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4th Century Mongolian Saddle

It might not look particularly comfortable to the modern eye, but this wooden saddle was good news for both horse and rider in the distant past.

The 4th century is hundreds of years before Genghis Khan (ca. 1162 - 1227) and the his horse riding armies created the largest empire ever to exist, spanning the entire Asian continent from the Pacific Ocean to modern-day Hungary in Europe. But the 4th century rigid saddle made from birch, found in an ancient cave in the holy Altai Mountains at a site called Urd Ulaan Uneet, would certainly have allowed the rider to travel at high speeds and for sustained periods.

4th century Mongolian rigid saddle mage from wood
Credit: William Taylor

Such rigid composite frame saddles were made of wood, and elevated some of the rider’s weight off the horse’s spine, while simultaneously reducing the kinetic impacts on the human skeleton from riding.

Birch trees grow in abundance in the Altai, and so this saddle is assumed to have been made by locals and not traded for.

“Ultimately, technology emerging from Mongolia has, through a domino effect, ended up shaping the horse culture that we have in America today, especially our traditions of saddlery and stirrups,” said William Taylor, an archaeologist at the Univ. of Colorado, Boulder who co-authored the paper describing the saddle.

“It’s not the only piece of information suggesting that Mongolia might have been either among the very first adopters of these new technologies - or could, in fact, be the place where they were first innovated,” says Taylor. “It was a watershed moment in the technological history of people and horses.”

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