The Astronomy of the Trundholm Sun Chariot
The famous Trundholm Sun Chariot is a bronze and gold artifact pulled out of a bog in Denmark in 1902. Said to belong to the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1700 to 500 BC), the so-called chariot consists of a bronze horse, a bronze disc with a thin sheet of gold pressed into one side, and six four-spoke wheels made also of bronze.
Archaeologists returned to the Zealand peat bog in 1998 and found additional parts of the famed Trundholm Sun Chariot. (National Museum of Denmark)
The Unexpected Discovery of the Trundholm Sun Chariot
The Norse artifact was first discovered on the coast of the southern Danish island of Zealand (Sjælland) back in 1902. A farmer found it in the mud while ploughing a peat bog known as Trundholm Mose. Initially he believed it was a toy, but ended up contacting the National Museum of Denmark. And a lucky thing too! The Trundholm Sun Chariot is now a Danish national treasure, and was even included on the 1,000-krone banknote.
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Believed to have been created around 1400 BC, the artifact is over 3,400 years old and according to the National Museum of Denmark it is “one of southern Scandinavia’s earliest examples of the horse being used as a draught animal.” Experts have concluded that the Trundholm Sun Chariot was created using what is known as the lost wax method, or cire perdue.
The Sun disk was decorated with spirals, a common motif in true Nordic craftsmanship. One side was gilded, to give the impression of the sun during the day, while the other side was left dark as way of depicting the journey of the sun during the night.
In 1998, almost 100 years after the artifact was first discovered in the peat bog, experts returned to the find spot of the famed Trundholm Sun Chariot with a metal detector. During this archaeological dig, they unearthed 21 additional parts, which have allowed conservationists to reassemble a more complete picture of how the object must have looked originally.
The Trundholm Sun Chariot on the 2013 Danish 1,000-krone banknote. (Prachaya / Adobe Stock)
The Trundholm Sun Chariot as Ritual Performance
World Archaeology argues that the importance of the Trundholm Sun Chariot lies in the fact that it is “perhaps the finest example of a crucial aspect of Scandinavian Bronze Age religion: the cosmic passage of the sun through heavenly light and the darkness of the underworld.” In other examples discovered in Scandinavia, the horse is replaced by ships or fish, amongst other creatures.
Within these prehistoric Norse Bronze Age beliefs, the horse was said to pull the sun over the heavens during the day and through the darkness of the underworld during the night. Historians believe that the artifact was used by priests of the era when performing their rituals, to illustrate the voyage of the sun.
In spite of the fact that this Nordic Early Bronze Age artifact it has been called a chariot since its discovery, it 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 cm long, 35 cm high and 29 cm deep, 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 horse and disc standing upright.
Detail of the Sun disk. (Public domain)
Was the Trundholm Sun Chariot Actually a Calendar?
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 of the Trundholm Sun Chariot has dimensions associated with one third of a solar year.
Meanwhile, Ransborg argues that 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.
The other side of the Trundholm Sun Chariot shows no trace of gilding. Experts believe it is a representation of the Sun during the night. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Sun Chariots in Mythology
Comparisons of the Trundholm Sun Chariot with actual sun chariots from the mythology of other cultures are not quite accurate, taking into account that 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.
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Apart from Norse, Celtic, and Hindu mythology, “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.
The Trundholm Sun Chariot is an incredible artifact. Whether it was a calendar or not is probably something that we will never know. However, its similarity with solar imagery of other cultures shows a certain sense of commonality, albeit expressed differently, by human societies.
Top image: The gilded side of the Trundholm Sun Chariot. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
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.
Randsborg, K. 2010. “SPIRALS! Calendars in the Bronze Age in Denmark” in Adoranten. Available at: http://www.rockartscandinavia.com/images/articles/randsborga9.pdf
Sandars, N. K. 1985. Prehistoric Art in Europe. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
Sparavigna, A. C. 2012. “Ancient bronze disks, decorations and calendars” in arXiv: Popular Physics.