These photographs are displayed at a reduced scale (426 x 217 pixels) to fit on the web page, with a resultant loss of image quality. The details of the chariot are best seen in the high-resolution enlargements of the photos:
The pictures on this page are high-resolution photographic reconstructions for two of the damaged chariots displayed on the Standard of Ur. Of the four chariots depicted in the bottom register (row) of the standard, the chariot shown above was the only one that is usable in its present condition, even though it is also heavily damaged. This is the first time in more than 4,400 years that the chariots can be seen the way they looked when new.
To get some idea of the magnitude of these high-resolution photographs: Each chariot and team of horses on the Standard of Ur is a little over 4 inches long and 2 inches high; which is coincidentally the same size as the picture seen above. If the high-resolution photograph of chariot #1 was printed to full scale, at 100 pixels per inch, it would be 26.6 by 13.6 inches, more than six times larger than the original image of the chariot.
I did a few minor touch-ups to repair some, but not all, of the damage done to the figures. This damage is both ancient and modern (when the photographs are seen in high-resolution, there is a surprising number of blobs of modern bitumen on the standard). Perhaps the most noticeable change is the restoration of the horse heads. The originals were too damaged to reconstruct using Microsoft Paint, so I simply replaced them with the horse heads from the king’s chariot shown in the top register (after some re-sizing and re-coloration). I say "simply", but it took all day to do it. At first I had the horse heads tilted slightly more forward than the original. Normally this would be just a minor detail, but there's a reason why the artist has the horse heads tilted back. It's to show that the horses are being held back by the reins. The chariot attack starts slowly, the horses are walking and the driver is causally sitting down. Then the horses are running and the driver is standing up. Next, the horses are in a full gallop, and then they rear up victoriously over the vanquished enemy. In each successive scene the horse heads are tilted further forward to convey the increasing speed and impetus of the attack. I realized that I needed to adhere to the intent of the original artist, so I spent another half day correcting the angle of the horse heads for chariot #1.
Note: I use the generic term "horses", but they are actually "onagers": asses or donkeys
Curiously, this perfectly shaped arrowhead is on the upper left trim of chariot #1, next to the driver. It seems to be more than just random spotting, and there is nothing else like it on the Standard of Ur.
The other noticeable change is restoration of the soldiers’ battleaxes. From the position of their hands and the diagonal lines across their shoulders, it is obvious that both soldiers are carrying some kind of weapons. The lines are too short to represent spears, so the other choices would be swords, battleaxes, and maces (war clubs). None of the soldiers on the Standard of Ur are equipped with swords except for the king. Although maces are shown in each chariot, none of the men are shown using them (though the damaged figures of the drivers in chariots #3 and #4 may be wielding maces). Since the soldiers in the top register are shown with either spears or battleaxes (or both), battleaxes seems the logical choice for the weapons carried by the soldiers in chariot #1. Of course, there's no gaurantee that both soldiers are carrying the same weapons; one soldier could be carrying a battleaxe and the other soldier could be carrying a mace. Since it's "six of one and half a dozen of the other", I decided to give both soldiers the same weapon. Their axes are two different modifications of the one carried by the soldier accompanying the king’s chariot (below). I also restored the symmetry of the damaged mace-head. It has always been mistaken for just another spear in the low-resolution photographs that were previously available.
The king's chariot: The right side of the Standard of Ur's "war" panel is the least damaged part of the standard. This picture gives some idea of what the standard would have originally looked like. When new, the Standard of Ur would have sparkled like a gem. I modified this picture by editing out the royal prince originally seen walking in front of the horses, in order to concentrate on the image of the chariot itself. For the complete version of this picture, see The Standard of Ur: war side. Detail from a photograph by Mary Harrsch. Enlarge.
