb of PG 779. It is a trapezoid box about 50 cm long. On each of its four sides are scenes with humans and animals, created with inlays of lapis lazuli, red limestone and shell (the composition is partially reconstructed). Its function is not known. Woolley thought it might be a standard of the kind carried by military units. This hasn’t been substantiated and finds little support in the ancient imagery, but the name has stuck nevertheless.

The two long sides are usually referred to as the ‘war’ and ‘peace’ side respectively. As you might expect, that is because one side appears to show military activity, with soldiers and equid-drawn vehicles in motion, and the other a more peaceful scene that includes a banquet and perhaps booty from the previous battle.

Much can be said about the compositions, but the fun part here is of course the equids! You might even have noticed that The Spirited Horse emblem is very similar in style to the equids on the standard. That’s because it comes from the same time period and same kind of art, although not from the standard itself (the emblem is instead inspired by a plaque found at Mari).

The ‘war’ side has three registers. The top register has one four-wheeled wagon pulled by equids, while the bottom register has another four vehicles with equids. Each team of equids consists of four stallions. The engravings offer some really interesting details about how these equids were observed and integrated into human activity. Starting with their tack, we can see that the animals were controlled by a nose ring. Reins were attached to the nose ring and run back to the driver through the rein ring (actual examples of rein rings were found in the Ur tombs). Probably only one rein was attached to each nose ring. This method of control (combined with the kind of vehicle) would mean a rather unwieldy vehicle that would have been difficult to turn.

The equids all carry neck collars with some kind of tassels attached, probably a textile or leather. The tassels might mostly have been decorative, but could also have served a practical purpose (for example, keeping insects from bothering the animals, especially when sweating).

The rendering of the animals themselves is remarkable for its attention to detail and reveals good knowledge of their anatomy and behaviour. The lines of the head and muzzle, main body, hooves and hocks are particularly accurate. Other features conform to the standard manner of rendering, as can for example be seen in the way the eyes are done on both humans and animals.

On the ‘peace’ side, equids are only shown in the bottom of the three registers. There are two teams of four being led along without their wagon. They wear a collar and possibly nose rings (they are not well preserved, so this is a little unclear), but otherwise no tack.

The teams are shown at two different gaits. The ‘peace’ side equids and the two teams against the left edge on the ‘war’ side are all walking, while the remaining three teams in the bottom register appear to be charging or galloping. The synchrony of the animals is of course artificial, an artistic short-cut to convey the number of equids in the teams. The accuracy of the rendering of the animals’ gaits are in contrast with the anatomical details. 

The walking equids and other animals on the plaque are shown in a gait called the pace. This is a gait that some breeds of horses (such as Icelandic ponies) can perform, and is also the way camels naturally walk, with both legs on one side of the body moving forwards at the same time. However, it is not natural to most equids, and even less so at the slow speed of walking. A normal walk has four beats rather than the two depicted. Since all the walking animals are shown in the same manner, this is more likely due to artistic convention rather than lack of knowledge on the part of the craftsperson (or perhaps a bit of both).

Donkeys walking. No two legs are exactly parallel or hit the ground at the same time.

The gallop or charging is equally problematic. An equid’s canter/gallop has three beats, but the two front legs and the two hind do not move together as shown on the standard, even when at a full stretch. Charging would require the animals to be in an initially fairly stationary position, which seems inappropriate for the context. Might they instead be jumping over the fallen bodies underneath them? This would certainly explain the way the legs are depicted, but would the unwieldy vehicles be able to roll over the bodies afterwards and keep upright? The more plausible explanation here again seems to be an artistic convention that renders equids (and other animals) at full speed in this specific way. It is a convention that continues throughout the third, second and at least well into the first millennium BCE, both in the Near East and surrounding areas. The hunting reliefs from Nimrud and Niniveh in the 8th-7th centuries BCE still show horses galloping in the same manner, despite the otherwise incredible amount of detail and realism.

Canter sequence. Front and hind legs are never in the exact same position.

