Horse Gear from Hasanlu

By: Maude de Schauensee

Originally Published in 1989

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The largest collection of con­temporaneous, archaeologi­cally documented horse para­phernalia in the Near East comes from the ruins of the town of Hasanlu, destroyed in about 800 B.C. The gear itself, intricate and beautifully made of high quality materials, clearly indicates that horses were not just utilitarian ani­mals but were valued in themselves,perhaps as symbols of high status.

Although none of this gear was found in position on a horse, com­plete pieces of equestrian equip­ment were found where they had been dropped during the battle for the Citadel, and where they had fallen from hooks or storage areas within buildings that burned and collapsed. The metal parts of thee gear are relatively well preserved; these are predominantly copper or bronze, but iron was also used, especially for bits. Leather or fiber straps and backing, as well as textiles and tassles made of fiber, were consumed by fire or decayed in the earth; nevertheless, by look­ing at complete (though tumbled) pieces of equipment, it is often possible to establish the way in which straps as well as metal ele­ments were arranged.

Prompted by curiosity about the gear and the way it was worn, I have combined archaeological infor­mation from Hasanlu and represen­tations of horses from contempor­ary Assyrian sites (Figs. 1,2) to make a series of reconstruction drawings. These drawings answer some ques­tions about the Hasanlu horses and their harness, leave others un­answered, and raise still more.

The Hasanlu Horses and Their Stables

A total of nine horses were found within the Hasanlu period IVB Citadel: five in Burned Building V (Fig. 3), one in Burned Building IV-East, two in Burned Building VI, and one in the courtyard of Burned Building III. At the time of the destruction both Burned Buildings V and IV-East were apparently being used as stables (see Dyson, “Architecture,” this issue). This interpretation is based not only on the presence of horses inside the buildings at the time of the fire, but also on the buildings’ contents. The floor of the main room of each building was covered with organic deposits and what seemed to be green urine stains, and horse gear had been stored there. Some of the most completely reconstructable headstalls (see Glossary), as well as gear for driven horses, were found at the bases of the central columns in Burned Building IV-East, presum­ably fallen from pegs or from shelves attached to the columns. Headstalls and other items were also stored on pegs or shelves along the sides of the rooms.

The largest concentration of horse gear was found in a sort of “tackroom”-two connecting rooms of Burned Building IV-V, situated next to a long narrow storage room (Fig. 4, rooms 1,4). Building IV-V was constructed during a general remodeling of the buildings around the Lower Court, filling the space between the newly converted stables in Burned Build­ings IV-East and V (see Dyson, “Architecture,” this issue). Within Burned Building IV-V, gear was found fallen from pegs or shelves onto benches that partially edged the room. Items found in the fill above floor level may represent gear stored on the second floor. Alternatively, most or all of the horse gear may have been stored on the first floor, but at different locations and heights within the rooms so that it became mixed with the rubble as the building collapsed. Whichever is the case, related groups of gear can often be iden­tified, and the original arrangement reconstructed. These well-preserved pieces are described in detail below and in the captions accompanying illustrations.

Other buildings also yielded bits and decorative elements that can be associated with horse gear. From the collapse of second floor store­rooms in Burned Building II came bits and cheekpieces; these do not seem to have been prepared for use, as they were unassociated and not in equal numbers. Also fallen from the second floor was a horse’s helmet or chamfrou (Fig. 30). Other evidence indicates that this building was probably a temple, and the stored horse gear would in this case have formed part of the temple’s treasury (see Dyson, “Architec­ture,” this issue).

Burned Building III appears to have been the residence of a rich or powerful person, since it contained seals, a large number of sea shells, and equipment for metal working (Marcus 1988, de Schauensee 1988; see also Reese, this issue). Also found within it was a small quantity of scattered horse gear of a utili­tarian nature—four iron bits and a few bells. A horse skeleton lay in the courtyard, and in outside areas near this building were three airs of stone yoke saddle pom­mels. The presence of horse gear in this part of the site is not surprising, since the area to the west of Burned Building III may have been an as­sembly area for equestrian troops, and stables could have been located nearby.

Burned Building VI, near the main gate to the Citadel, yielded a considerable amount of gear, in­cluding a decorated bridle with an iron bit, a pair of antler cheek-pieces, two iron bits, two twisted and wrapped bronze bits, a head-stall with straps decorated with beads, and a wide band of tiny bronze tacks that presumably deco­rated an object made of perishable material now lost to us. All this gear ad apparently been stored on a shelf running the length of the north wall of the main columned room of the building, along with many weapons, a few vessels, and additional items. Other gear was scattered within the period IVB settlement: a bridle with iron bit and antler cheekpieces was appar­ently dropped in the Upper Court­yard between Burned Buildings I-East and -West, and a bronze bit lay in the area of the Bead House, just south of Burned Building I.