The difference between the two pictures is best seen in a side-by-side comparison. As can be seen by the line bisecting the horse's body, this is a composite photograph, made of two separate pictures. All of the high-resolution "before" pictures were generously provided by Michael Greenhalgh and made available by Opencontext.org. Unfortunately for my purposes, the pictures were taken at slightly different angles and lighting conditions, with some of the figures split in half. It required a lot of cutting, pasting, re-sizing, and re-coloring to achieve a consistent image quality for the pictures.
This chariot was so heavily damaged, I was inclined to not even attempt a restoration of it. Fortunately, the outlines of the figures were still visible, so I had something to work with. Had I known what I was getting into, I never would have started this project. Although the restoration may seem like a modest improvement over the original photo, it represents a week of painstaking effort.
For the head of the driver, I modified the face of the soldier from the king’s chariot, which I tilted back to match the original. For the figure of the horses, the head is a composite of the face and nose from the horses of chariot #1, combined with the ears and mane of the original horses (chariot #2) along with a considerable amount of painting and repair of the face and neck area. I also repaired the leather armor of the horses and the woven braid of their collar.
Three spears are shown at the front of the chariot. The front panel of this chariot is narrower than that of chariot #1. It seems to hold only three spears or perhaps two spears and a mace. Three spears and a mace together would be too large to fit within the narrow borders of the panel (unless one of the weapons is partially concealed behind the others). On the other hand, there may be a piece missing from the damaged weapons collection. The other three chariots are shown with a full array of weapons, even though the four weapons exceed the borders of the front panels. It seems unlikely that the chariot was the only one with just three weapons, so I have included another version of the picture with the full weapons array:
These restorations are as faithful to the original as I could make them. I didn't add any of my own artwork to the images. I only used the images that were already on the standard, with minimum modifications as needed. Nor did I attempt to repair all the damage done to the chariot scenes, in order to convey a sense of their great antiquity.
Sumerian War Chariot Attack:
The whole purpose of the operation thus far has been to add both chariots together to get some semblance of the original attack scene:
The above photograph is with the full complement of weapons (three spears and a mace) for chariot #2. It is also available with only three spears for the chariot: 50% (2774 x 880 pixels) 100% (5548 x 1760).
The above picture is 8% of its original size. If printed to full scale, the picture would measure 55.5 by 17.6 inches.
I also did a partial restoration of the lead chariot (chariot #4). As explained in The Standard of Ur: war side, this is the king's chariot. It's a partial restoration because most of the figures are too damaged for a complete reconstruction:
The restored pictures of the chariots are copyrighted, but are freely available for personal, academic, and nonprofit use. If using these pictures on a website, a notation should be made that they are modern reconstructions so they won't be mistaken for the original images.
The "Sumerian War Chariot Attack" gives some idea of the full effect the original scene had when all four chariots could be seen together. When new, the chariot battle scene on the Standard of Ur would have been truly impressive.
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Sumerian ceremonial chariots:
As an interesting aside (and because I really wanted to use the images and had nowhere else to put them) the Sumerians often used decorated war chariots in ceremonial processions. One example of a ceremonial chariot is described in detail in Weapons: Royal Tombs of Ur. Below is a fragment of a chariot from a Gudea stele commemorating the building of a temple for the war god Ningirsu. The front of the chariot is decorated with the figures of two gods. Above the double-curve top (like on the chariots of the Standard of Ur) is a battle ensign featuring Anzud, the lion-headed eagle, grasping two lions with his claws.
The front of the chariot is turned toward the viewer to show the details of its construction. A notable feature of the chariot is that it has two yokes attached to the horses rather than just one like on the Standard of Ur. This chariot on the Gudea stele is also mentioned on the Gudea Cylinders, both of which commemorate the building of the temple for Ningirsu. Gudea is instructed to "build a chariot for your master", "fashion for him his beloved standard and write your name on it" and to "decorate this chariot with refined silver and lapis lazuli".
