Wheeled Vehicles in the Chinese Bronze Age (c. 2000-741 b.c.)

by Anthony Barbieri-Low

I. Introduction--Wheeled Transport around the World

The invention of the wheel for transportation of humans and their cargo was one of the greatest inventions of the ancient world.1 What makes the invention of wheeled transportation most striking is its novelty. Wheeled motion is the only form of movement which does not have a counterpart in the wild kingdom. There are animals which fly, swim, walk, slither, and hop, but there are none yet discovered which roll. Overcoming the resistance of friction and gravity, man's invention of the wheeled vehicle allowed him to multiply his productivity immeasurably, enabling a level of complexity and mobility in his societies which had formerly not been possible. It also gave him a frighteningly fast conveyance to use in brutal warfare against rival groups and an unmistakable marker of status to laud over those less fortunate. Therefore, it is not surprising that the wheeled vehicle made its first appearance in the early states at about the same time that early forms of writing and metallurgy were being systematized and refined to levels which enabled the rulers to administer and coerce large populations. Even though man had excellent tools and wood-working skills throughout the earlier Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, he never had occasion to invent the wheeled vehicle until the complexity of his society established the groundwork for its introduction.

However, the invention of wheeled vehicles is not an inevitable consequence of social complexity. There are other very important practical factors to consider. According to Stuart Piggott, the introduction of wheeled vehicles carries three prerequisites: 1) adequate domesticated draught animals 2) sophisticated wood carpentry skills such as joinery and heat bending 3) adequate timber resources.2 To these I would add the fourth requirement of amenable terrain. Without all four of these requirements in place, a society, no matter how complex, would not be able to use a technology of wheeled vehicles.

For an example of the binding nature of these requirements, consider the case of the New World, where wheeled vehicles were never used for transportation before the Conquest. Yet, surprisingly, there are dozens of wheeled "toys" dating from a.d. 400 which prove that Mesoamericans knew how to make objects roll on wheels3 (see fig. 1). These clay toys, whose function is uncertain, represent various animals or deities. Axles holding clay wheels travel through their front and rear feet. Why would societies as complex, aggressive, and skillful as those which arose in Mesoamerica, produce such toys yet choose not to exploit this technology in transportation or warfare? The answer lies in the fact that no suitable draught animals existed in the New World which could have pulled large vehicles. Neither equids nor bovids were present in the New World at this time, and available animals such as the llama or the dog simply could never provide adequate traction.4

Before turning to the case of the structure and function of the earliest Chinese wheeled vehicles, it is necessary to review briefly the history of wheeled vehicles in the other great centers of civilization in the Old World, namely the Near East, Europe, and the Indus River Valley.

The Near East

The wheeled vehicle was probably first invented in the fertile land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers toward the end of the fourth millennium b.c. Our first evidence appears in the form of pictographs used in the proto-literate script of the Uruk IVa phase (c. 3200-3100 b.c.).5 These representations take the form of platforms and superstructures resting on either captive rollers or actual wheels (see fig. 2).

Then, during the Early Dynastic phase of the Sumerian civilization (c. 3000-2375 b.c.) there are abundant representations of a four-wheeled vehicle called a "battle car" (see fig. 3) which carried two men and was used in an unquestionably military context. It was drawn by animals which most closely represent half-asses or onagers (Equus hemionus).6 At the same time, there is evidence for the use of two-wheeled vehicles for the first time, in a form which appears to some researchers to represent an antecedent to the chariot7 (see fig. 4).

Subsequently, around 1700 b.c., cylinder seals from Anatolia start to represent a true chariot: a fast, light vehicle with two wheels of spoked design, drawn by domesticated horses. These seals show kings, deities, or other high-status individuals riding chariots in situations which could be related to either hunting or warfare.8 The first step towards mass chariot warfare also seems to have taken place in Anatolia, where Hittite texts from the 17th century b.c. tell of opposing armies employing forty or even eighty chariots in battle.9 Later, at the famous battle of Kadesh (c. 1286 b.c.) between the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite king Muwatallish, the Hittites took the field with twenty-five hundred chariots (according to Egyptian accounts). The chariots at Kadesh were probably used as mobile firing platforms for arrows (Egypt) and spears (Hittite). This was the heyday of the war chariot in the ancient world. At the same time, the chariot was being used as a status marker by ruling kings. Five gorgeous state chariots were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (c. 1352 b.c.).10 These were fashioned of rare, imported woods and were splendidly outfitted in gold and other expensive ornament. These were probably not used as battle platforms, but as objects of awe-inspiring display.

Soon however, the Near Eastern chariot began to be replaced in importance by cavalry and then massed infantry. By the ninth century b.c., the mighty Assyrian kingdom was beginning to use mounted troops to perform the flanking function once served by the horse chariot.11 By the second half of the first millennium b.c., the chariot was being used by the Persian Empire as merely a "shock" device to throw the enemy into confusion, through the use of spinning metal scythes attached to the axle.12 And finally, by the time of Alexander's conquest of the known world (324 b.c.), the chariot was once again only a marker of status for the nobility.


