Bronze Age bits

Bronze horse-bit with decorated cheek-pieces, from Luristan
© The Trustees of the British Museum – London

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

As we have seen in the myth of Pegasus and Bellerophon, in antiquity the application of the bit was considered a decisive moment for the horse’s submission to the will of the rider. It is believed that the first rudimentary mouthpieces were made of perishable materials, such as horsehair strings, or bone. The oldest metal bits date back to the Bronze Age and were conceived according to a principle similar to that of the modern snaffle, i.e. they consisted of a cannon (rigid or jointed) exerting direct pressure on the bars, to which the reins were secured by metal rings. Generally, this sort of snaffle had a width exceeding (12-20 cm) those of the ones that are used today (10-15 cm). Because of these dimensions they exercised more pressure on the sides of the mouth, with a more severe effect than the current snaffles. Both the Greek civilization and the pre-Roman world ignored the use of the curb bit (i.e. with long leverage–arm and curb chain), which is believed to have been introduced by the Celtic people, between the fourth and third century BC. Its use would be adopted later by the Romans through the influence of the Gauls, and would spread in the Hellenistic world after the Gauls invasion of the Balkans in 279 BC.

The people of the Mediterranean, however, also knew the use of halters (phorbeia) and cavessons, which were used to conduct the horses in hand and to tie them in the stables. It is also conceivable that they were used to drive chariot horses. The harnesses found with a chariot in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV, in fact suggest that the horses were driven with a sort of cavesson, which exerted pressure on the nostrils of the animals.

Copper alloy horse-bit with cheekpieces in the form
of a human-headed animal with central figure attacked by a lion
Luristan – 9thC BC-8thC BC
© The Trustees of the British Museum – London

Some of the oldest surviving bits comes from Luristan, a region in western Iran on the Zagros Mountains, and are dated between 1000 and 700 BC. They are made of bronze and they consist of a cannon of a single piece, straight or slightly curved, with at each end a cheek piece in the form of a winged animal. These figures of animals had a large hole in the body, in which passed the end of the mouthpiece, and two loops to tie the bridle and the rein. These remains were found mainly in tombs in which they were placed under the head of the buried body. Signs of wear on these bits, however, suggest that they were actually used – though probably only as parade accessories – and that they were not mere funeral offerings.

Bits with zoomorphic cheek pie­ces, were found also in Italy. The oldest belong to the so-called Villanovan culture, which flourished in central Italy (in the Tyrrhenian Etruria, Emilia Romagna and Marche, and also to the south, in Campania and Lucania) between the ninth and eighth century BC. They were part of the funeral offerings in the characteristic shaft tombs in which the deceased’s ashes were housed in an urn. In this case, however, they were jointed bites, decidedly less severe then the oriental models.

Bronze bit with zoomorphic cheek pieces
Villanovan (8th-7th century BC)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

A bit with a rigid cannon, dating back to the late Bronze Age, found in the site of Tell el-Ajjul, near Gaza in Palestine, identifies another typology of bits, relatively widespread in ancient times. In this case, the cheek pieces are drilled bronze discs, through which passes the cannon, studded with spikes on their inner face. The cheek pieces were used to prevent sideways movements of the bit in the mouth, while the spikes strengthened the coercive action of the bit on the horse. The reins were secured to metal rings inserted in small holes at the ends of the cannon. This kind of bit was probably used for war-chariot horses. In his historical and geographical work titled Indika, the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia says that bits with circular cheek pieces and internal spikes were also used in India at the time of Alexander the Great (fourth century BC).

Bronze bit with circular cheek pieces
Canaanite (Late Bronze Age)
Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Jointed bits with similar cheek pieces, but without internal spikes, were found in Greece and Asia Minor. Their operation was very similar to that of a modern snaffle.

Bronze bit with circular cheek pieces
Greece or Asia Minor (I millennium BC)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

In Italy, Etruscan (or Villanovan) bits from the eighth century BC were found perfectly preserved. Of particular interest are the pairs of bits found in some burials in central Italy, especially the pair found in the tomb number 39 of the Benacci Caprara cemetery in Bologna.

Pair of Etruscan bronze bits
Benacci Caprara tomb 39 (750-720 BC)
Museo civico archeologico di Bologna

They are two bronze snaffles with elegant openwork cheek pieces. The jointed cannon, as in many other ancient bits, is “twisted”. According to some scholars, this kind of cannon evokes the memory of the time when horsehair strings, or other resistant fibers, were used as mouthpieces instead of metal. It seems to us more reasonable to think that instead the grooves serve to improve the effectiveness of the cannon on the horse’s bars and then to make the bit more severe. The hypothesis seems confirmed by the spread, in ages immediately following, of mouthpieces in which the action of the cannon on the bars was further strengthened by spikes. The two snaffles, preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Bologna, were part of an Etruscan funerary outfit dating from the seventh century BC (the date of the tomb is estimated between 750 and 720 BC). Note that in the Italian burials of this period the bits were always in pairs, because they were intended for a pair of horses attached to light chariots. In the tomb were also found bronze pins and hub locks of the chariot’s wheels, that were probably burned on the funeral pyre with the body of the deceased. If in earlier times, in the area of Bologna, the bits were exclusively part of male funerary outfits, from the end of the seventh century BC they appear also in some particularly rich female burials.

