In The News: Oldest Frame Saddle in the World Discovered in “Cave of the Equestrian”

The Mongolian saddle dates back to the fourth and fifth centuries CE.

In April 2015, archaeologists from the National Museum of Mongolia were notified by police that looters had destroyed a cave at Urd Ulaan Uneet. Urd Ulaan Uneet in northern Mongolia is a site rich with archeological evidence researchers have used to clarify the timing of saddle and stirrup use on the Eurasian steppe, long considered the birthplace of modern horseback riding.

Site locations and suggested chronology for the emergence and dispersal of the frame saddle and possibly stirrup in East Asia during the fourth–fifth centuries AD in relation to the approximate maximum extent of control of the Rouran Khaganate (figure by J. Conver).

Along with grave goods confiscated by police, the mummified partial remains of a horse, an iron bit with wooden cheekpieces, and an intact wooden saddle were recovered.

DNA analysis was used to determine the equid remains were those of a male domesticated horse, E. caballus. Bit-related damage to the teeth and remodeling of a section of exposed nasal bone show he was used intensively for riding.

Horse remains and bridle bit from Urd Ulaan Uneet (figure by W. Taylor and J. Bayarsaikhan).

But it was the saddle that most intrigued researchers, and an article published earlier this month yielded fascinating discoveries.

The saddle is a composite frame saddle made of birch wood painted or stained a deep red and trimmed with black. Each half of the saddle tree is carved from a single piece of wood, while the pommel and cantle consist of two beveled halves joined in the center with wooden nails. The pommel, described as narrow and high by researchers, is 12 inches wide, while the cantle is lower and 14.5 inches wide. The entire saddle is 16.5 inches long. The pommel and cantle are joined to the saddle tree by strips of leather threaded through small holes in the wood. In the center of the saddle tree on either side is a large leather strap roughly half an inch wide that appears to have dangled freely downwards from a wooden slit of similar size. This strap leads researchers to believe the saddle had stirrups.

Birch composite frame saddle from Urd Ulaan Uneet (top left) and artist’s reconstruction (figure by P. Lopez Calle).

Radiocarbon dating of a human tooth from Urd Ulaan Uneet dates the site to 247–402 CE. To date the saddle directly, scientists sampled a portion of the leather using mass spectrometry, coming back with a result of 267–535 CE. They also conducted collagen peptide mass fingerprinting on the same sample, identifying the leather used to create the saddle as Equus. The choice of other raw materials is also indicative of local production, in particular the use of birch, which grows naturally in the Altai Mountain range.

The saddle discovered at Urd Ulaan Uneet is one of the earliest known examples of a wooden frame saddle, strongly supporting the idea that Mongolian steppe cultures were closely tied to key innovations in horseback riding.

Calibrated radiocarbon dates from early saddles and stirrups from Mongolia, compared with cultural events and technological changes in saddlery. Dates calibrated using the IntCal20 calibration curve (figure by W. Taylor).

Source: Bayarsaikhan J, Turbat T, Bayandelger C, et al. The origins of saddles and riding technology in East Asia: discoveries from the Mongolian Altai. Antiquity. 2023:1-17. doi:10.15184/aqy.2023.172

Go Riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @amanda_uechi_ronan.