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Rediscovering the wheel

A US professor has rewritten the history of one of mankind’s most seminal inventions, placing it earlier and further west than ever before

Home life Rediscovering the wheel
Rediscovering the wheel

One of the most thrilling aspects of being actively involved in academic research must be making a discovery that questions received wisdom, particularly when it concerns something that has had a huge impact on civilisation. Cue Richard Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University, New York.

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In January 2016, Prof Bulliet published a challenge to the theory of where one of our most ingenious, useful and ubiquitous inventions is thought to have come from. While he hasn’t actually reinvented the wheel, by looking at archaeological evidence found in Neolithic sites in eastern Europe he has repositioned where it first rolled into existence.

“I’ve been interested in the wheel for many years but I didn’t focus on the early invention stage until about two years ago,” he says. “Then I started to question the received wisdom as to where the wheel first appeared. It seemed archaeologists were overlooking key evidence.”

Turning a corner in history
Until the publication of Prof Bulliet’s book The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, it was accepted that the wheel was invented in Mesopotamia, where evidence of complex examples made of multiple pieces of wood – dating from about 2500BC – have been found. Such wheels rotate independently on their axles, allowing vehicles to turn corners. But Prof Bulliet believes these finds are the sophisticated descendants of earlier designs from 3600BC and possibly as early as 4000BC.

“The earliest wheels were solid pieces of wood cut from planks made from trees at least 10 inches in diameter. They didn’t rotate independently from their axle, which put limits on turning corners,” he says. This was a poor design for general use over hilly, rocky or forested terrain. For this reason, Prof Bulliet believes the first wheels were used in the copper mines of what are today Romania and Hungary – and he cites the archaeological evidence of clay drinking cups on four wheels dating from around 3600BC. He believes these are models of ore carts pushed by miners.

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“There’s an important shift among archaeological circles to talk about cultures of south-east Europe around 4000BC as being pretty extensive and rich. They were known for using copper and farming as early as Sumer in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, but they didn’t build monumental cities,” says Prof Bulliet. According to his theory, the wheel belongs to these cultures and was invented to meet a new challenge – carrying very heavy ore through mine corridors to smelters. 

If he’s right, his idea adds weight to a growing view of eastern Europe being far more sophisticated and vibrant than has previously been thought. “The wheel is a prime example of a major development and has had great impact on our civilisation and others. There is a myth that Mesopotamia witnessed the origins of urban civilisation, and the wheel is part of that foundation myth,” he says. “It’s nonsense, however. The Sumerians invented many things, but not the wheel.”

Nor does he think that Mesopotamia is the home of wheels rotating independently on axles. Pointing to remains of 150 wagons found in burial sites in Ukraine, dating as early as 3300BC, he thinks this important development happened here. “It’s not far from the copper mines of Hungary and Romania,” he adds.

Driven by necessity
From there, he believes the wheel travelled south through Mesopotamia and east into Central Asia, where manufacturing techniques became more complex, possibly due to a lack of big trees in the arid environment requiring smaller pieces of wood in the form of spokes. Spoke-wheel chariots spread eastward into China and westward to the British Isles. Again, the increased complexity of later designs found in these areas suggests to him that wheel design was being refined, rather than reinvented.

Prof Bulliet has had some positive response to his theory, but not everyone is convinced he is right about the mines. Professor Stephen Shennan of University College London is an archaeologist and former director of the Institute of Archaeology. While he acknowledges the wheel may well not have been invented in Mesopotamia, he is sceptical that it was copper mines that inspired it. 

“Copper Age mines just didn’t work like that and I don’t believe it’s the context where wheels were first developed,” he says, pointing out that mines featured twisted shafts difficult for even a person to gain access. “They were more likely to use pack animals to transport the ore,” he adds. Prof Bulliet responds that oxen, the only pack animals then in use, would have found it even harder to access the mines. 

Prof Shennan concedes, however, that the cultures of eastern Europe were sophisticated and rich enough to have achieved such a feat as to invent the wheel. He even cites remains of surviving cart tracks below burial mounds in Northern Germany that date from around 3500BC as evidence.

We may never know the true origins of the wheel. Prof Bulliet certainly mixes conjecture with evidence to reposition what is today viewed as one of mankind’s most marvellous inventions.

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