The horses themselves were small, with an average withers height of about 137 cm or 13.5 hands, as estimated from their skeletons by Sandor Bokonyi, Direc­tor of the Archaeological Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest (pers. corn. to R. H. Dyson, 1984). They probably were more lightly built than those shown in the drawings here, con­forming to what Bokonyi has called the “eastern group” of Iron Age horses (1968). These animals were characterized by a short broad head and a stocky neck and body; they could carry heavier loads, including armored riders, and cover greater distances than their counter­parts of the “western group” (Bokonyi 1968).

Bits and Bridles

The headgear used to control horses is the bridle, consisting of a headwall, bit, and reins. At Hasanlu, a decorated bridle was dropped in the portico of Burned Building IV-East during the destruction of the city (Figs. 6-8). This isolated and therefore easily reconstructed ex­ample has been augmented by other bridles that were stored on pegs or shelves and that fell to the floor when buildings burned. In the reconstruction drawings, I have chosen to show one style of bridle only. It should, however, be borne in mind that Assyrian reliefs show several bridle types. There clearly was a great amount of variation in headstall decoration at Hasanlu, and several styles of bridle may also have been in use.

Much more complicated than the individual bridles is a large mass of gear, apparently for four horses (Figs. 9a,b). This was found piled on the floor at the base of one of the columns in the central hall of Burned Building IV-East, from which it had apparently fallen. It included bits, plaques, large discs, small pendants, domed bosses, and some sort of fringe, probably made of wool. The three large discs have been interpreted as shoulder ron-deis, based on comparisons with Assyrian reliefs and excavated horse and chariot burials at Salamis on Cyprus (Aragheorgis 1974). During the 9th century in Assyria, shoulder rondels are shown on driven rather than ridden horses.

Applying this analogy to the Hasanlu cluster, it can be inter­preted as harness for four driven horses, basing the number of horses on the number of bits. We do not know if this group was intended for two chariots, each pulled by a pair of horses, or one chariot pulled by four horses. I would propose pairs of horses for two chariots based on representations of paired horses on the Hasanlu ivories. The fact that three rondels were found in this group also suggests two pairs, since shoulder decorations would not be needed (or visible) on the interior two of a four-horse hitch, (The fourth shoulder rondel expected for two pairs of horses may well have been present in this group, since the spread of artifacts continues into an unexcavated area.) The type of bit found with this group, a jointed snaffle with smooth canons made by casting and piercing a bar cheek-piece with two loops near the ends of the bars (Fig. 10), can now be proposed as the type used for driven rather than ridden horses at Hasanlu. Similar harness, with bits piercing their cheekpieces (but with twisted canons), were found with chariot burials at Salamis.

The other kind of bit found at Hasanlu is also a jointed snaffle, but one shaped by hand out of thick wire that is twisted and wrapped or sometimes simply twisted to form canons (Fig. 11). These bits were associated with separate bar cheek-pieces and were sometimes as­sociated with decorated headstalls, but never with the complex of gear found with our smooth canon bits. One may therefore propose that bits with twisted canons and separ­ate cheekpieces were for ridden horses.

The Hasanlu bits described above were made of bronze. (These artifacts have not been analyzed for metal content, so it is not known whether the copper was alloyed to form bronze; for con­venience, all of the “copper/ bronze” objects are referred to here as bronze.) Iron jointed snaffle bits also exist, but their state of preserva­tion is so poor that one cannot determine whether they were smooth or twisted, although it is apparent that they were not wrapped. These iron bits were almost always associated with ant­ler tine cheekpieces.

Also found in the Burned Build­ing IV-East horse gear cluster were four groups of long strips and short plaques made of fairly heavy bronze. There is no indication from context as to how these were used, but there is a consistent linear arrangement, with one long strip placed on either end of a short plaque. One possibility is that the plaques formed a head decoration or protective element, as shown in Figure 12.

Several rings that could have been used to position straps and one fragment of a long, flexible coiled strip that might have decorated a rein also formed part of the group (Fig. 13). The function of the coils remains speculative, since although they are always found in areas where horse gear was housed at Hasanlu, they were not in close association with it and cannot be assigned to a specific part or type of gear. The same is true of bronze bells that were found in large numbers in Burned Building IV-V, for the most part with the group of gear surrounding the decorated breastplate (Figs. 14,26; see de Schauensee and Dyson 1983).


