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Thursday, December 10, 2020

ANE TODAY - 202012 - Nefertiti on Her Chariot - The Female Use of Chariots in Ancient Egypt -

Nefertiti on Her Chariot – The Female Use of Chariots in Ancient Egypt

By Heidi Köpp-Junk


The Egyptian chariot was used for warfare, hunting, and sports. It was the favorite mode of locomotion for the New Kingdom elite in the private as well as public context. But did this include women?

In most cases, men are shown on chariots, but there is also evidence for women that significantly increases during Akhenaten's reign (ca. 1353-1136 BCE). Rare textual and pictorial evidence for women using chariots demonstrate that they employed the same means of transport as men. But representations of Queen Nefertiti are the oldest examples of a woman alone on a chariot.

The earliest evidence for Egyptian chariots dates to Dynasty 17, when it replaced the sedan chair as the elite's most prestigious means of locomotion. Chariots are designed to be fast and may reach a speed of about 38 km/h. This allowed for the first time an experience of speed: until then travel on foot, by palanquin or by donkey could only reach 4-6 km/h. This explains the popularity of the chariot in the civil sector: it functioned like a modern sports car.

The Egyptian chariot was equipped with two wheels of about 1.0 m in diameter and 4-8 spokes. It had a weight of only 24 kg and its treads are merely 2 cm wide. The fragility of the outer rim and tread are the crucial factors: the thinner the tread, the greater the force affecting the tread per square centimeter of the contact area. Therefore, cross-country driving was only possible on roads and paths or in appropriate terrain, not on rough ground interspersed with big stones.

It was once assumed that the Hyksos brought the chariot to Egypt, but there is no explicit evidence. For example, there are no archaeological traces of chariots found in the Hyksos capital Avaris. A closer look at the textual, archaeological, and iconographic sources reveals that Egyptians and Hyksos used them at the same time, since they occur in texts dealing with the battles between the two. From a tactical military point of view, this is extremely important, as one should avoid at all costs being technically inferior to the opponent.

The earliest inscription mentioning a chariot, written on the so-called second Kamose Stela (1554-1550 BCE), dates to Dynasty 17 and refers to a chariot used by the Hyksos. The biography of Ahmose, son of Abana, of a slightly later date, reports on an Egyptian chariot. The earliest depictions are attested in the Ahmose complex at Abydos from the beginning of Dynasty 18 (1550 BCE). Over time, the number of documents increases significantly, but decreases again about 1000 BCE.

At the beginning of the Amarna Period, the Egyptian chariot was an essential weapon and already the annals of Thutmose III attest to its central importance. However, apart from the prominent use of the chariot during war, it is also documented in other contexts like hunting, sports, and as a profane means of locomotion. In most cases, men are depicted on chariots and also mentioned in texts. But from Dynasty 18 through Greco-Roman Period there are also texts and representations that associate women such as ladies-in-waiting, princesses, queens, and goddesses with chariots. Their total number is small, but within this small group a significant increase during the reigns of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun is tangible.

Egyptian Chariot with plumes and golden disc, temple of Ramesses II, Abydos. (Photo: H. Köpp-Junk)
The king on his chariot with a khepesh sword in his hand, Karnak Temple. (Photo: H. Köpp-Junk)
Any riding a chariot. 18th dynasty.
One of six dismantled chariots discovered in the antechamber of Tutankhamun's tomb.

In the following, the evidence for this is presented in chronological order.

In Dynasty 18, the goddess Astarte is mentioned on the outside of the chariot box of Thutmose IV (1397-1388 BCE). In the tomb of Panehesi in Amarna from the reign of Akhenaten (1351-1334 BCE), Nefertiti and her husband appear alone on their chariots, followed by four princesses on two chariots, two girls per vehicle with one of them holding the reigns. The scene also shows pairs of ladies-in-waiting on a chariot, driven by a charioteer.

A similar scene is attested in the tomb of Merira I, in both tombs Nefertiti is depicted alone on her chariot. In three scenes from the tombs of Mahu and Ahmes at Amarna, Akhenaten and Nefertiti are pictured together with a daughter in a chariot.

