Asses, Horses, Bits, and Chariots

Disclaimer: Like I said in class last week, I am generally very comfortable talking about sex. I want to study reproductive physiology in graduate school, and a prerequisite for studying in that area is the ability to say the words penis and vagina in any situation without flinching. I’m not trying to be vulgar or flippant, I just think it is easier to talk about something directly than to skirt around the topic.

Discussion questions are bold-ed throughout. Apologies to Erica for stealing this excellent format. Alex is my co-discussion leader–his blog should have additional questions.

I am not sure why Bulliet is so enthused about beastiality. Perhaps enthused is the wrong word, but it keeps coming back up. Honestly, from Bulliet’s descriptions in this section of the reading, it sounds as though beastiality really was not frowned upon in the same way it is today. Particularly compelling was his description of the Greek myth involving the girl who fell in love with Lucius in his donkey form and is disappointed when he returns to his man form. This would not be OK in our society. Why do you think that beastiality was so much more acceptable then than it is now? Bulliet would say that it was due entirely to the close proximity in which humans and animals lived. Do you agree? Do you have other ideas?

They penis, especially the donkey penis, was apparently a very powerful symbol. My first thought about why this might be related to the size of a donkey penis–it is as long and thick as a child’s arm. However, in ancient Greek art, people are often depicted with very small penises, presumably because was thought of as good. Why were donkey penises so important? Why was the penis such a powerful symbol? We laugh about phallic imagry today, but is the penis still also an important symbol in our society?  For some excellent wikipedia-ing, go to this page. Slightly, but not exactly, relevant to this course and really weird and hilarious reading.

Bulliet postulates that donkeys may originally have been domesticated for religious purposes or because of some sort of religious regard. Although initially I thought that this was absurd, it is indeed the case that cattle, sheep, and goats are better sources of meat and milk that donkeys are. Additionally, Bulliet suggests that you wouldn’t want to use an undomesticated animal as a beast of burden–strapping your valuables to it, only to have it run off. This argument is compelling, but it is the case that (even today) draft animals are trained by harnessing them to something so heavy that they cannot run off. Donkeys could have originally been tamed in this way. How reasonable is the theory that donkeys were tamed and them domesticated for religious reasons? Do you have an alternate theory?

Donkeys were regarded well and even respected and worshiped in ancient history. However, by the time that Shakespeare was writing his famous plays, the idea of the “dumb ass” has appeared. Why did this idea appear and what has caused it to persist?

Ah, the utility of categories. According to David W. Anthony in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, archaeologists can’t exactly agree on when the Bronze Age started, but generally think that it started in different places at different times. Later in chapter 7, Anthony discusses horizons. A horizon is a very broad trend, such as the t-shirt-and-jeans trend begining in the 1960s and 70s. Do we need “Bronze Age” (or other categories) as a classification? Why is it useful to classify historical eras in this way, if we can’t classify them across the board or agree on exactly how we ought to classify them? Are horizons more useful than absolute categories?

Radiocarbon dating revolutionized the study of ancient anthropology and archaeology, but also was met with much uncertainty and mistrust, because modifications and improvements in the procedure could (and did, on a couple of occasions) prove all previous results results incorrect. I had never really thought, before, about how historians feel about using various scientific technologies. As a scientist (or at least, a “wanna-be”!), I am used to the idea that a new technology–one that could dramatically change my field and even the significance of many earlier studies–could appear at basically any time. However, unless I am wildly mistaken, historians work with fairly reliable and unchanging resources (basically, stuff that has already happened) and could find a new scientific technology to be very untrustworthy and unpredictable. Not a criticism in either direction, just a thought I had. What does this mean for interdisciplinarity? Where else do you think that science and history can benefit from working together?