In the same area we note another couple of bronze snaffles, found in excavations at the end of the nineteenth century, in the Pradella farm in Castelfranco Emilia, near Modena. They are a variation of the two bits from Bologna, with pelta, or waxing moon cheek pieces. It is a kind of bit relatively widespread in the area of Emilia, in both male and female tombs.

Bronze bit with waxing moon cheek pieces (8th BC)
Pradella farm – Castelfranco Emilia (MO)
Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna


ANDERSON, John Kinloch , Ancient Greek Horsemanship, Berkley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1961.

 AZZAROLI, Augusto, An Early History of Horsemanship, E.J. Brille, Leiden,1985.

DREWS, Robert, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe, New York-London, Routledge, 2004.

QUESADA SANZ, Fernando, El gobierno del caballo montado en la antigüedad clásica con especial referencia al caso de Iberia. Bocados, espuelas y la cuestión de la silla de montar, estribos y herraduras, Gladius XXV, 2005, pp. 97-150

For further information on the picture published in this page please follow these links:

Bronze horse-bit with decorated cheek-pieces, from Luristan

Copper alloy horse-bit with cheekpieces in the form of a human-headed animal 

Villanovan bronze bit with zoomorphic cheek pieces

Greek bronze bit with circular cheek pieces

Etruscan bronze bits from Benacci Caprara tomb 39

Bronze bit with waxing moon cheek pieces – Pradella farm


by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

We know very little about this mysterious character, whose name, however, is remembered for being the author of the oldest text dedicated to the care and training of the horse reached down to us. He lived in the thirteenth century BC.

Horses groomed and watered.
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal (northern Iraq), 883-859 BC .
© Trustees of the British Museum

«Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni», so begins his manual for training war horses. Despite being at the service of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma, Kikkuli was in fact a “stranger.” Mitanni or Mitani was the name of an empire on the left bank of the Euphrates, south of the Taurus, which included northern Mesopotamia and in the period of its greatest expansion (fifteenth century BC), the western part of Assyria. Mitanni was probably the capital of the kingdom, although the sources are also called the capital city Washshuggani. The population of this kingdom was of Hurrian origins. The Hurrians spoke their own language, such as that spoken by the Mitanni was nothing more than a dialect. They lived in Armenia, in the eastern provinces of the empire of the Hittites in Asia Minor, in northern Mesopotamia, and mixed with other populations, in Assyria, Babylon, Syria, and Palestine.

Fragment from the north-west palace.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Early in its history, the main rival of Mitanni was Egypt. The rise of the Hittites, however, pushed the Mitanni rulers to form an alliance with their old enemies, sealed by several marriages between Egyptian pharaohs and Mitanni’s princesses. Probably as a result of a conspiracy, which led the disorder in the empire of Mitanni, the Assyrians invaded the south-eastern Mesopotamia. The situation prompted the Hittite king Suppiluliuma to intervene on behalf of Mattiwaza, one of the princes of Mitanni, who was fighting for the succession. He gave him an Hittite princess as wife and put him on the throne as a vassal of his reign. Shortly after, however, Adad-nirari I of Assyria (1310-1281) won the country’s major cities and the kingdom of Mitanni passed to Assyria.

The Kikkuli text has a particular importance for philologists. According to Kammenhuber, who has studied all the fragments of the text, the four tablets were recorded by four different scribes, probably of Hurrian origin. Each one shows a different level of expertise of the Hittite language by the writer. It can be deduced from the text that Mitanni horse trainers, as Kikkuli, and their Hittites counterparts used common words, Hurrian and Hittite, but also technical terms derived from different languages spoken in Asia Minor, such as Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite,Luvian, Hurrian and Indo-Aryan.

The lion hunt (detail)
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II
© Trustees of the British Museum


FURLANI, Giuseppe, Mitanni, in AA.VV., Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Treccani, 1934.

RAULWING, Peter, The Kikkuli Text. Hittite Training Instructions for Chariot Horses in the Second Half of the 2nd Millennium B.C. and Their Interdisciplinary Context 2009.

SESTILI, Antonio, Cavalli e cavalieri nel mondo antico, Roma, Società Editrice Dante Alighieri, 2012.

