King Tut's Chariots: Ferraris of Ancient Egypt

Check out King Tut's Chariots: Ferraris of Ancient Egypt photos

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Chariots were introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos, the "rulers of foreign countries" who dominated the Nile valley for over a century during the Second Intermediate Period (1664 - 1569 B.C.). The so-called Florence chariot, shown here, is the only known surviving example of the evolution of the Egyptian model from the Hyksos's horse-drawn chariots. "The chariot was found disassembled in an unknown tomb of the Theban necropolis by Ippolito Rosellini," Maria Cristina Guidotti, director of the Egyptian Museum of Florence, Italy, told Discovery News. Rosellini had embarked in 1828-29 on a pioneering expedition along the Nile with Jean-Francois Champollion, the French philologist who deciphered the Rosetta Stone. "Rosellini believed the chariot was war booty. It was made from seven types of wood coming from trees which don't grow in Egypt. In reality, the chariot was produced by the Egyptians and has been dated to the 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 B.C. )." Guidotti said. The vehicle, which shows signs of wear and tear, is characterized by a four-spoke wheel. During King Tut's times, it was replaced by the more sophisticated six-spoke wheel chariots.

The chariots discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter when he entered King Tut's treasure-packed tomb in 1922 are the best surviving examples of Egypt's high-tech, six-spoke wheel chariots. The boy king's collection consisted of two large ceremonial chariots, a smaller highly decorated one and three others that were lighter and made for daily use. The fact that the vehicles were dismantled helped their preservation. The wheel rim would have bent under the chariot's weight and been permanently deformed if the chariots weren't disassembled. This photo shows a recreation of Tut's tomb as it was discovered on Howard's expedition.

Dragged by two horses traveling at a speed of about 25 miles per hour, the chariots were used for hunting and fighting, but also symbolized the pharoah's grandeur. "They were the Ferrari of antiquity. They boasted an elegant design and an extremely sophisticated and astonishingly modern technology," Rovetta said. This photo shows a reconstruction of a painted box that features images of King Tut riding on his chariot.

King Tut's chariot consisted of a D-shaped platform, connected by a pole and a yoke, on which the pharaoh stood to drive the two horses. Supported by two wheels with a 2-meter-long (6.5-foot-long) axle in hard wood, the chariot is able to hold a static load of more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The chariot currently on display at the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit in New York's Discovery Times Square Exposition appears in this photo.

This close-up of the New York chariot shows the holes, which secured the strands of the floor mat, all along the D-bar. According to Bela Sandor, professor emeritus of engineering physics at University of Wisconsin at Madison, the bow-and-arrow construction of the D-frame and pole provide spring action and shock absorption during acceleration and deceleration. "There is no evidence of chariot racing from that era, but these chariots have many technical features that imply a pedigree based on racing," Sandor said.

The wheels were a key part in King Tut's chariot. "They feature a real tire, made of a flexible wood rim, which adapts to soil irregularities," said Rovetta.

The wheels have a hub, or nave, coupled on the axle of the chariot. Two vertical keys keep the wheel from falling off. The wheel could also be changed by one person in less than a minute.

Each wheel has six radial spokes, directed towards the center of wheel and toward the rim. “The spokes are made from elastic wood. This absorbs uniformly the loads transmitted by soil irregularity, so that the vibrations are damped by the wheel itself like the intelligent suspensions in modern cars," Rovetta said.

King Tut chariots appear to be the first mechanical systems which combine kinematics, dynamics and lubrication principles. "The bearings are built exploiting the modern principle of a hard material against a soft material, and by applying animal fat between the surfaces. The grease reduces friction and increases running duration," said Rovetta When set in motion, immediately after initial start-up, the friction between the wood of the bearing, the grease and the wood of the wheel pivot heat the grease. The grease then becomes partially fluid and ensures a dynamic support. Sandor also noted the importance of the axle being located at the back of the body and D-bar "The construction provides for the softest ride. Not all chariot makers understood this concept," Sandor said. Indeed, Greek, Roman and Celtic chariots normally had the axle at about the center of the body, making for a harsher ride. "On the whole, the Tut chariot is a marvel of optimized design," Sandor said.