THE EQUESTRIAN'S CAVE
Archaeology|September/October 2021
Recent discoveries in western Mongolia suggest that nomadic horsemen may have invented a revolutionary technology
Eric A. Powell

This wooden saddle (below) was found with a third-century a.d. burial of a nomadic equestrian in Mongolia. A leather strap, to the left, threaded through an opening in the saddle may be the earliest evidence for riding stirrups. An iron bit (below, right) with antler cheekpieces was also found in the cave.

SIX YEARS AGO, POLICE in Mongolia’s western Khovd Province apprehended looters in possession of a set of unusual artifacts. The group had taken a birch saddle, an iron bit with antler cheekpieces, and wooden archery equipment from an ancient coffin tucked into a cave on a mountain known as Urd Ulaan Uneet in the Altai range. Suspecting the objects were historically significant, the police contacted archaeologist Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan of the National Museum of Mongolia. Bayarsaikhan knew examples of ancient horse tack are very rare, so he and his team made the trip to far western Mongolia to collect the objects and study the site. He was immediately impressed by the saddle, which was painted deep red with black trim. “It looks like it could have been ridden yesterday,” Bayarsaikhan says. At Urd Ulaan Uneet, the team recovered the remains of a man and his clothing, including sheep- and badger-hide jackets and a pair of sheep-hide pants. They also found the mummified remains of a horse that was likely interred with the man in a ritual practice known as a “head and hoof” burial that has been typical of steppe people in Eurasia for millennia. The horse was a chestnut with ear tags, or notches, which were used by nomadic people to mark their mounts.

During his life, the man who saddled the horse was a nomad who depended on his mount for his livelihood, as people in Mongolia had since the domesticated horse had arrived in the region around 1200 b.c. That much was clear. But radiocarbon dating of his remains to the third century a.d. seemed at odds with what the researchers learned about the saddle. Bayarsaikhan’s analysis revealed that it is a sophisticated type known as a frame saddle. It is composed of a frame carved from a single piece of wood—called a saddletree—a pommel, and a cantle, or backrest. Both pommel and cantle consist of two halves joined by wooden nails and attached to the saddletree with strips of leather. The team was especially intrigued by two large leather straps that were threaded through openings on either side of the saddletree. “We know from saddles dating to centuries later that straps identical to these were used to secure stirrups,” says Bayarsaikhan.

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