Another interesting detail is the way the ears are shown, with one pointing forward and the other backwards. This is a very typical equine action that usually means the animal is paying attention to something, without being overly stressed or anxious. It is so characteristic that it must have been observed at some point. But it is inappropriate for the three teams charging or galloping. Remember this guy from an earlier blog? Here he is again, demonstrating his use of one ear forward, the other back, paying close attention to the rider:



I keep calling these animals ‘equids’. What kind of equids are they, exactly? This question is another reason why I like this object. It is a great example of the discussion of equid species in the ancient Near East. The equids on the standard have been called onagers, donkeys, wild donkeys and mules/hybrids. One thing is clear: they are not horses. Beyond that, it is difficult from the iconography alone to establish with certainty what they are. There are such great variety in the sizes and shapes of equids that features like the length of the ears or the gracility of the body can only be suggestive. Donkeys might be a good candidate since they are by far the most commonly attested equid at this period, but it is also around this time that a hybrid (the kunga) is first mentioned. It is not known exactly what it is a cross between, but the domestic donkey is almost certainly one of the parents.

Whatever the case may be, these equids were highly valued and played a part (directly or indirectly) in human warfare from very early on. The Standard of Ur provides a peak at that aspect and represents some of the wealth amassed by a limited group of people. One thing about the standard and the Royal Tombs at Ur continues to puzzle me. Equids are animals associated with prestige and wheeled vehicles in the imagery – an equid figure of electrum is even placed on top of a rein ring. In several of the royal tombs, remains of wooden vehicles were found with their draft animals still in place at the front. Yet these animals are not equids but cattle. Since there is no lack of wealth, I wonder why. What made cattle more suitable for this purpose (or equids unsuitable)?

I will finish with this pondering of mine, which I keep coming back to every so often – maybe some of you will have an answer or even just a good old-fashioned conspiracy theory. In the meantime, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas.

Till the Cows Come Home

… and other stories about bovine decision making and strong-mindedness.

Today’s blog is based on a new book by Rosamund Young called The Secret Life of Cows.

This is a wonderful little book. Page after page, Rosamund Young relays funny, sad and joyful tales of the life and actions of many generations of cows and bulls at her family’s farm. The farm is called Kite’s Nest Farm and, as one might expect, also houses many other animals, some of whom occasionally decide to interfere in the narrative with their antics. In true biographical fashion, the book starts with a family tree of one of the bovine families that lived on the farm. Since Young’s main argument is that all cows have individuality and should be treated with respect, it makes sense that all the cows are named. The names and corresponding nick names reflect this perfectly. They are cute, silly, dignified, proud and funny, exactly like the animals themselves. The cow Harriet received the nick name Fat Hat (take a wild guess why). She started both the Bonnet and the Fat Hat II families. Little Bonnet gave birth to Christmas Bonnet and Smasher, while her sister Roan Bonnet was the proud mother of The Earl of Warwick, The Bishop of Durham and The Duke of Lancaster.

This charming family tree is much more than a neat little quirk or guide for all the stories to come in the book. It is a very clever illustration of the ‘personality’ of cows and bulls; it maps onto and copies family trees common for humans, but adds the peculiarity of bovines and of each animal using the individual names. The line of nine calves called Ronnie by Fat Hat only serves to emphasise this. A similar situation can be found in a human family, where Harry Senior may turn into Harry Junior and Harry Junior Junior. Or just Harry (our royal families still use this same principle, adding numbers after the name to differentiate). Here, it is an example of the non-standout characteristic of some animals – again, just as might be the case with humans.

The book is basically a line of wonderful anecdotes about family life and ties among cattle. Actually, I think Young never uses the word ‘cattle’ in the book. I assume this is a very deliberate attempt to individualise and force a more personal encounter and thought process. ‘Cattle’ has connotations of large herds, mass production and big slaughterhouses. Instead, she mostly uses ‘cow’ or, more rarely, ‘bull’. The downside is of course the disappearance of the bulls. The last pages, with “Twenty things you ought to know about cows”, I take to also apply to bulls, at least judging from the preceding pages. Maybe there is a poetic justice here, although I am not aware of any kind of prolonged gender inequality in the bovine world.

