Roman Era Egyptian Wheeled Horses

Whilst certainly not a common object class, there have been multiple wheeled horses made of wood found from Roman era Egypt. The Petrie Museum holds four such examples, although only one which still has wheels present, which all share the same basic design. The Manchester Museum also holds one example which was found at the site of Oxyrhynchus, and also still with its wheels present.

Our experiences colour our opinions, and there is a temptation to apply modern thoughts and ideals when studying ancient objects. It is easy to draw the conclusion that because in the modern era we have children’s toys consisting of wheeled wooden animals then a Roman era Egyptian wheeled wooden horse must therefore also be a child’s toy. Whilst it is certainly possible that these were indeed toys, it is also possible that they held a much more complicated value which is belied by their apparently simple design and construction.

To truly understand an object, we must study its features and one excellent way in which to do this is to through experimental archaeology and using period-correct tools to create a replica of the original object.  This process was followed with the replica of Petrie Museum UC45015, as it is a Roman era object the use of steel tools was appropriate, and the replica was created using saws and a knife. The holes were drilled with modern twist drills and an electric drill for expediency.

The replica of UC45015 is now in the Petrie Museum’s teaching collection for use in object handling and school engagement sessions.


Figure 1 – Profile view of UC45015

The body of UC45015 is formed from a single thin plank of wood, (Figure 1) in the stylised shape of a horse. There is a hole under the chin, which may have been used to run a cord as with modern wheeled animal toys.

The tail and mane have been created by chamfering the edges of the body, with the ears being formed from a small hump on the head.

The majority of the perimeter of the horse is described with straight lines, indicative of saw cuts. There is a notch carved into the back of the front leg. There is no apparent purpose, and it also does not follow any equine anatomy which may have been mimicked. This may have been to remove a defect in the wood, or it may also indicate that section of wood chosen from the body had been used for something else previously.


Figure 2 – Rear axle with two wheels sandwiching the central body of UC45015

The wheels are made from a debarked branch which has been transversely cut, of varying thicknesses, to produce the round shape. This process is significantly faster than taking a plank of wood and removing material to produce a round shape, however it also produces wheels of varying dimension (Figure 2).

The replica diverges from this method of construction and instead a hole saw was used to cut the wheels from a plank of wood. Different wood planks were used to provide different thicknesses of wheel to ape the original object.


The wheels are attached to the body of UC45015 with carved wooden pegs acting as axles. The two axles are shaped differently, the front being club-shaped and the rear L-shaped. The rear axle is also drilled through (Figure 2), perhaps for holding a peg to secure the wheel and stop it from falling off the axle. The front axle does not have the same drill hole, and has no obvious means to secure the wheel. It should be noted that the thin end of front axle appears to be broken and has also split.

The replica was created with similar mismatched axles, however both axles were drilled and small wooden wedges were carved and inserted into the holes to help retain the wheels. This is similar to the extant pin holding the wheels onto the Manchester 6974 wooden horse. The modern analogue would be the use of split pins (Figure 3) on car wheel hubs or the use of lynchpins to secure wagon wheels (Figure 4).

Figure 3 – Split pin and washer used to retain a rod
Figure 4 – Lynchpin securing wagon wheel to hub


As with many objects, it is unclear exactly what original purpose they held and what meaning they had to their original owner.

Figure 5 – Replica of Petrie UC45015

The simplicity of the design and the mismatched elements could indicate that it was quickly essentially made from scrap pieces left over from other projects. It’s a wonderfully romantic vision that this means the horse was made by a carpenter father repurposing scraps from other projects to take a toy home for his child, but sadly we have no way to prove it and it could equally be a the product of a ‘rush job’ quickly created together from any material on hand in as short a time as possible.

It is archeological cliché to say it was a ritual object, but that cannot be discounted. Equally it could have even been used for demonstrating the Trojan Horse story and teaching military tactics to soldiers.

Whilst the replica project was originally started as commissioned work, the resultant object holds a strange and intangible appeal. It is difficult to explain in words, but there is a strange satisfaction to ‘driving’ the horse and it has an interesting presence making it significantly harder to give to the museum than anticipated – especially for someone whose research interests are typically several thousand years earlier.