Chariot Works

Received an e-mail from John Burke, president of the IGKT-NAB in early January, 2003. Said he had something coming up in Lexington, KY. Would I be interested? "Of course!" I said. Thinking it would be a trade show or something similar. Had my mind set on a warm show floor, plenty of people, etc. Well, his subsequent notes came back quite differently.

If you look in the Issue 75, June, 2002 Knotting Matters, there is an article entitled "Chariot Queen" by Richard Hopkins. He goes into detail as they built a replica of a chariot from 2300 years ago. How they had to use materials from that time period including rawhide, what they discovered as they built it, problems found, etc. The IGKT was brought in because the British Museum knew the chariot was lashed together using rawhide, (No nails or screws were found at the site.) but no one knew how the actual lashing was done. The IGKT was one of the few organizations that had any clue as to how to go about building a chariot using rawhide lashing.

John's note was about the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Ky. They're doing a show this year, "All the Queens Horses", - about the role of the horse in British history. I'm not sure of the details, but somewhere along the line, they were offered the chariot that was built and shown in Knotting Matters and owned by the British Museum. They also wanted to drive a chariot around the park. The British Museum sent over the head archaeologist (Anthony Spence) on the chariot project, the wheelwright who worked on it (Robert Hurford), along with their replica chariot built in England. The Horse Museum was allowed to borrow the original replica of the chariot but they couldn't have horses pull it around the park day-to-day. The Lexington museum would have to have local people build another chariot for use in the park. It was also hinted the IGKT would have local people who probably would be able to do the rawhide lashing.

John Burke, president of the local IGKT branch living in Michigan was contacted as the local representative. He was able to get Richard Wilcox from Kentucky, my brother John Dickey from Troy, Ohio, and myself. So I had to make copies of the article, ship it off to my brother, get packed, and head for Lexington. Took a day off from work and left in a fairly bad snowstorm. After picking up my brother who took over driving, a four and one half-hour trip took six hours but we arrived in Lexington tired and ready for the next day.

On Friday morning we went to the horse park and were treated to an abbreviated show about the archaeological dig, got to see the original chariot, and had the honor of speaking with Robert Hurford and Robert Spence. We had some discussions with them on how the chariot was built and how we would go about building the new one. Wasn't too nervous until someone shouted, "The knotting guys are here so we can start now!" I was looking around the room to see whom they were talking about when I figured out it was just the four of us. (You know you're in trouble when you look around the room and everyone is looking at you!)

It was explained in this meeting the chariot was a status symbol of the times. Only the very wealthy or very powerful would own such a piece of equipment. Similar to an expensive sports car or luxury car of today. So we were to use both practical knotting and lashing but should also use decorative knotting were appropriate. We had to keep this in mind as we worked on the chariot.

After the meeting, I was part of the group volunteered to help pull the chariot over to the wood working shop where the assembly on the new chariot was to take place. (Thought they had horses for that?) We put the chariot in the shop and took a look at what was available. Linda Bently who worked for the museum was to be our cordwainer and leather worker. The British Museum had given her measurements for the lengths of the rawhide we would need and she was busy cutting the first round of straps. (A cordwainer is a person who cuts leather into strips or thongs.)

While we waited for Jennifer Raisor with the museum staff and Robert Hurford to finish the painting of the body of the chariot, we started to work on the lattice flooring. Richard Wilcox was the most experienced leather worker, so he gave us an abbreviated leather course and we were off. We discovered that rawhide has a most peculiar odor, is slimy, and is unique with which to work. We started on the lattice flooring which was our baptism by fire.

Linda was having trouble cutting the rawhide the way we needed it and we found out the American rawhide had gone through some kind of preservation process. The British had been able to use a green rawhide, which shrank considerably after drying. Our rawhide worked differently from what was explained in the article. This also meant we couldn't rely upon the measurements given to us by the British Museum.

While we were busy pulling the rawhide out of one bucket of water, through the lattice frame, and dumping it into another bucket of water to keep it from drying, Linda was busy getting something that would work on cutting the rawhide. However the work went very well as we got used to working with the material.

After about three hours into the project, Linda finally got the tools she needed to cut the rawhide the way she wanted. Thereafter, if we told her we needed a piece forty feet long and one half inch wide, we got it. So the cordwainer's work picked up in speed which was quite a relief as we were concerned we would outstrip her ability to give us cord. Linda was relieved too. After finishing the latticework for the flooring of the chariot, we started on the main frame corners.

Some discussion ensued with Robert and Tony. They explained no one knows how this was done 2300 years ago and didn't want us to blindly follow what was done on the British chariot, as they weren't sure it was the best way of doing the work. How would we solve the same problems?

