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K. Kris Hirst

The History of Wheeled Vehicles

By April 16, 2012

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I've always had a thing about roads, probably because when I was a working archaeologist, I worked for the state department of transportation conducting surveys along them. The only reason we built roads, or at least perfected road-building, however, is because we invented wheeled vehicles.

Assyrian King Hunting Lions
Assyrian King Hunting Lions. Reproduced from Morey's 1908 Outlines of Greek History

The history of wheeled vehicles begins about 5500 years ago, someplace in northern Europe or southwest Asia. Once invented, the idea appears to have spread like crazy: an alternative explanation is that putting wheels on a wooden box was invented several times in several different places. I figure it doesn't really matter: but the evidence is pretty clear, including some 5500 year old cart ruts in the site of Flintbek.

Comments

April 17, 2012 at 11:05 am
(1) John Minelly says:

On the issue of wheeled roads and ruts, possibly the most interesting ones are those masive ones in Malta which disappear into the sea at variou sites there – evidence of sea level changes in the remote past?

As a veteran highway engineer with a keen interest in archaeology can I suggest that the means of communication by well trod paths is much more ancient than that of wheeled transit. I do not see how civilisation would have been possible without the ability to exchange goods and ideas over a wide catchment area.
Having worked in Indonesia, Borneo and Java, the contrast in present-day, population numbers is obvious to me due to communications in Borneo being hampered by major river barriers

April 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm
(2) Kris Hirst says:

interesting point, John. I wrote an article on those ruts on Malta here:
http://archaeology.about.com/od/caterms/qt/cart_ruts_malta.htm

you’ll find some references that may be you can read yourself as well.
I can’t recall anything about sea level change, though.

also, you’re quite right about not needing wheels to have a great trade network, or even pathways. The earliest road we know about is Plumstead, which dates to 6000 years ago.
http://archaeology.about.com/b/2009/08/15/oldest-trackway-found-in-plumstea.htm

And certainly the pochteca trade network in the Americas flourished without roads
http://archaeology.about.com/od/plthroughpo/a/Pochteca.htm

April 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm
(3) DOROTHY KETHLER says:

Ancient Americans, South, North and Central build roads and they did not have the wheel. These roads were raised, plastered, wide.

April 20, 2012 at 9:06 am
(4) Kris Hirst says:

of course, you’re right, Dorothy. The forgotten all about the causeways
http://archaeology.about.com/od/cterms/g/causeways.htm
and certainly, that Inca road system is as intricate and prepared as any roadway in the world. one could hardly argue that the Inca empire was hindered for lack of wheeled vehicles.
http://archaeology.about.com/od/iterms/qt/inca_road.htm

Good response. Thanks much!

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