The Cover




1300 Years in the Making

 The two-wheeled vehicles known as carpentum in Antiquity and carpat in the earliest Irish texts have long been thought as not related to each other else than by name. New research indicates that this opinion can no longer be sustained: these actually are the same type of vehicle, used from as early as 500 BC on the European continent to as late as 800 AD in Ireland.

 Images of Cú Chulainn, racing to battle, immediately come to one's mind if the term "chariot" is mentioned in connection with Ireland. Until the middle of the last century, it would have been thought to have been a "Celtic" Iron Age chariot, like those found in burials in East Yorkshire and Continental Europe. But, about 50 years ago, the "window on the Iron Age", that the Irish texts had formerly been believed to be, shattered as we realised that the Early Medieval Irish literature was a painting of the past as the Medieval Irish monks imagined it rather than a faithful description of a far distant past. Then, archaeologists told us that there was little if any evidence for any Iron Age chariots in Ireland at all, backed up by linguists, reconstructing Cú Chulainn's allegedly spectacular chariot as not at all that spectacular, humble farm carts. Láeg, Cú Chulainn's charioteer, probably would have wondered what had happened to his wonderful vehicle. But now, the chariots are back.A new analysis of all the available evidence, from Iron Age Europe and Britain as well as Early Medieval Ireland, has allowed us to demonstrate that, in fact, the carpentum, the chariot used by the ancient continental Celts as well as their British cousins, and it's Irish counterpart and linguistic cognate, carpat, were used in very similar ways by similar social groups. Very similar vehicles they were, used for 1300 years, on the roads of Iron Age Europe as well as Early medieval Ireland, and while the Iron Age archaeological record allows us to reconstruct their outer appearance, the Irish texts allow us insights into their terminology, and the feats that could be performed with them by daring drivers.

 Combining the information gained from all the sources available, the carpentum/carpat can be reconstructed to have consisted of a substructure, to which the wheels and the superstructure, the latter mounted in a flexible spring suspension, was attached (see illustration).

Exploded drawing of ancient chariot

The substructure consisted of: cuing - the yoke, which was used to strap the horses to the chariot, síthbe - the pole, a solid beam of wood (of which Caesar tells us that the British charioteers performed stunts of running along it to stand on the yoke), tét, refed or foloman - the ropes, fithis - (the) ring(s), fertas - the axle, and fert, usually used in the dual dí feirt - the beams to mount the flexible suspension for the chariot platform. The feirt each had, at their end, a fertbaccán- the suspension hook, used to fix the suspension. Attached to the axle were the roth or droch - the wheel(s), which had a fonnad - an iron tyre, giving additional strength to the wooden wheel. Each wheel was fixed by a linch pin, which might have been called delg (literally "thorn"). Mounted on this was a superstructure consisting of crett - the frame, which was lightly built, holding together the light platform formed by asnae (literally `ribs`), and, one to the left and one to the right, clar - the sideboard. The whole platform was covered with forgaimen or fortchae - covering sheets or cloth, to allow for additional comfort. Above the platform, not necessarily, but at least sometimes, suide - seat(s) and a puball (a loanword from latin, so probably not used in the Iron Age) or anbluth, a "tent" could be placed on the chariot, adding even more comfort and, if necessary, protection from the elements.

Of course, there were some minor differences between the chariots of the European Iron Age and Early Medieval Ireland, the former, at least as far as we can tell from the remains found in chariot burials, making much more use of metal elements, both for functional and decorative purposes, while almost no such parts are known from the Irish archaeological record. But by and large, they were pretty similar, and we can even assume that they probably were painted in bright colours, to be even more impressive, whether they were built with metal parts as decorative elements or not. So, rather than thinking of Cú Chulainn as driving along in a humble, ordinary farm cart, even the medieval Irish monks, in painting the past in bright colours, envisioned him as racing to battle in a flashy, shining, well-built and technologically advanced vehicle, a vehicle which the early medieval Irish associated with nobles, kings and bishops, not with the farmer next door.

 They did not, however, see the carpat as primarily a vehicle of war, in which past heroes would have fought out epic battles, but rather thought of it in the ways they knew it was used in their times by the well-off that could afford such luxury. And this, first and foremost, was as a stately transport, used by those of high social rank in their travels, wherever they might go, whether it would be visiting their neighbours, or distant relatives, or whether it would be driving to a battle - as it is pretty obvious that, for the actual infighting, the warrior would step off his carpat to fight afoot. As that carpat was built as light as possible, it was not only suited as, but also used as a race car, with contests at the communal feast, the óenach, definitly being one of the main attractions. And finally, what would be more appropriate to carry someone who had been associated that much with this vehicle that cairptech, "chariot owner", became a term synonymous for "noble", on his last journey, than his beloved vehicle? As such, it was also used as a death bier, in early Medieval Ireland only for the last farewell, while, in the European Iron Age, sometimes even as the final rest of his owner, interred with him in the grave.

 But during his lifetime, it was a vehicle intended to show off the rank and status of its owner, many of them imagining themselves as daring young men in their chariots, performing spectacular stunts, like running along the pole to stand on the yoke, as attested by Caesar, or jumping logs and ditches at full speed. The latter, a truly back-breaking (if not neck-breaking) stunt if performed in a humble farm-cart, might work not at all too badly if performed in a carpat that had a flexible spring suspension, that might have allowed to actually lift the vehicle off the ground like a modern skateboarder would do with his board, and to dampen the impact sufficiently when it touched down again. Still, as the early Medieval Irish sources tell us, more than once in a while, they might have been less successful than they would have wanted to be: Benaid Cú Chulaind omnae ara ciund i sudiu + scríbais ogum ina taíb. Iss ed ro boí and: arná dechsad nech sechai co ribuilsed err óencharpait. Focherdat a pupli i sudiu + dotíagat día léimim ina carptib. Dofuit trícha ech oc sudiu + brisiter trícha carpat and. (TBC 827-831) - "Cú Chulainn felled a tree there and wrote an ogam inscription on it. It read: no one should pass by it, unless a warrior in his chariot had leapt it. They set up their tents there and begin jumping with their chariots. Thirty horses stumbled and 30 chariots were broken."

 As such, it might have been wiser to drive them on a road. But that's another story, one that I already have told elsewhere. R Karl. "....on a road to nowhere"


Further reading

R. Karl (2001), "Zweirädrig bis ins Frühmittelalter". Archäologie in Deutschland 4/2001: 34-5.

R. Karl and D. Stifter (2002), "Carpat - carpentum. Die keltischen Grundlagen des ‚Streit'wagens der irischen Sagentradition". In: A. Eibner; R. Karl; J. Leskovar; K. Löcker; Ch. Zingerle (eds.), Pferd und Wagen in der Eisenzeit. Wiener keltologische Schriften 2, Vienna.

R. Karl (forthcoming), "Iron Age chariots and Medieval texts. The necessity to break down disciplinary boundaries". EKeltoi webjournal.

 © Raimund Karl MMII

About the Author

Raimund Karl studied Prehistoric Archaeology and Celtic Studies at the University of Vienna and has been lecturing Iron Age Archaeology, Celtic Culture and Theory in Celtic Studies in Vienna for several years. He is currently Research Fellow for European Archaeology at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies


The Cover