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The Function of the Yoke Saddle in Ancient Harnessing

  • Mary Aiken Littauer

Dr Watson's review of Dr von Dewall's Pferd und Wagen im Frühen China in your June issue raised a very interesting question, a hitherto unexplored aspect of which is indicated, if never developed, in the book.

Dr Watson writes that the author ‘Rather surprisingly, sees no problem in the perennial question of the plac—hest or neck—on which the yoked horses took the load, and assumes that the system of traces kept the point of draught low and protected the horses from the choking effects of a band around the neck.’ Dr von Dewall referred to a girth (Bauchgurt) rather than to traces (which did not then exist) as performing this function, but was over-optimistic in believing it could be successful. But she does assign a role, although a not entirely correct one, to the yoke saddle: ‘Die Jochgabel auf dem Nacken der Pferde, an der ein Brustblatt angesetzt haben muss, das von Brust und Schulter die Zugkraft abnahm, war damit ein wichtiges Verbindungsglied in diesem Zugsystem’ . The saddle is an element of the harness long neglected in the literature and, although it could never completely have removed the pressure from the throat (‘breast’ is a euphemism), I hope to demonstrate that it would permit the withers and particularly the upper shoulder to absorb some of this-at least when the horse was in certain positions.

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page 27 note * I am indebted to Professor J. K. Anderson, with whom I first discussed this matter, for his interest and for his helpful comments.

page 28 note * It is tempting to associate these objects with the adoption of the light, spoke-wheeled, horse-drawn chariot—particularly since there is no material or figured evidence from Sumerian times. But Salonen, A., Hippologica Accadica (1955), 105, interprets a Sumerian term as ‘“Halsstück”, eigentlich “Fledermaus”’, which sounds very much like a saddle pad. Another Sumerian term is interpreted as ‘Kralle des 2-rädrigen Wagens des Halsstückes’. Thus these objects may originally have been designed for other equids than horses.

page 30 note * It may be added that in no modern method of harnessing does anything rest on the withers; the collar lies directly in front of them and the girth directly behind.

page 30 note † The present writer has experimented with model saddles of the proportions of those found in Egypt (in so far as the dimensions are ascertainable from the literature) and the opening between the legs is too narrow (even without a pad) to permit them to lie anywhere except ahead of the shoulders—even on ponies.

page 30 note ‡ The Chinese yoke saddles seem usually to have had longer legs than the western Asiatic ones, and it would hardly have been feasible to attach the girth to their ends. In the absence of figured evidence one can only suggest that the girth may have been attached to the yoke itself. The longer legs alone would ensure a greater purchase area for the shoulders.


page 31 note [1] von Dewall, M., Pferd und Wagen im Alten China (1964), 147.

page 31 note [2] See [1], 133.

page 31 note [3] See [1], 208, 210, 212, 213, 215. 218, 219, 220, 224, 227, 228, 232, 235, 239, 244. 245. 246; 147.

page 31 note [4] Lefebvre, des Noëttes, L’Attelage, le Cheval de Selle à Travers les Ages (1931), 38, 49, 68.

page 31 note [5] See [4], 12, 13, 46.

page 31 note [6] Hilzheimer, Max, Praehist. Zeitschr., XXII (1931), 6.

page 31 note [7] Needham, J. and Lu, G. D., Physis, 11/2, 1960, 122, 123, 126.

page 31 note [8] Haudricourt, A. G., La Revue de Gégraphie Humaine et d’Ethnologie, 1, 1948, 61, n. 1; fig. 2d.

page 31 note [9] Potratz, J. A. H., Die Pferdetrensen des Alten Orient (1966), 17–45, esp. 44.

page 31 note [10] Botti, G., Aegyptus, XXXI (1951), 197.

page 31 note [11] See [10], 192–8; Carter, H. and Newberry, P., The Tomb of Thoutmosis, IV (Musée de Caire, 1904), 34 , fig. 21; Carter, H., The Tomb of Tut-ankh-amen (1927), pl. XLII.

page 31 note [12] Davies, N. de G., The Tomb of Rekh-mi-re at Thebes (1943), pl. XXII; Wreszinski, W., Atlas zur Altägyptischen Kulturgeschichte, 1 (1923), pls. 17, 137, 227.

page 31 note [13] Sir, Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos at Knossos, IV (1935), fig. 763 b and d; fig. 764 a, c and d.

page 31 note [14] Barnett, R. D., Assyrian Palace Reliefs (1960), pls. 16, 17, 18 and 20; Wreszinski, see [12], pl. 36; J. A. H. Potratz, see [9], pl. XLV, 101.

page 31 note [15] Talbot Rice, T., The Scythians (1957), fig. 30.

page 31 note [16] Wiesner, J., Fahren und Reiten in Alteuropa und im Alten Orient (1939).

page 31 note [17] Salonen, A., Die Landfahrzeuge des Alten Mesopotamien (1951), 164, 165.

page 31 note [18] J. A. H. Potratz, see [9], 107.

Mrs Mary Aiken Littauer, of Syosset, Long Island, says that she has no claims to write about the yoke saddle, except that she has owned horses most of her life, and ten years ago became seriously interested in the early horse, only to find that the chariot was better documented than the horse, which led her to collect material on ancient harnessing in particular. Her main asset, she says, is a husband who was a professional cavarly officer in Russia just before the First World War with intimate memories of what was still ‘a largely horse-powered world’. ‘Perhaps you could just introduce me’, writes Mrs Littauer, ‘as “la femme dans la muselière de cuir”?’

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