Image: King Tut chariot
Egyptian Museum
The chariot represents the high level of engineering sophistication reached by the Egyptian chariot builders at King Tut's time.
updated 8/3/2010 6:56:46 PM ET 2010-08-03T22:56:46

King Tutankhamun, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt more than 3,300 years ago, rode full speed over the desert dunes on a Formula One-like chariot, according to new investigations into the technical features of the boy king's vehicle collection.

Discovered in pieces by British archaeologist Howard Carter when he entered King Tut's treasure-packed tomb in 1922, the collection consisted of two large ceremonial chariots, a smaller highly decorated one, and three others that were lighter and made for daily use.

"They were the Ferrari of antiquity. They boasted an elegant design and an extremely sophisticated and astonishingly modern technology," Alberto Rovetta, professor in robotics engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan, told Discovery News.

Of the six chariots, one made its longest ride yet last week when it traveled outside Egypt for the first time in three millennia to the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit in New York's Discovery Times Square Exposition.

"My feeling is that this is the chariot the king actually did use in his war and hunting rides. It is smaller, much lighter, much faster and lacks in decoration. One tire is extremely worn, the other is newer. You don't replace things unless you expect to re-use them," David Silverman, curator of the exhibition, told Discovery News.

The chariot, which is usually on display at Luxor museum, represents the high level of engineering sophistication reached by the Egyptian chariot builders at King Tut's time, according to Rovetta.

"These vehicles appear to be the first mechanical systems which combine the use of kinematics, dynamics and lubrication principles," Rovetta said.

Further studies, in collaboration with Nasry Iskander at the conservation department of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, showed the unique interplay of form and function in King Tut's chariots. These technical underpinnings involve the design of the wheels, the naves, the bearings, and the pole between the cart and the yoke.

"The wheels feature a real tire, made of a flexible wood rim, which adapts to soil irregularities. Moreover, the six-spoke wheels are made from elastic wood. This absorbs uniformly the loads transmitted by soil irregularity, so that the vibrations are damped by the wheel itself like the intelligent suspensions in modern cars," Rovetta said.

The result is a remarkable level of softness and comfort. Even at speeds of about 25 miles per hour on Egypt's irregular soil, King Tut's chariots were efficient and pleasant to ride.

But there was more.

"The bearings are built exploiting the modern principle of a hard material against a soft material and by applying animal grease between the surfaces. The grease reduces friction and increases running duration," Rovetta said.

According to Bela Sandor, professor emeritus of engineering physics at University of Wisconsin at Madison, King Tut's chariots surpass all monumental structures of the pharaohs in engineering sophistication.

"There is no evidence of chariot racing from that era, but these chariots have many technical features that imply a pedigree based on racing," Sandor said.

In a study on the chariots' engineering, Sandor concluded that the vehicles were the earliest high-performance machines, boasting a complex suspension system of springs and shock absorbers. They even featured wheels with aircraft-like damage tolerance.

Such a focus on comfort and safety may cast doubt on the theory that King Tut's leg fracture, which occurred a few hours before he died according to recent CT scans, was caused by a fall from the fast moving chariot.

"There is a 50-50 chance that he fell right from the chariot on display in New York," Silverman said.

Recent analysis has shown that King Tut had a malformation in his left foot and suffered from malaria.

"If he was riding with these problems, he might have not been able to keep stable and might have fallen. It wasn't the chariot's fault. Indeed, this story is amazing when you to think that the chariot was introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos. It did not take Egypt long — just two generations —to have the world's best chariots," Silverman said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Photos: King Tut

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  1. Unguent vessel

    This carving is one of the treasures that was featured in "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," one of the exhibits that was brought to the United States. Carved of calcite, this unguent or cosmetic vessel has details of sheet gold, colored pigment and colored ivory. On its lid is a recumbent lion with the cartouche of the king inscribed near its shoulder. Perhaps a symbol of Tutankhamun, he is atop the vessel, while four of the traditional enemies of Egypt are trapped at the base, represented only by their heads. Two columns are applied to the vessel, and each is surmounted by an image of the god Bes. These architectural features also serve as frames for the two scenes depicting fighting animals in a band around the central section of the jar. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Gilded Coffin of Tjuya

    The Gilded Coffin of Tjuya, almost entirely covered with reddish gold. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bust of the boy king

    This calcite bust of the king depicts Tutankhamun wearing the nemes headdress. Red and black paint are used to highlight features of the face as well as the two protective vulture and cobra deities projecting from his forehead. The recessed base below the shoulders indicates that the bust served as a stopper for one of the four cylindrical hollows of the canopic chest in which the mummified organs of the king were stored in separate coffinettes. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Statuette Upper Egypt