In continental Europe, wheeled vehicles first appear around 3000-2500 b.c. in the form of heavy wagons drawn by oxen and supported by four massive, single-piece disc wheels. These vehicles could weigh as much as a ton and required enormous planks from 400-500 year old oak trees to fashion the single-piece wheels. Actual wheels from these vehicles have been dug from bogs in Northern Europe and whole wagons have been found in high-status burials from Eastern Europe and Transcaucasia. Judging from representational evidence and from the burials, these vehicles were used for both utilitarian transport and elite ritual.13

Then, around 2000-1800 b.c., Europe also saw the introduction of the horse-drawn chariot. The first traces are from the Timber-Grave/Andronovo sites of the Sintashta-Petrovka culture in modern Kazakhstan14 (see fig. 5). By the end of the second millennium, the chariot had spread to all of continental Europe. Of particular note is the use of the chariot in Mycenaean Greece. Judging from the Linear B tablets and the somewhat anachronistic imagery of the Iliad epic, one can surmise that the chariot was mostly used in Bronze Age Greece as an elite conveyance. It was used primarily in ritual, but only sporadically in warfare, in a form of chivalrous combat between champions.15 With the fall of Mycenae and the other great city-states at the hands of the "Sea Peoples" around 1200 b.c., Greece seems to have fallen into a dark age and lost knowledge, or need of, the chariot until around 800 b.c., when orientalizing influences from the East reintroduced it to pre-Classical Greece.16 By the seventh century b.c., cavalry also became an important component of Greek armies, while the chariot began to be used almost exclusively for display and competitive racing, such as at the Olympics.17


In India during the third millennium b.c., the great Harappan civilization (c. 2600-1500 b.c.) arose in the Indus Valley. Distinguished by large complex cities with planned layouts and sewer systems, a relatively even distribution of wealth, and a still undeciphered writing system, the Harappan civilization has long been recognized as one of the independent centers of urban civilization in the Old World. Though preservation conditions and the absence of intentional burial have deprived us of actual examples of wheeled vehicles such as those found in Europe or Egypt, Harappan civilization reveals to us the form of their earliest vehicles through the use of terracotta models (see fig. 6). This illustration shows a heavy cart being pulled by a pair of oxen under a yoke bar. The wheels are apparently of single-piece or possibly tripartite wooden construction. Given the cargo of large jars, the purpose of this vehicle seems to be utilitarian and commercial. Model carts of this type have been excavated from the Harappan sites of Alamgirpur, Chanhu-Daro, Harappa, and Mohenjo-Daro.18

Attendant on the collapse of Harappan civilization around 1500 b.c., was an influx of people from the north known as the Aryans. This Indo-European speaking group immortalized their ritual and culture in an epic known as the Rig Veda. In the Rig Veda, the Aryans use wheeled vehicles of several types, but the one they prize most is the horse-drawn chariot. Vedic chariots are used in the races, hunting, and shooting rituals of the elite, but not in large-scale organized warfare.19 Whether the Aryans caused the collapse of Harappan civilization with their lightning-fast chariots is not known, but after their entrance into the subcontinent, the chariot was smoothly taken up into the permanent repertoire of wheeled vehicles in historic Indian civilizations. Many depictions of chariots are seen on the famous Sanchi monuments northeast of Bhopal which date to the first century a.d.20

Thus, in each of these societies, one sees a similar developmental course in the technology and use of wheeled vehicles. First, come the large, bulky vehicles drawn by bovids or asses which were used for utilitarian transport and elite ritual and which first appeared in the late fourth and early third millennium b.c. in Mesopotamia, Europe, and India. Then, in the first half of the second millennium b.c., the chariot was invented, either in the Caucasus or in Mesopotamia. This light and fast vehicle, which used the innovative draught of paired horses, was a sophisticated piece of technology. Its manufacture required advanced skills in carpentry (mortising, scarf joints, heat bending) and its maintenance and use required a sophisticated knowledge of animal husbandry and vehicular dynamics.21 As the new invention of the chariot swept across the Old World in the second millennium b.c., it found an amenable home in each society it encountered, principally because each of these cultures had already acquired at least 750-1000 years of experience with other forms of wheeled transport, albeit slower and less complex ones.


