“BIG WHEELS KEEP ON TURNIN”
5,000 years ago
Depiction of a 4-wheeled cart with solid wheels from 2500 BC (4500 years ago), from the “Standard of Ur.” This depiction of a cart or chariot being pulled by donkeys or wild asses was found on the side of a small box excavated from Ur, the ancient capital of Sumer. This mosaic, composed of shells, deep blue lapis lazuli, and red limestone, depicts images of war including the king or leader, a line of uniformed soldiers, numbers of injured and vanquished enemies, and an apparent stop-action sequence of four chariots driven by a charioteer and carrying a spear- or axe-wielding soldier and a bank of extra spears in the cart. Note the solid wheels, each composed of two semi-circular planks of wood fastened together.
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Anyone who has used a wagon, cart, wheelbarrow, or a dolly knows that it is much easier to move heavy things with wheels than with your brute strength. A wheel rotating on an axle requires much less energy to move heavy things than simply carrying or dragging them. Around 5,000 years ago, human groups began to move things around with simple carts or wagons with solid wheels, pulled by cattle, asses, or horses.
The diagram incised onto the Bronocice pot. It has been suggested it may represent a four-wheeled wagon with two axles, and which may have been pulled by draught animals.
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia
The earliest suggestion that people were likely making wheeled carts comes from an early Neolithic settlement in southern Poland at the site of Bronocice. A ceramic pot at this site dating to 5300 to 5500 years ago was incised with a diagram of what seems to be a wheeled cart.
A ceramic toy model of a wheeled cart from the Indus Valley Civilization, about 3000-1500 BC is housed at the National Museum, New Delhi, India.
Credit: Photo by JSR, Courtesy of Wikipedia
The earliest surviving physical evidence of what would appear to be a wooden wheel was found at in waterlogged archaeological site in a marsh near Ljubljana in Slovenia dating to between 5300 and 5100 years ago. Starting about 5,000 years ago, wheeled carts started becoming widespread, spreading from eastern Europe and western Asia across much of Eurasia.
Relief depicting Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II fighting the Hittites with bow and arrow from a chariot at the Battle of Kadesh (Syria), ca. 1274 BC. This great chariot battle reportedly involved between 5,000 and 6,000 chariots.
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia.
By about 4000 years ago, the first chariots appear in the Sintashta-Petrovka culture of the Russian steppes, where spoke-wheeled chariots and teams of horses were sometimes interred with the dead. Between 4000 and 3000 years ago (2000 to 1000 BC), many peoples used spoke-wheeled wagons and chariots, which were much lighter and easier to move than solid-wheeled vehicles. The development of two-wheeled chariots greatly increased the speed of these vehicles and became an important aspect of warfare as well as transportation.
A chariot burial from the Shang Dynasty in China (between 1500 BC and 1000 BC).
Credit: Courtesy of Counterlight’s Peculiars.
Chariots spread across Asia to China by the time of the Shang Dynasty around 1200 BC, and the use of chariots in warfare became especially important during the succeeding Zhou Dynasty, during which time nobles were sometimes interred with large numbers of chariots and horses.
With the invention of the wheeled vehicle came another critical need and innovation: well-maintained trackways and roads for moving these vehicles from one place to another. As time went on, some of these roads were even paved with stones. Wheeled vehicles made it easier to go long distances with a load of cargo or personal belongings and were critical in the rise of more complex trading patterns.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
Early evidence for wheeled vehicles comes in the form of artwork and ceramic figurines showing such means of transportation. The first actual archaeological evidence of wheeled vehicles is first found in the Bronze Age of Scandinavia dating to about 2500 years ago. Wheeled vehicle technology became an important means of transportation in the Near East, Europe, North Africa, India, and China, but was never developed in the Americas or the Pacific.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Many of the modes of transport today- cars, buses, trucks, and trains, not to mention bicycles and motorcycles- are all based on the concept of a solid or a spoked wheel turning on an axle. (Even jet airliners and the Space Shuttles have wheels). There is an unbroken line of wheel technology from those early carts and wagons to horse-drawn chariots and coaches and finally to motorized vehicles.
This website discusses the early wheel in Mesopotamia.
This is an outline of the invention of the wheel.
This is a blog article about the Cow-on-Wheels and the culture responsible for its construction.
This is a Wikipedia page about the Wheel.
This is a brief historical perspective about the wheel.