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Chariots of desire
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 05 - 2013

The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square is home to a large number of ancient Egyptian artefacts found in excavations at archaeological sites all over the country through its 111-year history. Sadly, many of these objects have languished for decades in storerooms or crammed into overstuffed display cases.
This state of affairs has meant that Egyptologists have been unable to get their hands on many artefacts over the years, delaying technical and historical studies and concealing information that could provide a better understanding of the enigmas of the civilisation of the ancient Egyptians.
Among these objects was a very distinguished collection of more than 300 leather fragments of an ancient Egyptian chariot. The collection had been secreted in the depths of the museum, packed inside a dozen wooden drawers, since 1932, when a well-known Greek family offered them to the museum.
The family, the Tanos, lived in Egypt for several years, dealing in the antiquities trade. This was during a time when such dealing was legal, and the Tanos had a very good reputation. In 1956, like other foreign families in Egypt, they left the country, making for Cyprus.
The collection remained in the boxes for eight decades until 2008, when the head of the Egyptology section at the Netherlands Flemish Institute in Cairo, André Veldmeijer, and American University professor of Egyptology Salima Ikram accidentally came across a 1950s publication by Robert Jacobus Forbes titled Studies in Ancient Technology. The study showed a black and white photograph of ancient trappings and horse harnesses, evidently intact and said to be at the Egyptian Museum.
Intrigued by Forbes's findings, the two Egyptologists sought the help of museum curator Ibrahim Abdel-Gawad in locating a cache of trays of leather parts pertaining to an Egyptian chariot, including parts of the bow case. After searching through the various items of leatherwork stored in the museum, they finally found the chariot fragments.
“It is an amazing and astonishing find,” Veldmeijer told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that the fragments found in the museum were many more than those shown in Forbes's photograph.
“I am not often speechless, but I was when I came face to face with the fragments and realised that I was in front of the first-ever find of the almost complete leatherwork of an ancient Egyptian chariot,” Veldmeijer said. He said the fragments included several red, green and beige leather pieces of various sizes and shapes, some of which were 60-80cm long, and numerous small fragments measuring 20-25cm. Others were very tiny, some only a couple of centimetres long.
Investigation of the pieces revealed that most of the fragments were intact, while others had detached after being folded so they could fit into the drawers in which they were stored for 80 years.
All the fragments came from a single chariot, including the leather casing that once covered its wooden frame, the nave hoops, horse neck straps, harnesses, gauntlets and portions of the bow-case and quiver that were attached to either side. These last two objects are elaborately decorated in green and red leather.
Veldmeijer said the fragments could be grouped into three sets of leather: bright green, red and beige. Green and red was a very common combination in ancient Egyptian leatherwork, and appeared in the large leather tent of Isemkheb of the 21st Dynasty exhibited in the Egyptian Museum.
All items associated with the horses are in beige leather decorated with green. According to Veldmeijer, preliminary studies, showed that the beige leather was stronger and thicker than the green and red pieces because it was used as reins for pulling and holding the horses.
Iconography studies on these straps asserted that this chariot was in use in antiquity, as parts of its surface are dirty and have been rubbed off by the hands of the charioteers. Other parts were also cut and reinforced with attachments.
The chariot's elaborate decorations show that while it was not itself a royal one, it might have been a “mass production” chariot and similar to those made for pharaohs Amenhotep II, Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV, as well as those in the Amarna style.
Based on the decorations of the leather and a preliminary comparison of the technology used to achieve these effects, such as examples from the tomb of Tuthmosis IV and Amenhotep III, Veldmeijer said it seemed to date from some time between the late 18th Dynasty and the end of the 19th Dynasty, although this needed to be further investigated. However, iconographic studies conducted thus far indeed suggest that such a date is possible.
Studies will also identify the type of skin the ancient Egyptians used in the production of the chariot, but preliminary investigations reveal that the reins, straps and indeed all the leatherwork related to horses were made of cow hide, while goat skin was used for the other leather combinations.
