Ur Digitization Project: November 2015

November 30, 2015

Horse and Rider at Ur
A look at U.20055 (Museum Object Number: 35-1-114)
And other horse and rider figurines

Horse and Rider Figurine, glazed ceramic, from Ur area NH
Horse and Rider Figurine (U.20055, Museum Object Number: 35-1-114) glazed ceramic, from Ur, area NH (Neo-Babylonian Housing)

When did the people of Mesopotamia first start riding horses? It’s a straightforward question but it has a somewhat complicated answer. First of all, the true horse (Equus caballus) was a relatively late entry into Mesopotamia proper. The species was domesticated in the Caucasus region to the north somewhere in the period 3600-3100 BCE. It first appeared in northern Mesopotamia around 2400 BCE and farther south in the period 2100-1800 BCE.

Yet, the earliest depiction of riding in Mesopotamia comes from the south, in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. It is on a gold frontlet or diadem found in PG153 and dates to around 2450 BCE. The animal being ridden, however, is not a true horse but probably an onager-donkey hybrid. The depiction is not terribly clear, but the animal definitely has large ears.

Gold frontlet showing person riding a quadruped
Gold frontlet or diadem from the Early Dynastic III Period, PG153 at Ur (U.8173, Museum Object Number: B16686). This is a close-up of the right side with a drawing beneath highlighting the rider.

The onager (Equus hemionus and extinct Equus hydruntinus) is not a familiar animal to most people. It is a wild donkey that is larger and more powerful than the domestic breed (Equus asinus). People have tried but not succeeded in taming them. Somewhere between 2700 and 2500 BCE, the clever Mesopotamians began catching them and breeding them with their domesticated donkeys in order to create a stronger, tame animal that could pull more weight and could be ridden more easily than a domestic donkey.

Although the onager-donkey hybrid was ridden at times, it was primarily used for work pulling carts. We don’t get good depictions of riders until much later, after the introduction of the true horse. Improvements in horse tack began to occur in the Middle Bronze Age and gradually gave people more control over their steeds. In the Late Bronze Age, around 1400 BCE, we find a horse training manual and later, in the Iron Age, bits and bridles were perfected even more and we finally begin to see cavalry—archers on horseback.

We can tell a lot about the figurine at the top of this blog post from its style and technique. It shows a true horse and its rider wears a rather bulbous, near conical hat or helmet. It’s made of a glazed ceramic, which is a late technology. So we know this is a piece from late in Ur’s occupation. Checking Woolley’s notes we find that it was discovered in a Neo-Babylonian (Iron Age) house in the final season of excavations at Ur, which fits in well. The style of headgear the rider wears is Neo-Babylonian. In fact, this type of horse and rider figurine is quite common in area NH, as recent re-investigations at Ur are beginning to show.

Seleucid horse and rider figurine.
Seleucid horse and rider figurine from Nippur (Museum Object Number: B15480), partially reconstructed.

Riders on other horse and rider figurines have different styles of headgear and help us to place them in time. For example, the rider shown above has a flat, circular hat, the probable mark of a Seleucid horseman. The figurine comes from Nippur. The latest artifact found at Ur is a text from the time of Alexander the Great, but the Seleucids ruled after him (Seleucis was one of Alexander’s generals). Their empire covered parts of the Near East from 323 to 64 BCE.

Parthian horse and rider figurine from Nippur.
Parthian horse and rider figurine from Nippur (Museum Object Number: B15473), partially reconstructed.

This rider is Parthian. His headdress is high and narrow and his face has been pressed in a mold to give better detail, though his body and the horse are still hand-made and relatively crude. This figurine also comes from Nippur. There is no Parthian material at Ur. The Parthian Empire existed from 247 BCE to 224 CE.

Such figurines make a fascinating sequence of details and thinking about their use is also of great interest. Were they symbolic gifts to the gods, or were they toys that aspiring youngsters used in make-believe adventures? We still aren’t completely sure.

For more information on horses and onagers, see especially:
Anthony, David W. 2012
“Horses, Ancient Near East and Pharaonic Egypt”
in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History