The carbonized remains of the only chariot found at Hasanlu are so fragmentary that its shape and structure cannot be determined in any detail (Fig. 15; see also de Schauensee and Dyson 1983). It is possible to say, however, that this vehicle was probably quite small and had a six-spoked wheel ap­proximately 90 to 95 cm in dia­meter; no metal fittings for the chariot were found. In the absence of more complete archaeological “evidence, the model for the chariot in our reconstruction (Fig. 16) is drawn from those on ivory plaques. These show chariots with a tall narrow box for one person pulled by a pair of stallions (Muscarella 1980: no. 7). The silver and electrum cup from Hasanlu shows a similar though less tall box and pair of horses, but two charioteers (see Marcus, Fig. 1, this issue).

In the reconstruction, we have given the horses yoke saddles with yoke saddle pommels. Although one can determine from represen­tations on ivory plaques that reins went to an element at the back of the horse’s neck before going to the driver’s hands, the element itself is unclear, as is the yoke saddle on the withers of the horse. Yoke saddle pommels are clearly shown on the animals on the Hasanlu gold bowl (see Winter, Figs. 4,5). Several pairs of limestone finials, one of which was found in Burned Building IV-V next to the chariot remains, have been interpreted as yoke saddle pommels based on their similarity in shape to those on the bowl and to some found at Beth Shan in Israel, as well as in Egypt and Assyria.

Harness for Ridden Horses

A total of 16 reconstructable headstalls for ridden horses were found, and, as may be seen in the reconstruction drawings, there was considerable variation in their decoration. Almost all had twisted and wrapped bits and all had separate bar cheekpieces. The cheekpieces almost always curved forward, although a few curved outward, away from the muzzle (Figs. 8, 17). The basic decoration for bridles appears to have been four buttons with solid projecting knobs placed at strap crossings, and a fifth larger knob in the center of the browband (e.g., Fig. 7). Bridle straps were either plain or were decorated with small plaques, buttons, or beads (Figs. 18-20). In one case a second cheekstrap covered with a bowed bronze decoration is indicated (see Fig. 7). At least two other bridles used the same bowed rigid cheekstrap

covers, but apparently not in con­junction with other cheekstraps (Figs. 22,24), and at least one other bridle had straps decorated with beads as well as knobbed buttons at the strap crossings, but it lacked a second cheekstrap. The latter bridle was found on the floor, dropped by a man whose skeleton lay near that of a horse in Burned Building VI (Fig. 4). Some bits with separate cheek-pieces were found without accom­panying buttons, so we may assume that their bridles were plain. This is always true for those with iron bits and antler tine cheekpieces, one of which was dropped by the same man who carried the bridle shown in Figure 6, lower right.

At least two bridles included forehead plaques as part of their decoration (Figs. 18, 19). Both plaques were backed with a perish­able material, as indicated by holes at the edge, and were used in conjunction with other decorations. Associated with another bridle was a group of bronze discs with iron suspension loops hung at intervals on a double string of glazed frit or faience beads. We have recon­structed this as a chestband (Fig. 20), based on Assyrian reliefs and a cheekpiece of the 7th century B.C. found at Nimrud in the shape of a horse wearing a similar band of pendants (Mallowan 1966).

Breastplates and Miscellaneous Gear

A large collection of horse gear was found in association with a bronze breastplate decorated with a mythological figure (Fig. 26; Winter 1980). No bit or cheekpieces were found with this material, but a group of four small and one larger buttons could be identified. As these are the type, size, and number so often found with bridle decora­tions, a decorated headstall for a horse that was led, probably in a remonial procession, may be proposed. There may also have been an elaborate decorative cover or caparison for the horse, given the relatively uniform spread of but­tons, tubes, plaques, and other elements, but these were tumbled and the complete piece cannot now be reconstructed. Decorated capar­isons were known to have been used by the Assyrians during war­fare (Layard 1849).

