Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’

The astronomy of the Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’

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The Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’ is a bronze and gold artefact pulled out of a bog on the Danish island of Sjælland in 1902. Even though this artefact is said to belong to the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1700-500 B.C.), its exact age is still uncertain. The ‘chariot’ consists of a bronze horse, a bronze disc with a thin sheet of gold pressed into one side, and 6 four-spoke wheels made also of bronze.

In spite of the fact that it is labelled as a ‘chariot’, the artefact may not actually be one. The wheels themselves were probably used to enable the sun and horse to be drawn along in a ceremonial procession or ritual performance, rather than being the wheels of a chariot. This is deduced based on slightly later depictions of the Sun on rocks and small metal gear from northern Europe. In these images, the Sun is presented as a disc or a single wheel drawn by an animal or bird, rather than travelling across the heavens in a cart or chariot. The approximate size of the whole object, however, is 54 x 35 x 29 cm (width, height, depth), which seems rather small for an object used in a ceremonial procession or ritual performance. Perhaps the wheels served a practical function by keeping the hose and disc standing upright.

The central disc - trundholm sun chariot

The central disk. Photo credit: Kim Bach

Apart from being a ritual object, it has also been suggested that the Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’ may have functioned as a calendar. This theory was proposed by Klaus Randsborg, a professor of Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen, who explained that the golden day-side has dimensions associated with one third of a Solar year, while the night-side of the large central concentric circle has dimensions linked to six lunar months.  He therefore concluded that “the reference is to the Sun-calendar on the day-side, and to the Moon-calendar on the night-side of the Sun Chariot, which seems the perfect calculation.”

According to Amelia Carolina Sparavigna , assistant professor at the department of physics of Turin's Polytechnic University, the two sides of the sun disk represent the sun as it is drawn across the heavens from East to West during the day, presenting its bright side to the Earth and then returns from West to East during the night, when the dark side faces Earth.

Wikipedia’s comparison of the Trudholm Sun ‘Chariot’ with actual sun chariots from the mythology of other cultures seems to be not quite accurate, as the former is not a chariot at all. Nevertheless, it can be said that there is a common belief amongst ancient cultures that the Sun travelled across the sky. Apart from the Norse, Celtic, and Hindu mythology, as presented by Wikipedia, ‘travelling Suns’ also appear in ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology. For example, in Egyptian mythology, the Sun is represented as being transported across the sky by Ra’s solar barge, or pushed by, Khepri, a god depicted as a scarab. Due to the importance of the Sun as a life-giving force, it is not too difficult to understand why the ancients perceived the Sun as a divine.       

Ra’s solar barge

Ra’s solar barge. Image source.

The Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’ is an incredible artefact on its own account. Whether it was a calendar or not is probably something that we will be unable to find out. However, its similarity with solar imagery of other cultures shows a certain sense of commonality, albeit expressed differently, by human societies.

Featured image: The gilded side of the Trundholm Sun ‘Chariot’ Photo source: Wikimedia.

By Ḏḥwty

References

Gelling, P. & Davidson, H. E., 1969. The Chariot of the Sun, and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd..

Hirst, K. K., 2014. Trundholm Sun Chariot (Denmark). [Online]
Available at: http://archaeology.about.com/od/tterms/g/trundholm.htm
[Accessed 14 April 2014].

Randsborg, K., 2014. SPIRALS!Calendars in the Bronze Age in Denmark. [Online]
Available at: http://www.rockartscandinavia.com/images/articles/randsborga9.pdf
[Accessed 14 April 2014].

Sandars, N. K., 1985. Prehistoric Art in Europe. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd..

Wikipedia, 2014. Trundholm Sun Chariot. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trundholm_sun_chariot
[Accessed 14 April 2014].

Comments

Being a Dane, I can inform you that the original Danish name of this vehicle found in Denmark does not contain the word "chariot", which in Danish would be "karet". In stead it is referred to as "Solvognen" which translates verbatim to "the sun waggon". The word "waggon" in Danish ("vogn") does not denote a specific type of vehicle, it is more akin to a residual word, one which is used for various non-specific types of vehicles, vehicles that have no specific name of their own - hence "vogn" (translated "waggon") is not a specific type of vehicle, rather it is "just" any old vehicle. All that is required fr something to be a "vogn" is that is has wheels, and that it is not someother type of vehicle, that lready has a name of its own. I do not have a clue as to why somebody in past history have chosen to label it "chariot", as even in Danish it is clearly not chariot, and not referred to as such a vehicle either. Still, our official English texts in the National Museum do use this chariot misnomer, which is not used in the original language. It is an error in translation - but sadly, now the object is known by the name "chariot" so it will be difficult to change.

Also: The reason there are different myths featuring different types of vehicles for the sun is that there are different cultural contexts, different nations, and different world views. It is generlly a bad idea to try to reframe an object found in one culture into a framework that belongs to another. this brings confusion, not understanding.

Not only the ancients but also moderns, like me, see the Sun as a semi deity or a giver of life and a manifestation of a higher force in nature. I say my thanks to the Sun.

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