Extraordinary discovery: 2,700-year-old horse saddle found in Chinese tomb

Archaeologists unearthed the oldest leather horse saddle, dating back up to 2,700 years, in northwestern China's Turpan Basin.
Kavita Verma
The saddle, which was discovered in the tomb of a lady from the pastoralist Subeixi culture, was placed such that it appeared as though she were riding it.
The saddle, which was discovered in the tomb of a lady from the pastoralist Subeixi culture, was placed such that it appeared as though she were riding it.

Patrick Wertmann 

An intricately manufactured leather horse saddle, thought to be the oldest ever discovered, was uncovered by archaeologists in northwest China. The saddle was discovered in a woman's tomb in a Yanghai cemetery in the Turpan Basin of China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The saddle has been miraculously kept in the dry desert for up to 2,700 years. 

The woman was clad in a hide coat, woolen trousers, and short leather boots, according to a study in the journal Archaeological Research in Asia on May 23. The saddle was also put on her buttocks as if she was sitting on it.

Historical significance of the saddle

The saddle, which consists of two cowhide cushions stuffed with a mixture of straw, deer, and camel hair, was made between 724 and 396 B.C., according to radiocarbon dating. Since the Scythians were horse riders who lived as nomads in the western and central Eurasian Steppe and interacted with the ancient Greeks and Romans, their saddles may be older than we know today.

Previous research reveals that the oldest Scythian saddles originated in the Altai Mountains region of Russian Siberia and eastern Kazakhstan between the fifth and third century B.C. The Yanghai saddle lies at the start of the history of saddle manufacture, according to Patrick Wertmann, the study's primary author and an archaeologist at the University of Zurich.

The Subeixi culture, which lived in the Turpan Basin about 3,000 years ago, is thought to have built the tombs in Yanghai. The Subeixi were the local pastoralists in charge of herding the animals. 

The well-preserved saddle's discovery sheds important light on the evolution of equestrian culture. According to current research, horses may have been domesticated as herd animals as long as 6,000 years ago, primarily for their milk and flesh. 

Horseback riding, however, probably did not start until some 1,000 years later. Assyrian carvings from the seventh century B.C. show the earliest riders utilized mats strapped to the horses' backs.

The role of women in horse-riding

The discovery defies conventional historical narratives that only depict privileged males engaged in conflict as riding horses. The woman buried with the saddle, representing the Subeixi culture, resembles Scythian armor, horse equipment, and clothing strikingly. 

The Subeixi were pastoralists as opposed to the Scythians, who were nomads. This implies that women actively engaged in the herding, traveling, and other daily tasks of mounted pastoralists. 

The woman's seated position on the saddle shows she was a rider. The finding strongly supports a more comprehensive understanding of women's roles in prehistoric horse-riding cultures.

This amazing discovery might open the door to other findings in the area. The Yanghai saddle is in excellent condition, which raises the idea that there may be more, possibly even older, saddles nearby. 

The study emphasizes how crucial archaeology is in redefining our comprehension of past civilizations and upending preconceived notions of history.

Study Abstract: 

The invention of the saddle substantially improved horseback-riding, which not only revolutionized warfare, but also eased long-distance speedy movement across Eurasia. Here we present the first detailed construction analysis and absolute age determination of a well-preserved soft leather saddle recovered from the tomb of a female deceased at the Yanghai cemetery site in the Turfan Basin at the eastern end of the Tian Shan mountains. Compared with the oldest known saddle from the Scythian Pazyryk culture site Tuekta barrow no. 1 (430–420 BCE) in north-western Altai, the Yanghai specimen radiocarbon dated to 727–396 BCE (95.4% probability range) is contemporaneous or possibly older. The saddle features the basic elements of soft saddle construction that are still used today: two stuffed, wing-shaped hides sewn together along the outer edges and separated by a central gullet-like spacer and lens-shaped support elements, resembling knee and thigh rolls of modern saddles. Being a masterful piece of leather- and needlework, it is, however, less complex compared to Scythian saddles from the 5th–3rd centuries BCE. Another specimen from nearby Subeixi site, which is also described in detail for the first time in the present study, much closer resembles the Pazyryk saddles in shape, size and structure. In Yanghai, equestrian paraphernalia appear in the grave assemblages during the entire burial period (ca. 1300 BCE to 200 CE), although in higher numbers only from ca. 300 BCE. In the same way, the burial of horses was not common until then. Despite the generally very good preservation of leather, only two saddles were discovered in Yanghai which makes them an exception rather than the norm and raises the question of whether these saddles were acquired from more specialized horse breeders, riders, and saddlers in the North.