An elaborate leather saddle unearthed in a Chinese cemetery is dated from between roughly 700BC and 400BC may be the earliest ever found
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An international team of archaeologists recently exhumed a well-preserved saddle from the tomb of a woman who was dressed in a leather coat, woolen pants and short leather boots — riding attire? — and whose leather saddle was positioned to make it appear that she was sitting on it. The saddle was made of soft leather and was radiocarbon dated to between 727 and 396 BCE, possibly making it the oldest saddle ever found, according to the recent study.
The tomb was discovered at a dig site in the Yanghai cemetery in northwest China’s Turfan Basin at the eastern end of the Tian Shan mountains (Figure 1). Previously, the oldest known saddle was unearthed north of the Turfan Basin in the Tuekta archaeological mounds in southern Russia (Figure 1). That saddle was radiocarbon dated to between 430-420 BCE, making it the second oldest now known.
“The saddle features the basic elements of soft saddle construction that are still used today: two stuffed, wing-shaped hides sewn together along the outer edges and separated by a central gullet-like spacer and lens-shaped support elements, resembling knee and thigh rolls of modern saddles. Being a masterful piece of leather- and needlework, it is, however, less complex compared to Scythian saddles from the 5th–3rd centuries BCE”, the authors elaborated in their study.
The authors also noted that the saddle was made from inexpensive materials and was used by a common woman. Radiocarbon dating of the woman and the saddle show they both are about 2,700 years old.
“The lack of elaborate decorative applications together with traces of wear and repair spots, some of which were executed in a simpler and cruder way, imply that the saddle was an every-day item maintained by the user”, they noted in their study.
The saddle, possibly made by horse-riding herders, may have been bestowed upon the woman who was interred in the Yanghai cemetery for use in her afterlife.
“The arid climate conditions of the past millennia in the Turfan area of Northwest China led to an exceptional preservation of organic materials and objects (produced locally or obtained through exchange and distant contacts), allowing identification, analysis, and reconstruction of early manufacturing technologies not recognizable elsewhere”, the authors wrote.
The saddle is “possibly older than the earliest Scythian saddles from the Altai region and eastern Kazakhstan investigated and published so far. Thus, together with the non-directly dated saddle from Zaghunluq, the one from Yanghai currently stands at the beginning of the history of saddle making.”
The saddle was made from cushions of cowhide stuffed with a mixture of deer and camel hair, and straw. This saddle lacked stirrups, preventing riders from accurately shooting arrows, so the study authors suggest this saddle was designed for a rider who herded animals. This intriguing archaeological find could be evidence that the earliest use of saddles was by people in China, the authors wrote.
Although horses appeared in Paleolithic cave art as early as 30,000 BCE, those were wild horses that were probably hunted for meat. According to previous research, horses may have been domesticated approximately 6,000 years ago (more here). Originally, those early horsepeople probably relied upon their horses for meat and milk and only started using them for transportation around 1,000 years later. Soon after people started riding horses, they began to create and develop saddles to increase their physical comfort, starting with a simple mat tied to a horse’s back. But soon, the development of more elaborate saddles allowed riders to wander farther and to interact with people in distant areas.
These ancient peoples, now known as the Subeixi culture, who lived in the region where the saddle was found moved there around 3,000 years ago. The presence of an ancient saddle indicates they probably arrived on horseback.
Patrick Wertmann, Maria Yibulayinmu, Mayke Wagner, Chris Taylor, Samira Müller, Dongliang Xu, Irina Elkina, Christian Leipe, Yonghong Deng, and Pavel E. Tarasov (2023). The earliest directly dated saddle for horse-riding from a mid-1st millennium BCE female burial in Northwest China, Archaeological Research in Asia | doi:10.1016/j.ara.2023.100451
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