A recent study has determined that a leather saddle found in north-western China may be the oldest surviving example currently known.
Exactly when horse-riding and the use of saddles began is still a subject of some debate, but the latest research suggests that at least some people were riding horses by c.3000 BC. The invention of the saddle was a later development, and one that was a gamechanger, improving the comfort and safety of both animal and rider, and revolutionising the use of horses as a means of transport. The discovery of other equestrian paraphernalia, such as buckles, cheekpieces, bits, and bridle ornaments, dating to the 9th to 7th centuries BC indicates that saddles may have been in use by this time, but no direct evidence has survived. Previously, the oldest known examples came from Scythian sites in the Altai region and eastern Kazakhstan, which were dated to the 5th-3rd centuries BC.
Recently, however, a saddle found in China’s Xinjiang region in 2003 has undergone new analysis and has been radiocarbon dated to 727-396 BC, making it at least contemporary with – and possibly older than – the Scythian examples. It is also currently the only known example of a directly dated archaeological saddle from eastern Central Asia.
The discovery was made at Yanghai, a site in the Turpan Basin associated with the Subeixi culture of the 1st millennium BC. Yanghai’s extremely arid conditions are perfect for the preservation of organic materials, and excavations here have produced other remarkable finds, including what may be the world’s oldest pair of trousers (CWA 66) and the oldest evidence for ball games in Eurasia (CWA 104). The saddle was found in the grave of an adult woman, buried in a flexed position. It had been placed behind her, as though she were sitting on it. Made of cow hide and stuffed with straw, as well as a mixture of deer and camel hair, the saddle is fairly simply made and was probably intended for everyday use, but it is clearly the work of a skilled craftsperson who was familiar with horses.
This study, which has been published in Archaeological Research in Asia (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ara.2023.100451), represents an important contribution to studies of the development of early saddles, as well as potentially changing our understanding of women’s involvement in day-to-day equestrian activities.