Further informatiom about the pictures pubblished in this page may be found folowwing this links:  Horses groomed and watered / Fragment from the North-west Palace / The lion hunt

The oldest text dedicated to the care and training of the horse

Fourth tablet of Kikkuli Texts – Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

If the oldest image of a domesticated horse can be traced back to the Sumerian civilization, the earliest written text dedicated to the care and training of the horse is the one by Kikkuli, squire of the king of the Hittites Suppiluliuma, dating back to a period between 1375 and 1335 BC. It was found engraved on five clay tablets in cuneiform characters, among the thousands brought to light during the excavations conducted by Hugo Winckler in the site of Boghaz-Koy, in Central Anatolia, in 1906.The text is a kind of a manual for the care and training of the chariot horses of the Hittite army. At that time, in fact, the cavalry was still relatively unknown to the civilizations that flourished around the Mediterranean. The text describes a detailed training program, lasting 184 days. For each of these days were prescribed the rations of feed, the number of watering, the workouts and the periods of rest. The horses were yoked to the chariot and trained up, walking, ambling and cantering. They were also walked wearing blankets to make them sweat and taken to the river to bathe and swim. The diet consisted of grass, clover, straw, barley and mashes of cooked cereals, but the program included as well days of complete fasting. The horses were initially selected subjecting them to quite intense efforts in the first days, then they were moved on to a progressive work, coming to travel up to sixty miles a day, at different paces. They were trained in pairs, as they were usually joined in pairs. Generally chariots carried three people: a charioteer and two warriors, one armed with a bow and a spear and the other on with a spear and a shield.

Neo-Hittite war chariot – Museum of Anatolian Civilizations – Ankara

The author, although was serving a Hittite king, said that he belonged to the people of Mitanni, a kingdom located in northern Mesopotamia, which reached its peak in the late Bronze Age and was defeated by the Hittites. Its inhabitants were famous for their ability in taming horses.

The text of Kikkuli has recently been translated in English and has inspired a training method for endurance horses, that’s based on his instructions.


NEYLAND, Ann, The Kikkuli method of Horse training, Mermaid Beach, Smith and Stirling, 2008.

RAULWING, Peter, The Kikkuli Text. Hittite Training Instructions for Chariot Horses in the Second Half of the 2nd Millennium B.C. and Their Interdisciplinary Context, 2009.

SESTILI, Antonio, Cavalli e cavalieri nel mondo antico, Roma, Società Editrice Dante Alighieri, 2012.

The first domestication of the horse

Excavations at the French site of Solutré (1896)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

The domestication of the horse, for the purpose of using it for chariots and equitation, came after a very slow process. The first relationship between horse and human, in prehistoric times, was that between predator and prey. We have an impressive testimony of this in the site of Solutré, 8 miles from the city of Macon, in eastern France. Here, in 1866, was discovered a huge deposit of fossil bones of horses. It is estimated that in this place, between 32,000 and 12,000 years before our era, more than 100,000 horses were hunted and killed. The herds were driven through a narrow valley, where they were attacked by groups of hunters armed with stone-tipped spears.The importance of the horse to prehistoric man is also well attested by rock art, in which – according to a study of American anthropologists Patricia Rice and Ann Paterson – the representation of this animal prevails over that of other species (above the title, a detail of the wall paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France, dating from the upper Paleolithic).

Cave of Chauvet (France)

The debate about when and where the first domestication of the horse took place is still open. Based on archaeological and linguistic data, it is considered likely to have occurred in the steppes of southern Russia, in an area between the current Ukrainian plain, north of the Black Sea, and an area further east, towards the Altaic region. According to the American anthropologist David Anthony, the wear of the lower premolars in the remains of horses found inside the characteristics burial mounds (so called kurgan) in Khvalynsk, northern Kazakhstan, dating to 3500-3000 BC, show that the animals had worn a bit, probably made of bone. The hypothesis that the beginning of equitation  may be dated by means of these findings is denied by other authors, such as Nikolay Bokovenko. According to the Russian scholar, the use of vehicles and chariots was widespread in the nomadic cultures of the euroasiatic steppes during the Bronze Age (between 2300 and 850 BC), but it was only around the beginning of the first millennium BC that horseback riding was mastered, probably by shepherds. It is roughly at this time that the first horse rider was depicted in the form of a centaur. According to other scholars, the only available so far unique dating of domestication is the one that can be traced to written sources and iconography. The oldest of which is a tablet depicting a scene of war, known as the Standard of Ur, dating from around 2500 BC. The artifact, found in one of the royal tombs of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq, south of Baghdad), depicts some four-wheeled chariots, probably not pulled by horses, but by onagers, or asses.

The Standard of Ur, dating from around 2,500 BC, is the first representation of the use of equides (probably onagres, or asses) for pulling chariots


ANTHONY, David – BROWN, Dorcas R., Eneolithic horse exploitation in the Eurasian steppes: diet, ritual and riding, in “Antiquity”, Volume: 74,  Number 283, 2000, pp.75–86.

BOKOVENKO, Nikolay A., The Origins of Horse riding and the Development of Ancient Central Asian Nomadic Riding Harnesses, in AA. VV., Kurgans, ritual sites, and settlements: Eurasian Bronze and Iron Age, edited by Oxford, Archeopress, 2000, pp. 304-310.

LEBLANC, Michel-Antoine – BOUISSOU, Marie-France – CHEHU, Frédéric, Cheval, qui es-tu ? : L’éthologie du cheval, du comportement naturel à la vie domestique, Paris, Belin, 2004.

RICE, Patricia C. – PATERSON, Ann L., Cave Art and Bones: Exploring the Interrelationships, in American Anthropologist”, New Series, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Mar.), 1985, pp. 94-100.