The study shows how the oldest directly dated riding saddle was designed to make horse and rider feel comfortable.
At least people who have ridden a bicycle know how important a comfortable saddle is. It must be well sprung and padded to keep the hips and back pain-free on long rides. Ergonomically designed movable seat cushions were actually first invented for horseback riding, but when and where they were produced can only be determined by testing a sample.
The rider’s saddle was found in the Turfan region of northwest China. The extremely dry climatic conditions in the region protect objects made of organic material from decay and allow ancient techniques to be identified.
An adult woman found in the Yanghai Cemetery near Turfan was buried with only two grave goods: a clay vessel and a leather saddle directly on her thigh. The age of the saddle has been radiocarbon dated to 727-396 BC (95.4% probability, average 560 BC). It is therefore contemporary with, or possibly older than, the Scythian saddles already known from the Altai region and eastern Kazakhstan.
Unlike the magnificent examples from Scythian elite tombs, the Yanghai saddle looks simple at first glance. But it is sewn with the same craftsmanship and care. The saddle testifies to the functional design that takes into account the anatomy and health of both horse and rider, and to the specialized experience of craftsmanship in equestrian fields. The lack of elaborate ornamentation, traces of wear and tear and sometimes less professional repairs show that the saddle is an everyday object of ordinary people.
The saddle incorporates the basic elements of the soft saddle structure still used today. Two padded, wing-shaped leathers stitched together at the outer edges, supported by a central divider and lenticular supports that resemble the knee and thigh blocks of modern saddles. A special sewing technique called saddle stitching is noteworthy.
Only two saddles were found in a total of 531 graves examined in Yanghai. This suggests that the addition of saddles was the exception rather than a tradition. The situation is quite different with bridles and short-handled whips. These basic tools for taming and guiding horses appear in some of the oldest tombs in Yanghai, dating from 1300-1000 BC. and have been part of about 10-20% of the men and women who have died over the millennia since then.
From this find, it seems that the history of comfortable seat cushions (until further discovery and dating) begins with a female riding saddle.
Cover Photo: German Archaeological Institute