Prior to starting on the corners, we used some small cordage to estimate how much rawhide would be needed. We found that with some spot lashing with rope, we could estimate rather well how much was needed. Linda was very appreciative as she was expecting us to make unreasonable demands causing her to spend hours cutting what we wanted. It also reduced the amount of rawhide Linda needed to cut for the project.

On page 17 of the article it shows how the British did one of the four corners. They felt the original builders would have used pegs. By pulling against the pegs and the bottom of the frame, the lashing got very tight as it dried and the joint was stiffened enough to use. We were given a challenge by Tony of doing the lashing work without the comfort of having pegs. Tony indicated they didn't have quarter inch electric drills 2300 years ago with quick-change bits. Holes had to be drilled very carefully and possibly with bow drills. So they wouldn't have been as precise as our modern drills. The larger holes would have weakened the frame and probably weren't used. Much discussion, but we decided to use a constrictor knot to start, a clove hitch in the middle, and finish off with another constrictor knot. The starting constrictor knot seemed to hold very well and the pegs didn't seem to be as important as others had thought. Our work proceeded quickly with John Burke and Richard Wilcox doing the "master" lashing and my brother John and myself working as "apprentices". We tried to make all four corners look as closely alike as we could because we wanted it to appear as if one master Cartwright would have done the work versus four individual people. We also felt we weren't going too far out of line using the constrictor knot as it is a logical conversion of the clove hitch.

Work moved along at a very good pace. John and Rich would ask us to hold a wet, cold, slimy spaghetti like piece of rawhide while they concentrated on tying a knot. And my brother, John and I would tell them how delighted we were to have such an honor. At this time we resorted to using the modern day equivalents of 2300-year-old fids, knives, and pliers. Figured they had to have used something similar, as it was the only way to get the rawhide woven into place and lashed around the corners.

The lashing work we did on the chariot is different from the modern day Boy Scout lashing as you can't do wrapping and frapping. There isn't any way to frap so instead we wove the lacings together to give us more strength. It also caused the rawhide to tighten in upon itself and make a stronger bond. We found out we couldn't twist the rawhide as it would weaken the material and it wouldn't appear as neatly done on the finished product. So all lashing was done as a flat lashing. We did move it in a crisscross and weave pattern across the corner joint but were careful to keep the rawhide thong flat as we moved along. We felt this would make the joint stronger as it would be subjected to a lot of bouncing and twisting. As we finished the corners, we used constrictor hitches and left longer lengths on the end of the knots in case the rawhide shrank and pulled the ends back into the knot. But, fortunately, as the rawhide dried we found it tightened upon itself and didn't pull on the ends like we thought. With an overnight drying period, the rawhide got almost concrete hard and the joints were squeezed together very tightly.

Linda was well ahead in her cutting of material so we were able to finish our first day, Friday. We took the extra rawhide that we would use for the next day and put it still wet into plastic bags. It kept very well overnight this way.

Had quite a few strange looks in the elevator back at the hotel. As we pulled the rawhide out of one bucket of water through the latticework and dropped it into another bucket of water, we were splashed and ended the day with a unique smell. We were quite accustomed to it but apparently others were not. So as we traveled from floor to floor in the elevator at the hotel, people started moving away from us. However a quick change of clothes and a shower made us presentable for modern day society. We also discovered that the bacteria that nibbles on wet rawhide found human skin to be just as appealing. We started going though tubes of first aid cream in an effort to kill the bacteria and soothe our red, chapped hands.

The second day started with us finishing the center of the "Golden Arches". Upon checking the previous day's lashing, we found it had dried considerably and was getting very hard.

At this time we were able to do a division of labor as work could be done on several different areas at the same time. While John Burke and Richard worked on lashing the tongue to the frame, my brother John and I worked on other piecework.

In our inspection of the chariot made in the United Kingdom, we saw the ancient equivalent of the dual suspension system used on modern day automobiles. There was the "shock absorber" system made from rawhide. This formed a "Y" coming down from the rounded arches. It held the lattice work platform but also allowed it to "float" with minor bumps. The "leaf spring" heavier suspension system was made from quarter inch rope. Robert Hurford advised us they had tried a thicker rope in England but found it wouldn't go around the axle as well and tie down tightly. Taking his advice, we started work on the rope suspension system.

The British had made up a fairly complex piece of rope to do the heavier suspension system. It had four splices and was about ten feet long. There was a splice around a toggle at one end. An eye splice in a separate piece of rope that was then side spliced into the main rope. The other end of the main rope was then back spliced to give a nice finish to the end opposite the toggle. The rope was then hooked on to the frame with the toggle end and a piece of leather (not rawhide). It was wrapped around one of the suspension pieces of the lattice frame and brought back around the main frame again. This caused the eye of the eye splice to hang open and you could use the end of the rope to go through the eye and make something equivalent to a trucker's hitch. After it was sufficiently tightened, the rope was tied off with a rolling hitch. Quite an ingenious arrangement! It gave you the strength of rope, the flexibility needed for a suspension system, and an ability to change the tightness as needed for day-to-day conditions. I worked on these pieces of rope as John and Richard worked on attaching the axle to the frame.

