Ancient Egypt 139 Letters

Your thoughts on issues raised by the magazine.

Dear Editor,

A typical Victorian cast-iron pulley. Image: Gervais Sawyer

Great article on chariot wheels (Pharaoh’s Chariot Wheel: the power behind the throne by Kim Masters, AE 136). Somewhere I remember seeing an image of a chariot wheel where the spokes were not straight but curved, rather like Victorian cast-iron pulleys. I assume these were necessary to overcome the shrinkage stresses during casting.

From a paper that I read by Thomas Chandros (2016), some chariots had wheels nearly six feet (1.8 metres) in diameter. With a thin rim and curved spokes (all held together by stitching with sinew), they would have been very well sprung as well as very light.

I have an urge to fabricate such a wheel. Any thoughts?


 A large chariot wheel made from cypress wood, measuring 38 cm in diameter and dating to c.185 BC.  Image: Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1700E. Creative Commons-BY

Dear Gervais,

Your letter asks two important questions about ancient chariot wheels: their diameter, and whether they had curved spokes.

The best reference on this subject is S Piggott (1983) The Earliest Wheeled Transport (London: Thames & Hudson). On p.95, there is a drawing of a chariot wheel with about 30 spokes that has a diameter of up to 1.2 metres. This is a chariot from the Lchashen Tombs in Armenia. Many of the chariots come from the Caucasus, and whether they arose independently or influenced the ancient Egyptian chariots – or those from Anatolia, Canaan, or Sumer – is unclear. There are also examples of cart models with elaborate iron wheel adornments (p.120), but none with curved spokes.

We do have evidence that Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt produced chariots with two spokes made from one piece of wood and mortise glued, and tied into a slot on the axle. This resulted in six spokes made from three pieces of wood in each wheel. This was a unique feature of the wheel that lasted until being replaced around 900 BC by single spokes, notched individually into the axle, as seen in the ‘Brooklyn Chariot’ (shown left). The Eighteenth Dynasty wheel started out with four spokes and then ended up with six, although up to ten or more were tried. The compromise was probably the best fit for comfort, stability, and ease of repair.

Other chariots, especially those from Sumer and later from Assyria, have large-diameter wheels – see, for example, Figure 56 in M A Littauer and J H Crouwel (1979) Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East (Leiden: Brill).

Although I could not find evidence of curved spokes in the 1st to 3rd millennium BC, I suspect the most likely source of curved spokes might be the Caucasus, because iron was used there in preference to wood.


Egyptianising Objects

Sarah Griffiths came across this beautiful object on a visit to Upton House, once the Warwickshire home of Lord Bearsted, the son of the founder of Shell Oil. This is one of the sphinx mascots adopted by Armstrong Siddeley cars from 1912. At first, they functioned as radiator caps, but on post-war cars were purely decorative. 

The silver sphinx mascot of car manufacturer Armstrong Siddeley. Photo: Sarah Griffiths

If you’ve spotted any interesting Egyptianising objects, why not send a photo to the Editor?