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Mongolia|science|December 15, 2023 / 09:56 AM
Fifth century saddle discovered in Mongolia

AKIPRESS.COM - A wooden frame saddle with iron stirrups that was stunningly preserved in an ancient tomb in Mongolia may be the oldest of its kind. The saddle could give archaeologists clues to the origins of medieval mounted warfare, Live Science reports.

In a study published in the journal Antiquity on December 8, an international team of archaeologists described the painted saddle, which was previously looted from a cave burial. Radiocarbon dating of the human remains in the tomb and a sample of the horsehide saddle indicate it dates to around 420 A.D., making it the oldest known frame saddle in the world.

"Our study raises the possibility that the Eastern Steppe played a key role in the early development and spread of the frame saddle and stirrup," the researchers wrote in their paper.

Modern horses were first domesticated around 2000 B.C. in Western and Central Asia, and nomadic riders quickly used them to support their mobile lifestyle. Early equestrianism was essentially bareback, as riders armed with bows and arrows gripped the horse with their legs while holding onto the horse’s mane, the researchers noted. Within a few centuries, people roaming the northern steppes invented the bridle and bit, and they shifted to mounted riding on a soft pad around 1000 B.C.

But rigid saddles complete with stirrups —  an important part of cavalry equipment —  are a much more recent invention.  Direct evidence for when they originated has eluded archaeologists because organic material does not always preserve well in the harsh climate of the steppe.

In 2015, police notified archaeologists at the National Museum of Mongolia that a cave burial at Urd Ulaan Uneet, near the province of Khovd in the western part of the country, had been looted. The police confiscated several artifacts, including a birch saddle painted black and red with leather straps on either side, an iron bit, wooden archery equipment and mummified horse remains. They also took possession of the bones of a man who was buried wearing sheep- and badger-hide clothing. The tomb quickly became known as the "cave of the equestrian."

Study author William Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Live Science that "developing a rigid frame that could support a suspended stirrup was a watershed moment, really unlocking a whole host of other things people could do while mounted." For example, a rider could use them for stability and standing up, freeing up the rider's upper body for delivering blows while on the horse and giving them a major advantage in mounted warfare.

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