The stories of family ties and friends abound with affection, play, grief and communication both between individual cows and between cows and humans. In a lovely turn of the table, Young repeatedly refers to times when a cow or bull decided that humans might on occasion be useful. When that happens, they find various ingenious ways of communicating their needs. This happened, for example, one night, when a cow named Araminta used a distinctive mooing to wake Young up and make her come check on her:

When I had fed and milked her [Araminta, who was without her calf The Don and in pain due to her udder being full of milk]. I picked up a torch and explained that she must show me where The Don was. When our cows do give us credit for intelligence they tend to make the mistake of presuming that we know everything, and after I had opened the cow-pen door and pushed Araminta out, she just stood still. I was afraid she might start mooing again to remind me to find her son, so I pushed her in one direction, in a fairly businesslike way, as if I knew where we were going. Trustingly, she complied with my instructions. After fifty yards I stopped. I gently turned her round and pushed her back the way we had come. This made her realise at once that I had not got a clue where we were going and she turned herself around and marched off in the original direction at twice the speed. I followed. We found The Don three fields away (p. 51).

Image credit

Stories like this show that cows can be intelligent and caring, and the different levels that this occurs at are astounding. Araminta felt her own pain and knew that her child was in pain. She also knew where and how to get help for both of them, even if it took a while for the humans to get her point. When a human came to help, Araminta eventually understood that she must act the guide. This is a prime example of what I mean by the agency of animals.

Part of my approach of animals as social agents is in fact much better expressed in Young’s words,

Everyone who keeps a few animals will unquestionably know them as individuals and will probably talk about the finer points or idiosyncrasies of their natures with much understanding. Farmed animals are usually kept in large groups but this does not mean that individuality disappears. Their levels of intelligence vary as much as is true of human beings. […]

Many people judge the comparative intelligence of different species by human standards. Yet why should human criteria have any relevance to other species? We should presume that every animal has a limitless ability to experience a whole range of emotions, judged only by its own terms (pp. 2-3).

It goes without saying that animals do not have the same kinds of intelligence that humans do. What is often forgotten is that the reverse is also true, and that there are huge variations both between and within species – including our own. Human intelligence is very different from elephant intelligence, or from any other animal for that matter. According to our own parameters, some humans are much more intelligent than others. We even talk of difference kinds of human intelligence: you can be ‘street smart’ (definitely not me) or ‘academic/nerdy’ kind of smart (possibly closer to that one), or you can have ‘emotional intelligence’ (no idea about that one, so it’s probably not good news). There are fancier names for these, and supposedly there are somewhere between seven and nine types. Some types are valued more than others, whether consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps animal intelligent could be understood in a similar way, with a corresponding discussion of the legitimacy of the hierarchies in place (as in, is it right to think that one kind of intelligence is ‘better’ than others?).

Young’s book is neither the beginning nor the end of the discussion on animal sentiment, intelligence and welfare. But it is an excellent contribution, and one that takes a more unusual perspective, from animals that most of us only encounter in herds, or as the meat we put on our tables.

All of these delightful bovine family stories make me think of the Cambridge cows and wonder who is friends with or related to whom. I imagine them going through some of the same trials and tribulations as those on Kite Nest Farm.

The Cambridge Cows. Photo by Jess Beck.

In case you’re now thinking I have strayed too far from archaeology and the ancient world, here are a few images of ancient cattle from the Near East, where cows and bulls were some of the most frequently depicted animals. Their meat was eaten, and they were used for plowing, but they were also part of religious rituals and some deities and mythical creatures have bovine attributes. 

Bovine body, wings and human head, protective deity (‘lamassu’) gate from Nimrud. The Met.


Bovine amulet from Royal Cemetery at Ur. British Museum.


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Cattle were part of the funerary sacrifices in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. Reconstruction as published by excavator Leonard Woolley.

I’ll leave you with the bovine version of last blog’s donkey: