An ancient horse burial discovered south of modern-day Egypt has provided fresh insights into the remarkable relationship that existed between horses and humans more than 3000 years ago.
The horse remains, complete with remnants of its chestnut coat on one of its hocks, were found in 2011 in a tomb at Tombos along the Nile River Valley in what is modern-day Sudan.
The elaborate treatment of the horse before its burial reveals that horses were more important to the local culture of the time than previously thought.
The research findings are published in Antiquity, and reported by the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Purdue University professor of anthropology Michele Buzon, and former student Sarah Schrader played a part in the excavation and analysis.
The horse is dated to the Third Intermediate Period, 1050-728 BC, at the time of the Nubian Kushite state that existed beyond the southern border of Egypt.
It was entombed more than five feet underground and had been buried in a funeral position with a burial shroud.
“It was clear that the horse was an intentional burial, which was super fascinating,” said Buzon, a professor of anthropology.
“Remnants of fabric on the hooves indicate the presence of a burial shroud. Changes on the bones and iron pieces of a bridle suggest that the horse may have pulled a chariot. We hadn’t found anything like this in our previous excavations at Tombos. Animal remains are very rare at the site.”
Buzon, a bioarchaeologist, has worked with Stuart Tyson Smith, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for 18 years at the Tombos site. Both are principal investigators on the project.
Buzon uses health and cultural evidence from more than 3000-year-old burial sites to understand the lives of Nubians and Egyptians during the New Kingdom Empire. This is when Egyptians colonized the area in about 1500 BC to gain access to trade routes on the Nile River.
Over the years, hundreds of artifacts, including pottery, tools, carvings and dishes were unearthed at this burial site for about 200 individuals.
“Finding the horse was unexpected,” Schrader says.
“Initially, we weren’t sure if it was modern or not. But as we slowly uncovered the remains, we began to find artifacts associated with the horse, such as the scarab, the shroud and the iron cheekpiece. At that point, we realized how significant this find was.
“Of course, we became even more excited when the carbon-14 dates were assessed and confirmed how old the horse was.”
Schrader, who graduated from Purdue in 2013 with a doctoral degree in anthropology, is an assistant professor of human osteoarchaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She helped frame the find within the context of Nubian history.
Once the archaeologists discovered the horse, Sandra Olsen, curator-in-charge at the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas and a well-known ancient horse expert, was invited to Purdue to analyze the horse skeleton.
Buzon coordinated the analysis between the team, and she established the chronology of the horse via radiocarbon dating.
“The horse was treated well in life, seeing as how it lived to a mature age,” Schrader said.
“It also was important to the people of ancient Tombos because it was buried – a rite that is usually reserved for humans.
“Furthermore, the fact that one of the earliest pieces of iron from Africa was found in association with the horse reiterates how special it was to the people.
“It is also important to assess the context of Tombos with regard to the horse – the horse is an important and rare find. The fact that it is buried at Tombos indicates that this town may have served an important function in the post-colonial Napatan Period.”
Stuart Tyson Smith said the discovery of the horse had been a complete surprise.
Smith and his colleagues had been excavating a tomb in what was Upper Nubia to understand the history of what had been an ancient village on the fringes of Egyptian dominance.
But rather than finding mummified human remains, they unearthed the horse skeleton.
“I was not expecting to find that. We had this nice pyramid tomb and we were going down the shaft expecting to find a few human burials, and there we were about half-way down the shaft and here’s this horse.”
The horse turned out to be much more than an unexpected oddity.
The researchers argue in their paper that the horse represented a shift away from Egyptian governance and towards a Kushite rule in which the animal was embraced as central to the state’s identity.
“One of the interesting things about our horse is that it foreshadows the later development where these Nubian kings are really into horses,” Smith said.
Indeed, when the Kushite king Piankhi put down a rebellion in northern Egypt, he was said to be enraged that his horses there had been starved in his absence. “His complaint was not that they had rebelled against him, but they had mistreated his horses,” he said.
Using radiocarbon testing, the Tombos horse was dated to about 950 BC, when the Kushites of Nubia took advantage of strife in Egypt to coalesce into a political, economic and military power.
The horse was buried about 100 years after the colony began to break away in 1070 BC.
The burial, Smith said, was a new development in the village at the Third Cataract of the Nile. Buried in an older tomb that had been adapted for the task, the horse was laid to rest in sacred ground.
“It’s gorgeous, and the bones are a nice, rich brown color that you don’t see in other contemporary horse burials,” Smith noted.
“All the pieces are there, everything’s intact. It even had some fur left on it. As a result, because of the preservation, it’s one of the most complete skeletons, and best preserved, of any of these early horses that have been found in northeast Africa.”
The Tombos horse, which was determined to be female, was carefully lain on its side. Close inspection of the skeleton also revealed it suffered from arthritis and degeneration associated with wearing a chariot saddle harness. Curiously, Egyptian art always depicted chariot horses as stallions.
“It makes a certain amount of sense that they would emphasize stallions in the art,” Smith said, “because they’re fierce in warfare and that sort of thing. But it is interesting that in reality they were using mares as well. It’s just that the artwork emphasizes the stallion as the pre-eminent chariot horse.”
Among the more intriguing items found with the horse was the piece of iron that Smith said radiocarbon testing dates to around 950 BC.
“This is a very early date for iron,” he noted. “For a long time people had thought that iron production in Nubia really didn’t ramp up until about 500 BC.”
Smith, who owns a horse, said he quickly recognized the artifact as a cheek piece for a bridle, and co-author Olson has since confirmed the assessment. “It’s rare to find iron like that in a good context,” he said, “where you can really pin the date down.
“It also counters the narrative that Nubians were backwards somehow, that anything good they got they got from Egypt,” he continued.
“But they seem to have been going out and seizing what they needed. They had the latest military technology in the form of iron weaponry like we found, but also these iron trappings from the horse.”
Smith and Buzon have been excavating Tombos, just east of the Nile River in Sudan, since 2000. It was founded by the Egyptians as an administrative center in Nubia around 1450 BC.
Their work there has unraveled what they term “cultural entanglement,” the process by which colonizing powers and indigenous people influence one another and change over time.
“You can see this long, entangled history of the horse weaving its way through all these different cultures until it comes to Nubia,” Smith said. “But then, horses were important in Egypt, but we have very few horse burials there. If it was a widespread practice you’d expect to see more of them.”
The Nubians, who would conquer Egypt and establish the Kushite Dynasty in 728 BC, proved to be adept at adapting Egyptian practices and technology and making them their own.
“For Nubians, they really elaborated on Egyptian materials and practices in a way that you don’t see in Egypt,” Smith said. “That’s the case with a lot of these features that Nubians were borrowing. They often take something they really like, like horses, and they make it much more elaborate, through ritualized burial, than the examples that you have in Egypt.”
Lead author Schrader focuses her research on bioarchaeological reconstruction; Olsen, of the University of Kansas, specializes in the history of horse domestication; and Tombos project co-director Buzon focuses her research on bioarchaeology.
The excavation was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation; the National Geographic Society; University of California, Santa Barbara; Purdue and the Schiff-Giorgini Foundation. The excavation and research also were supported by El Hassan Ahmed, director of fieldwork at the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums.
Symbolic equids and Kushite state formation: a horse burial at Tombos
Sarah A. Schrader, Stuart Tyson Smith, Sandra Olsen and Michele Buzon