Nefertiti and Akhenaten on their chariot, tomb of Merira I at Amarna, Dynasty 18. (after Davies, N., The Rock Tombs of El Amarna Part II. The Tombs of Panehesy and Meryra 2. London 1905, pl. 13).
Nefertiti alone on her chariot, tomb of Merira I at Amarna, Dynasty 18. (after Davies, N., The Rock Tombs of El Amarna Part I. The Tomb of Meryra. London 1903, pl. 17).
Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and a daughter together on a chariot, tomb of Ahmes, Dynasty 18. (after Davies, N., The Rock Tombs of El Amarna Part III. The Tombs of Huya and Ahmes. London 1905, pl. 32).

Moreover, scenes on standardized construction blocks or Talatat show Nefertiti and Akhenaten together on a chariot or Nefertiti accompanied by a charioteer on a chariot. On other blocks, pairs of ladies-in-waiting appear, driven by a male.

A very unusual scene in the tomb of Huy from the time of Tutankhamun (1333-1323 BCE) depicts a Nubian princess on a chariot accompanied by a chariot driver. The scene is not only uncommon because of the woman, but because the chariot is drawn by oxen instead of horses. Moreover, there is textual evidence from three inscriptions on the chariots B and C from the tomb of Tutankhamun, in which his wife Ankhesenamun is mentioned. She is interpreted as a "co-user" of the chariots and the inscriptions as a textual counterpart to the aforementioned Amarna-era representations, which show the king and the queen with their daughters on a family outing with chariots.

In the literary text of the "Tale of the two Brothers" from Dynasty 19 (1292-1186 BCE) a woman driving a chariot is mentioned. On an ostracon from Dynasty 20, a woman with her driver is even depicted in a martial context. She is armed with bow and arrow and represented firing arrows at a man on a chariot who drives towards her. She is interpreted as a queen, possibly Tausret, or the goddess Astarte.

After the end of the New Kingdom, the evidence for chariots per se decreases significantly. A unique example of a woman on a chariot is shown in the Edfu temple from Ptolemaic times, depicting a leonine headed goddess standing on a chariot, resembling Sekhmet, yet identified as Astarte by the accompanying inscriptions.

The iconographic and textual evidence of women on chariots reveals they are almost all of a "private" nature; except for the scene on the ostracon, they do not show a martial context. In contrast, most representations most male chariot users are shown in a military context. Women on chariots use the typical means of transport for their social class in the New Kingdom. The use of the chariot was apparently not gender-specific. This contrasts for example with the European Middle Ages, when travelling in a wagon was considered as inappropriate for men and reserved for women, while men travelled on horseback. In Egypt, there were apparently no gender-related restrictions on the use of chariots. The iconographic and textual evidence for women on chariots is certainly an exception, but only in terms of their rarity, not because of the choice of means of transport.

As mentioned above, the iconographic and textual evidence of women on chariots accumulates drastically in the Amarna Period. Nefertiti is pictured on a chariot either alone or with one or two companions. She is therefore the earliest known woman represented alone on a chariot, and until the Greco-Roman Period she remains the only woman and queen to have been shown alone on a chariot in a civil context.

The ladies-in-waiting and princesses are always portrayed riding in pairs on the chariot. While the princesses could also act as a driver, ladies-in-waiting are always accompanied by a charioteer. Moreover, the ladies-in-waiting appear in connection with the royal family's outings on a chariot, never in other scenes. The conspicuous increase of evidence in the Amarna Period is directly related to the special position of royal women at this time. In particular the outstanding position of Nefertiti, appearing alone on the chariot, shows her as Akhenaten's counterpart, as is also known from numerous ritual scenes and textual evidence of this period.


Heidi Köpp-Junk is on the staff of the Federal State Museum for Prehistory Halle/Saale.

For further reading:

Köpp-Junk, Heidi. "The chariot as a mode of locomotion in civil contexts," in Veldmeijer, A., Ikram, S. (eds.) Chasing Chariots. Proceedings of the first international chariot conference (Cairo 2012). Leiden 2013, 131-142.
Köpp-Junk, Heidi. "Wagons and carts and their significance in Ancient Egypt," Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 9 (June 2016), 14-58.

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