The chariot makers in England had determined someone riding in the chariot would need something to hold onto as it sped along. The side arches weren't always convenient to use so they constructed a grip of rawhide tied with crown knots. We decided rawhide wouldn't give you as firm of a grip in wet conditions and used quarter inch rope instead. My brother, John crown knotted some rope into a foot and a half long piece about two inches thick. Knotting the crown knot in one direction gave the grip a spiral effect. It was finished with a button knot. Once again, we don't know if it was done that way on the original chariot but felt they would have had to do something for the second person riding in the chariot. But it did appear decorative.

In looking at the first replica built we also saw that a flat braid was used to make the "Y" suspension. Using a little engineering license, we decided on using a round braid to make the "Y" and then use the end pieces to make a crisscross wrap on the arches. We also put temporary pegs in the round braid so we could easily put in a leather toggle to pull the braid together and help suspend the lattice frame. We left the adjustment of the suspension system for later. The end pieces of the suspension braid were wrapped around the arches in a pattern similar to that used on sandals with long thongs that are wrapped up the leg. It gave a pleasing effect and made a pattern that would give a better grip on the arches.

Another discussion ensued about covering the arches after the rawhide was tied in place. The British used some small manila cordage and wrapped it in a pattern similar to that seen on railings of sailing ships. We felt this too was a good idea but also felt a simple pattern would have been used. Clipper ships in the late 1800's used three or more cords and did what was called Ring Bolt hitching or St. Mary's hitching. We felt a single piece of cordage would have been used with a single half hitch done on every turn. This wrapping is sometimes called French or Grapevine hitching and we felt it would closely match what was done on the original chariot. Since the cordage used was similar to hemp rope, this would give you a pleasing finish and at the same time give you something that could be gripped under wet conditions. Since this was also a fighting chariot, it probably would give you a firm grip during war conditions too. Meanwhile, John Burke and Richard continued lashing the axle to the frame. They also lashed the tongue to the axle and frame. Then lashed the horse harness to the front of the tongue. They did a twisted lashing on the front of the tongue and the horse harness to give a triangular support to the horse harness that would also strengthen the joint. As the horses pulled from side to side, quite a bit of strain would be put on this joint. The need for this extra lashing was discovered when horses pulled the original chariot during field trials in England. Once again, the work went fairly quickly and looked very neat. After two and one half days, we had completed a lot of the lashing, splicing and knotting work and my brother and I had to return to Ohio. We felt the work was about 90% done for the IGKT side of it and would leave the final painting and decoration to the museum staff. (A telephone conversation later with John Burke indicated they finished about noon on the fourth day. This gave us a total of three and one half days from start to finish with four people lashing, knotting, splicing, and one person cutting rawhide. )

Items to consider.

To our British counterparts I can only express admiration and respect. They did a tremendous job of putting together a piece of 2300-year-old technology with no instructions. Their work gave us the luxury of engaging in that favorite American past time, reverse engineering. We could walk over to their work, take a quick look and decide upon or next task. Sometimes we could engage in the luxury of saying, "Nah, don't think we'll do it that way." But sometimes we followed their lead as we felt it would have been done in a similar fashion 2300 years ago. Things we did differently are in no way a criticism of the British work as we were encouraged by Tony and Robert to make changes. We also had the luxury of having a greater amount of rawhide with which to work. Who's to say it was done one way or another 2300 years ago?

I can't thank the staff of the Kentucky Horse Park enough. It was wonderful working with such a supporting group. They gave us the run of the woodworking shop, kept snooping people out of the way, and gave us the time needed to get the job done. Without their help the project would never have been completed on time.

Our apologies to anyone who feels we imposed too much modern technology on this project. We had three days to complete the task as we had to return to work to earn a living. It would be nice to spend more time building a chariot and trying various lashing methods. But modern day economics intervene. Technology is expensive whether you are building a chariot or putting a man on the moon. So we had to balance between using an ancient technique or using 21st century know how to finish the project on time. Several jokes were made about the 2300-year-old knives, fids, and pliers that we used to complete the task at hand. You can even see them in some of the pictures!