We turn finally to China, the so-called "Cradle of the East." In recent literature on this subject, a very different scenario is portrayed for the early development of wheeled transport. It is stated by leading authorities that no form of wheeled vehicle existed in China prior to the introduction from Central Asia of the chariot around 1200 b.c. ( See "E. Origins of the Shang Chariot" on page 37). For example, Stuart Piggott states in his most recent book that "Shang chariotry appears to mark the first appearance of any wheeled transport in the area which was to become the nucleus of Imperial China."22 And Edward Shaughnessy declares, "There is no evidence of any type in China to suggest a vehicular development leading up to the mature chariot."23 Furthermore, Western scholars maintain that early Bronze Age China only possessed the borrowed technology of the chariot and never possessed or invented any other forms of conveyance or hauling such as carts or wheelbarrows. For instance, in his recent survey on the origins of the Chinese chariot, Edward Shaughnessy declares that in the Shang period, "there is absolutely no artifactual evidence for other types of wheeled or tractive conveyance."24

It is the primary purpose of this paper to challenge both of these assertions. I will argue that no society could accept and adapt such a sophisticated package of machinery as the horse-drawn chariot so smoothly without extensive previous experience with wheeled vehicles. Drawing support from archaeological, artistic, inscriptional, and textual data, I will suggest that the chariot was established in China on top of a foundation of other vehicles. Furthermore, I will introduce several recent discoveries which suggest that during both the Shang and Western Zhou periods, many other forms of vehicle were used for human conveyance and material transport. Indispensable to this study will be an examination of the actual technology involved in Chinese wheeled vehicles. This will take the form of a computer-assisted, color reconstruction of a specific excavated Chinese chariot from the Anyang period with a complete analysis of each of its parts ( See "C. Structure of the Shang Chariot" on p. 23). Finally, large portions of this paper will be dedicated to trying to reconstruct the actual use of these vehicles, whether it be for military, ritual, or utilitarian purposes. Through this study, I hope to present a much more complete and vivid portrait of the wheeled-vehicle technology utilized during the Bronze Age by one of the greatest technologically innovative civilizations.


  1. An earlier version of this paper was submitted as an M.A. thesis to the Committee on Regional Studies--East Asia, Harvard University in May 1997. It has since been revised and expanded. I would like to thank Robert W. Bagley, David N. Keightley, and Victor H. Mair for their critique of the original paper and for their subsequent suggestions and assistance.
  2. Stuart Piggott, "The Chinese Chariot: An Outsider's View," in Arts of the Eurasian Steppelands, ed. Philip Denwood (London: Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1978), 32-51; Stuart Piggott, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage: Symbol and Status in the History of Transport (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992).
  3. For a discussion and illustration of wheeled toys from Mexico, see: Gordon Frederick Ekholm, "Wheeled Toys in Mexico," American Antiquity 11 (1946): 222-8; Earl L. Stendahl, "Wheeled Toys," Masterkey 24 (1950): 160-2; Matthew William Stirling, "Wheeled Toys from Tres Zapotes, Veracruz," Amerindia 1 (1962): 43-9.
  4. For a compelling study proposing environmental causes for the disparity between the two continents, see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997).
  5. M.A. Littauer and J.H. Crouwel, Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1979), 13-14.
  6. Ibid., 15-20.
  7. Ibid., 20-2.
  8. Ibid., 50-72.
  9. Ibid., 65.
  10. M.A. Littauer and J.H. Crouwel, Chariots and Related Equipment from the Tomb of Tutankhamun (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1985).
  11. Littauer and Crouwel, Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals, 137.
  12. Ibid., 152-3.
  13. Stuart Piggott, The Earliest Wheeled Transport: from the Atlantic coast to the Caspian Sea (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 1-63; Piggott, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage.
  14. Stuart Piggott, "Bronze Age Chariot Burials in the Urals," Antiquity 49 (1975): 289-90.
  15. Piggott, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage, 58-63.
  16. Piggott, The Earliest Wheeled Transport, 128-30.
  17. Piggott, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage, 71-3.
  18. C. Margabandhu, "Technology of Transport Vehicles in Early India," in Radiocarbon and Indian Archaeology, ed. D.P. Agrawal and A. Ghosh. (Bombay: Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, 1973), 182-8.
  19. M. Sparreboom, Chariots in the Veda (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985).
  20. Ibid., 93-118.
  21. Unlike the earlier bulky carts, the frame of the chariot was flexible, allowing it to travel rough terrain without shaking apart. This was accomplished through a construction technique which avoided the use of nails or rigid joints in favor of light timbers lashed with leather straps. Such construction allowed the vehicle to respond to the terrain like the horses which pulled it, flexing a skeleton connected by sinews. Nevertheless, lightly-built chariot parts did break frequently. The timber and leather modular construction did allow the driver to replace various parts in the field and disassemble the vehicle when needed to reduce the stress on its parts. Thus, the chariot was both powerful and fragile, much like a modern thoroughbred horse.
  22. Piggott, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage, 63.
  23. Edward L Shaughnessy, "Historical Perspectives on the Introduction of the Chariot into China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48.1 (1988): 208.
  24. Ibid., 192.