A group of bronze crescent-shaped and deep lunate breast­plates (Fig. 27) were found in Burned Building IV-V, along with two small crescent-shaped pendants with end loops for suspension (Fig. 28). Comparison with Assyrian re­liefs and the Salamis horses resulted in the identification of the deep lunate breastplates as horse gear, and a similar function has been assigned to the crescent-shaped ones. The pendants seem too small to have served as breastplates. Comparison to the crescent-shaped element on the forehead of a head-covering or chamfron and to cres­centic decorations on bridles found far away in the frozen tombs of Pazyryk in Siberia (Rudenko 1970) suggests that they could have been used on the foreheads of horses, where they fit very well (Fig. 29). The chamfron came from Burned Building II, where it had fallen from a second floor storage area. It is made from a sheet of bronze, hammered to a box-like shape that would fit over the horse’s head (Fig.30).


Because almost all the horse gear was found inside buildings on the Citadel Mound, in locations where it seems to have been stored, we may assume that the excavated material was actually used at the site and does not represent equip­ment discarded by those who at­tacked the site. Evidence for local manufacture of at least some ele­ments is provided by a mold for a button with a tall central knob of the type used at strap crossings. This, along with a mold for a plain button shape also found with horse gear, was recovered through ex­cavation in the “Artisan’s House” at the base of the Citadel Mound (de Schauensee 1988).

This does not necessarily mean that all the horse gear was made at the site. The use of elaborate horse gear of the type found at Hasanlu during period IVB was very much a custom of the period, as illustrated by contemporary Assyrian reliefs. There are also clear stylistic sim­ilarities to gear from Assyria, north Syria, and Urartu, as well as from other sites in Iran (de Schauen­see and Dyson 1983). Nevertheless, there is also a strong local element that in some cases results in the reinterpretation of exotic styles—a pattern seen throughout the archae­ological assemblage from Hasanlu IV. This is particularly apparent when one looks at certain decora­tive elements and details, such as snake heads on the cheekpieces of a unique bit (Fig. 17), and the deco­rated breastplate (Fig. 26). The reconstruction drawings also show that the kind of equipment used at Hasanlu was slightly different from that in Assyria. For example, As­syrian horses often wear blinkers, but none of the Hasanlu depictions of horses show them, nor were any blinkers excavated there.

In this article I have described some of the horse gear found at Hasanlu. I have attempted to iden­tify its function, and to define its possible arrangement through the use of reconstruction drawings. The latter give an idea of what the Hasanlu equipment might have looked like when in use almost three thousand years ago. What is very clear from the reconstructions is how richly decorated the Hasanhi horses must have been. They must have looked very handsome in­deed as they moved through the town and across the plain with their ornaments and gear glinting in the sun.


bit: bridle element for control of horse by the mouth. Metal bits were composed of single or jointed mouthpieces and a pair of cheekpieces held in place by divided cheekstraps. Reins were attached either directly to the mouthpiece ends or to some metal element connecting with them. The bit exerted pressure on the corners of the horse’s mouth

boss: a (small) disc attached to another object or surface by means of a tang that pierced the backing; “buttons” are attached by means of a loop through which a thread or thong could be passed

breastplate: protective or decora­tive element of metal and/or leather, hung across horse’s chest

bridle: means of controlling horse by the head; composed of head-stall, with or without bit, and reins

canon: mouthpiece of a metal bit, or each single element of a jointed mouthpiece

caparison: ornamental covering, or trapping, for a horse

chamfron: protective or decora­tive element of metal or ivory and leather lying over forehead and nasal bone of horse

cheelcpieces: two paired elements of a bit, in the form of variously shaped plaques or rods. The cheekpieces, which lay at the corners of the horse’s lips, were attached to or pierced by the canons, and were attached to the headstall by single or multiple cheekstraps. The cheekpieces held the mouthpiece in place and might also exert pressure on the outside of the horse’s lower jaw

harness: the aggregate of the various straps that attach an animal to the traction elements of a vehicle

headetall: part of bridle made of straps or rope and designed to hold controlling bit or noseband in place. Comprises crownpiece, or polistrap (going over crown of head, or poll, behind ears); cheek

straps; throatlash (running from side to side under horse’s throat); sometimes a browband running across the forehead; and a nose­band. These straps need not all be used at all times

noseband: one of the straps of the headstall; it usually encircles the nose and jaw, but may merely run across the nose from cheek-strap to cheekstrap

poll: crown of horse’s head

yoke saddle pommel: the central projection of a yoke saddle. The yoke is seated in front of it and lashed to it

yoke saddle: inverted Y-shaped element for adapting the yoke to the conformation of equids; its “handle” was lashed to the yoke and its “legs” lay along the animal’s shoulders

Cite This Article

Schauensee, Maude de. "Horse Gear from Hasanlu." Expedition Magazine 31, no. 2-3 (November, 1989): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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