Knots used on this project were, Constrictor Knot, Clove Hitch, Crown knot, a simple Button Knot, a Rolling Hitch for the suspension, and I think a few Half Hitches found their way into the work too. Splicing was done on three stranded rope. This was the toggle splice, eye splice, side splice, and the back splice. Round braiding was done on the "Y"s. Lashing was a flat lash with a weave effect to add strength. We didn't use the Overhand knot because it will jam and can't be controlled as well as the Constrictor Hitch. We tried not to add any knotting that wouldn't have been known during this time period. And we constantly tried to add decorative effects without adding knots not known until a later time period. That was the reason for the discussion about using French Hitching versus St. Mary's hitching. Our British counterparts had added three lead by multi-bight Turk's Head knots but we chose not to use them in this phase. However three lead multi-bight Turk's Head knots were added after the chariot was finsihed as frame decoration.

I was surprised at how easy it was to work in a master, apprentice situation. It seemed this was the best way to accomplish the task at hand. John Burke and Richard directed others to do a specific task for the moment and my brother John, and myself followed their lead. We broke into smaller groups to finish smaller tasks as the work progressed. This seemed to make the project flow smoothly and allowed us to move along very quickly.

I was surprised at how quietly the work progressed. No noise of screaming electric motors or bits cutting into wood. So we were able to carry on quite normal conversations as we worked. People could wander in, watch the work, ask questions, and talk in a conversational tone. We were able to tell jokes and keep in good spirits as we continued our tasks. In fact, the couple of times someone had to turn on a piece of woodworking equipment it seemed as though it was a very noisy and angry intrusion into our work. It was quite irritating to hear the scream of metal against wood.

I would also question how much rawhide lashing was needed to complete the job. Robert assured us it was quite strong, but I feel the ancients would have tied two to three times the amount of rawhide that we used onto the frame. Julius Caesar described these chariots being driven over small logs and I feel the ancients would had erred on the side of caution and would have built up the lashings to take very harsh punishment. Once again, time and money intervened and we had to go with what we had.

I also feel a different rope suspension system would have been used. The ancients could have used rope made out of horsehair, human hair, a blend of human and horsehair, braided leather, or a material similar to hemp. I feel if we could get horsehair rope it might tie differently and would change how we would do the heavier suspension system. Same for braided leather. I also don't feel a horsehair rope would have been able to be spliced like the modern day hemp rope so that would have forced us to use a different suspension technique.

I was also surprised at not needing modern clocks and watches. Modern day industry is obsessed with cutting down the time necessary to complete a task. Here, we knew the project to be done, concentrated on it, and didn't stop until that portion was done. The completion of the sub-project was more important than the time to finish it. Rawhide starts drying as soon as you take it out of water so you had to finish the task at hand before it dried and could no longer be used. So you rarely looked at a clock.

This project gave us an insight into a 2300-year-old culture. In thinking about how the culture worked, I was amazed at the amount of infrastructure needed to build a chariot. You would need farmers, butchers, leather workers, cordwainers, carpenters, knot workers, loggers to cut large timbers, artists, painters, a black smith, iron workers, bronze workers, wheelwrights, roads, horses, some kind of barter or trade system, some one to cook and supply food, and a plethora of other things to build such a vehicle. I don't know if the Cartwright trade existed at this time, but our work pointed out that it was a necessary profession. Several times I've heard people describe this as "primitive" technology, but I am amazed at how complex this "primitive" technology really was. Especially with the tools and materials they had at hand.

We also felt economics would have come into play 2300 years ago the same as for the present. Quite often we were forced to think of what would have been done if we were living in an iron-age village using iron-age tools and resources. Were the British right in using less rawhide? Would the village be able to afford the loss of two or three cattle just to make one chariot? What would we have done if we had limited resources in our rope supplies? I would imagine that horse hair rope, human hair rope, braided leather rope, or a rope similar to hemp would have been very expensive in the Iron Age as compared to the cost of modern rope. We know St. Mary's hitching wasn't used as frequently until rope became a fairly inexpensive item. So would the cost of more expensive materials have forced the Iron Age people to use less resources and to make the chariot differently? Perhaps more time and money will tell.

I would like to see a university take up the torch and continue with studies into how the chariot could have been made and how it functions. I feel there is a lot to be learned from the work done so far. Of course, once again, modern day economics prevail and decisions have to be made that will get the best return for money spent. So it may happen that no further research is done.


People working on this project were as follows: Tony Spence, the British Museum, England. Robert Hurford, master wheelwright, England. IGKT members: John Burke, Michigan. Glenn and John Dickey, Ohio. Richard Wilcox, Kentucky. Linda Bently and Jennifer Raisor of the Horse Museum staff. Cindy Wilcox, Richard's wife was our "go for" executive. Richard Wilcox's immediate and extended family was able to stop by, see our work in progress, drop off a tremendous meal, and offer support.

This was a once in a lifetime event. I don't regret one second spent helping the build the chariot. I was happy to contribute more than "just holding a flashlight" to this project. It will be a fondly remembered life long memory. I was honored to have worked on this project and with the people involved.

Glenn Dickey - IGKT-NAB - 2003

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