And now, we reach the portion of the reading that is highly relevant to my own interests: the domestication of the horse, for riding. Imagine the thought process of those first riders. What would it be like to get on a horse (a very fast, strong animal), for the very first time, when no one had eve done it before? Could that horse have been compromised in some way (injured or ill), to keep it from running away? Anthony was the first person to seriously study bit-wear patterns on horses teeth as a way of determining when riding originated. Initially, he was told that a properly fitting bit would not affect tooth wear at all. However, he pursued the idea further and found that there are distinctive patterns of tooth wear for horses that have been bitted regularly and, in fact, even soft bits made of materials like leather and hemp create wear patterns.

(Relevant only to my own interests: I would have loved to be involved in the portion of the study in which wear pattern on horses bitted with soft bits was examined. Four horses were ridden exclusively in 4 different non-metal bits for 150 hours each. Soft bit are not used in any modern riding disciplines. The horse trainer in my asks: how did the training process work? How did the horses respond? was it easier to to get these horses to “go in a frame”–or work with their necks and backs arched and noses tucked in–than it generally is? We don’t have to discuss these in class, but I think that they are interesting questions.)

My main concern about this system is that it assumes that the first horses ridden were ridden with some sort of bit. Riding horses with no bit, in a type of bridle known as a hackamore, is very common, even today, in many disciplines. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that it is much easier to teach a young horse the basics of steering and stopping with a rider aboard in a hackamore. However, the goals of early riding were probably very different than those today. Horses were certainly less tame and control was a higher priority than cooperation. However, as Anthony states, lack of bit wear patterns really say nothing about whether riding occurred. What did you all think about the bit wear patterns? What do you think about this type of measure–a measure that only tells you when something did happen, and not when something did not happen?

I saw many parallels between the domestication of horses and the domestication of reindeer. Did you all see these parallels? Why might this pattern of riding the animals you eat have appears in reindeer and horses, but not in the other large (ride-able) domesticates?

Anthony explains a theory of the original domestication of horses (for food) based upon genetic data. This theory suggests that the original population of domesticated horses originated from a population with one single foundation stallion and 70-80 mares. What do you think of this theory? Does it make sense based upon the logistics of keeping and breeding horses?

Behavior and temperament are highly heritable in horses (I speak from personal experience and from knowledge gained in genetics courses in my major). Additionally, stallions (even modern, domesticated ones) are really a pain to deal with. Therefore, I do not find the idea that people would only have kept a single, docile stallion and bred him to many mares to be a particularly surprising one. This begs the question, when did castration of horses appear? How did it revolutionize horse breeding? Geldings (castrated male horses) are well known today as the easiest-going, most trainable riding and driving horses.

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about chariots and driving, discussed in the final chapter. We can only assume that chariots came about after horses were used to pull heavy loads, because horses are prey animals and will run away from something that they perceive is chasing them–like a large, clattering chariot, fast-moving chariot–until they get used to it. As I discussed above, an effective strategy for training horses to pull is to hitch them to to something too heavy to move. Were the first chariot horses also draft horses that were used to pulling loads? What was the advantage of the chariot over riding?

 

Also, here‘s one of my favorite poems. It’s about learning to ride, but it could almost be about getting on a horse for the very first time.

2 thoughts on “Asses, Horses, Bits, and Chariots

  1. There’s so much here for us to talk about! For now, a quick comment on horizons — yes, they are most useful and quite necessary. Going back to the earlier discussion we had about “progress,” the concept of a chronological and developmental horizon helps make meaningful comparisons about change that is variable and influenced by specific local conditions. If we think that there is “A Bronze Age” that happened in one place at one time, then all other cultures must be “backward” or “aberrant” if they don’t look just so at the right time.

  2. I’m probably going to say something idiotic (I cede authority on this subject to you), but haven’t the animal riding parallels also appeared in other domesticates? A quick check through Wikipedia shows this situation could also have played out with the Camel. And the donkey seems to have a similar story as well. Beyond that, I’m not sure there are any other ‘ride-able’ domesticates. Smaller camels, like the Llama, seem too small; cows are too…..cow-ish.

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