So far the mission has not been able to identify the original location of the fragments, but their good quality and well-preserved condition suggest that the chariot might have come from Upper Egypt. “The hot and dry weather of Upper Egypt has definitely preserved the fragments,” Veldmeijer said, adding that leather could not have been preserved for so long in the wet and humid weather of Lower Egypt.
“This brings us to a place like Luxor, but we are not yet certain,” he said.
He went on to say that the environment inside Tutankhamun's tomb was too humid to allow the leather parts of the king's chariots to survive, although the ancient Egyptians had protected them with a layer of oil. The humidity was so strong that it washed out the oil, and thus the leatherwork decayed.
“Rendered leather pieces were found among several objects of Tutankhamun's tomb collection, and all the leatherwork had vanished,” Veldmeijer says.
Tutankhamun's chariots had a gold box casing decorated with gold pieces and gemstones and a leather floor.
“The second example of chariot we have is the one belonging to Yuya and Tuya, Tutankhamun's great grandparents,” he says. This is a simple chariot without any cover or decoration. It has some leather parts, but in a very bad state.
“In fact, the ‘Tano' chariot is very unique as it is the only chariot with almost complete leather work,” Veldmeijer says.
He points to the very well-preserved condition of the fragments and says this has raised doubts on its authenticity. “Is it impossible to live through these thousands of years and be in such a great conservation condition?” he wonders.
However, conservator Lucy Skinner has confirmed that the fragments are genuine. Iconographic studies to the layers of the fragments have uncovered the deterioration of the inner structure, confirming its great age.
Veldmeijer says, however, that the poor condition of the inner fragment structure means it cannot be used in the reconstruction of the chariot, and so the mission has decided to fabricate similar leather fragments with new leather in order to reconstruct it and make the first ever leather chariot.
The archaeological team is now studying the technology and resources used to fabricate leather chariots in order to reconstruct a complete and exact replica of an ancient Egyptian leather chariot in 2014.
“The team is also to test hypotheses about the uses of the different pieces of leather, which may prove to be a challenging endeavour,” Ikram says.
She explains that studies on the newly discovered leather fragments reveal that some pieces are folded over in a crumpled state. “Reconstructing certain portions while trying to maintain accuracy in reproducing the technologies used might be more difficult than we anticipate,” she says.
“Everything we saw about the chariot leather was new,” she adds. This presents a revelation on how the chariot was put together, and the technologies and materials used. “Our examinations also disclosed how drawstrings served as the means of securing the leather components over the skeleton of the chariot.”
The Egyptian Museum Chariot Project findings fit in with a larger multidisciplinary and holistic research venture on leatherwork in ancient Egypt, which also includes the study of other fragmentary chariot pieces such as those originating from the tombs of Tuthmosis IV (Carter and Newberry, 1904), Amenhotep II (Daressy, 1902) and Amenhotep III (Littauer and Crouwel, 1985, 1968 and 1987), as well as the leather finds from the Amarna period (Veldmeijer, 2010). This larger project is directed by Veldmeijer and Ikram.
“Chariots introduced the notion of roadways for faster wheel conveyance, revolutionising the way Egyptians moved through the landscape and pioneering means of transportation and warfare,” Ikram says.
“Studies on the fragments will not only help us to understand more about the chariot construction and its use in warfare and daily life, but about the craft itself as well,” Veldmeijer told the Weekly.
He explains that nothing is known about the craft of chariots and the involvement of wood and leather used. It will answer many questions to which there are as yet no decisive answers. Did the ancient Egyptians have a large workshop for chariots where the wooden and leather parts were fabricated, or were there smaller, separate workshops?
What was the technology used in chariot fabrication? Was it the same as was used by the Hyksos, who introduced the chariot to Egypt, or did the ancient Egyptians take the idea and invent their own chariot design that suited their desires and purposes?
“I believe that the ancient Egyptians created their own special chariots, since they had a better technology and better skills,” Veldmeijer suggests.
Studies are now in full swing in order to reach a concrete scientific conclusion. Skinner is working together with the conservator department in the Egyptian Museum to investigate the correct procedures and methods of consolidating the fragments.
The fragments have now been moved in new, wide trays so that they can be unfolded and spread out until the studies have been completed and the reconstruction starts.

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