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Sumerian chariot tactics:
There has been some debate on whether a Sumerian chariot was actually used in combat. Many scholars believe that it was merely a “battle taxi”, used to convey a commander to a strategic part of the battlefield where he could lead his troops, in the same way that a modern general uses a jeep or helicopter to reach the front lines. Scholars also believe the chariots were used to carry noblemen to the battle, where they would dismount and then fight on foot.
These assumptions are easily refuted by the Standard of Ur. It clearly shows an attack of Sumerian war chariots, so there can be little doubt that they were actually used in combat. The story of Ur-luma abandoning 60 chariots during his retreat (see War: Umma and Lagash) indicates that chariots were used in great numbers for large-scale attacks.
Scholars also debate whether the chariots were used to attack massed infantry formations, because this tactic later proved to be ineffective against disciplined infantrymen that were willing to stand their ground. Nevertheless, chariots were used against massed infantry until the battle of Gaugamela (331 BC) when Alexander the Great devised a new tactic to defeat a scythed chariot charge by Darius III. The scythed chariots had whirling blades on the wheels to mow down the opposition. During the attack, Alexander had his soldiers open up gaps in their lines. The chariot horses, avoiding the array of spears at the front of the phalanx, were thus funneled into the gaps. Then the front ranks closed in behind them, and the charioteers were slaughtered at leisure behind the lines. What’s interesting is the fact that chariots were still being used to attack infantry formations more than 2,000 years after the Standard of Ur, and there had previously been no effective tactics to counteract them.
In a way, Sumerian war chariots were the battle tanks of the ancient world. They were the Sumerian equivalent of “Shock and Awe”. They charged full speed against the enemy infantry, causing panic in the ranks, and thus broke up the enemy formations. In ancient battles, when an army formation lost its cohesion, it became ineffective because the soldiers could no longer provide mutual support for each other. Individual men, or groups of men, would then be surrounded and killed. Once the ranks were broken, a defeat easily became a rout, with disproportionately high casualty rates for the losing side.
In Sumerian times, the chariots were also used to attack the enemy’s flanks and rear while the Sumerian infantry attacked the enemy in the front. If the enemy army also had chariots, the Sumerian chariots would keep them engaged and thereby prevent them from attacking the Sumerians' own infantry. In addition, chariots were deployed for reconnaissance, for skirmishing, and for hit-and-run attacks. Chariots were also used to pursue and kill the fleeing enemy soldiers after a battle. This is how they are depicted on the Standard of Ur. The chariots run to ground the fleeing soldiers after the enemy army has already been routed by the Sumerian infantry. In later times, the cavalry performed all of the same functions as the chariots. The Sumerians, however, didn't have a cavalry because their horses were too small to carry a rider.
Sumerian chariots were constructed of woven reed and wicker formed over a wood frame. The wheels were two semi-circles of solid wood pinned together in the middle, rather than the lighter, spoked wheels of later chariot designs. The wicker armor was lightweight, but the solid wooden wheels were heavy.
The chariots were brightly colored. Each city-state had a different paint scheme to make their chariots recognizable on the battlefield. Chariots were used mostly by the nobility because the chariots were costly to build and the horses were expensive to maintain.
Two-wheel chariots were used for reconnaissance and for battlefield communication. They were also suitable for combat, since they were shown equipped with weapons.
The four-wheel chariots weren't as maneuverable as the two-wheelers (of course) but they had a short wheel-base (the distance between the front and rear axles) so they had a tight turning radius. They were much heavier because they had four wheels and carried two men. They were also underpowered because the horses were rather small and not very strong. The chariots were slow starting out, but once up to speed, they were almost as fast as a single horse could run. What's important is they were faster than a man, and they had more stamina for distance, a decided advantage during combat. Unlike most chariots, the Sumerian chariots had a front shield to protect the occupants, which is yet another indication that they were designed to be combat vehicles.
The four-wheel Sumerian “war chariot” is often called a "war wagon" to differentiate it from the standard two-wheeler, though the terms are often used interchangeably.