    This statuette of the king wearing the tall crown of Upper Egypt consists of wood covered in gesso and then gilded. It is among 35 ritual figures of the king and deities that were placed in sealed wooden shrines in the tomb. The color combination of the gold of the figure and the black of the base suggests both rebirth and regeneration. The crook he holds in his left hand and the flail he grasps in his right are symbols of his kingship. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Statuette Lower Egypt

    Almost identical to the gilded figure depicting the king of Upper Egypt is this golden statuette portraying Tutankhamun wearing the crown of Lower Egypt. He holds the symbols of his office, the crook and the flail, and both are composed of gilded bronze, as are the sandals he wears. The figure stands on a black base, and it was originally covered in linen and placed within a wooden shrine. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Small statue shrine

    Howard Carter discovered this small golden chest in the shape of an ancient shrine in the Antechamber of the tomb; it is made of wood covered in sheet gold, and the base was plated in sliver. A wooden stand with a gold-plated back support stood inside, but the statuette it originally supported no longer exists; carved footprints for it are still visible on the base. Scenes on the insides and outsides of its walls, back, and the doors depict the king and queen in a variety of activities, some of which may be associated with festivals, sexuality and coronation. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Prestigious dagger

    So important was this dagger to Tutankhamun that it was placed upon his mummy among the wrappings. The blade is highly polished gold with simple and elegantly engraved details. The hilt, also of gold, has alternating bands of granulated gold and cloisonne of red and blue glass. The pommel surmounting the handle has a circlet of two falcons with outstretched wings, while its top is decorated with a floral motif, in the center of which are two cartouches with the names of the king. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pectoral with scene of God

    This elaborate necklace was fashioned of gold, with inlays of electrum, silver, semi-precious stones and colored glass. Scenes depicting the king in the company of gods appear in delicate cloisonne openwork on the front pectoral and the counterweight at the back. The detailed links of the straps linking the two consist of double cartouches encircling the names of the king, alternating with royal titles, deities and amuletic messages in hieroglyphs. The front plaque is architectonic, taking the shape of a shrine, and the king appears before Ptah on the right and Sekhmet on the left; the surface on the back is solid gold and has fine engraved details. The scene on the counterweight is simpler, with the king seated before the goddess Maat. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Mirror case

    This wooden case for a mirror, formed in the shape of an ankh, the Egyptian word for "life," is covered in gold and inlaid with semi-precious stones and colored glass. The jeweled inlay displays the hieroglyphs spelling out the King's throne name, and the lotus blossom below associates it with rebirth. The loop of the top part of the ankh encloses the name as a cartouche normally would, thus serving two purposes. The ankh itself has another function as it also is one of the words the ancient Egyptians used for "mirror." (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A simpler likeness

    Carved of wood and then covered in gesso and painted, this bust of Tutankhamun portrays the young king much more as a youthful figure than a divine being. Although wearing a royal crown with a cobra deity projecting at his brow, he has on a simple linen shirt through which the upper part of his rib cage shows. He has a pleasant smile, and his earlobes are pierced, a custom for both males and females during this period. The excavators suggested that the enigmatic statue may have served as a mannequin of sorts on which garments of the king could be draped or his jewelry displayed. It may also be possible that it had another function, since busts not unlike this are known to have been used during both earlier and later times in certain religious rituals. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Luxurious fan

    One of several ostrich feather fans, this example of wood overlaid in gold was found in the burial chamber of the tomb. Its long handle terminates in a papyrus umbel upon which is a lunette that has a depiction of the ostrich hunt (ostensibly for the feathers for the fan) on one side and the return with the prize on the other. A similar fan appears in the scene of the hunt. Pharaoh stands in the chariot, poised to shoot the ostriches with an arrow from his bow, while an ankh, the hieroglyph for the word "life," that has been anthropomorphized with arms and legs, follows behind providing shade for the king. This imagery appears to signify the divinity of the king. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Colorful pectoral

    The inlaid pectoral spelling out the name of the king is made of gold and multi-colored semiprecious stones. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Golden face mask

    The golden diadem, inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones, was still around the head of Tutankhamun when Howard Carter opened the royal coffin more than 3,200 years after the young king died. The two protective deities, represented by the vulture and the cobra, originally projecting from the front had been removed and placed near the thighs of the mummy to allow the golden face mask to be put into place. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Golden coffin

    Tutankhamun possessed four miniature coffins fashioned of gold and inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones, and each stood in a separate compartment in an alabaster chest. The band of inscription running down the front names Imseti, one of the sons of Horus, and the goddess Isis, who would protect the deceased and the particular mummified organ within, in this case the liver. The cartouche encircling the king's name on the interior was reworked and originally had the name of one of Tutankhamun's relatives. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Falcon collar

    Found on the mummy of Tutankhamun, this golden collar in the shape of a falcon with outstretched wings was one of several items of amuletic jewelry placed around the neck of the king. Fashioned of sheet gold, it has been cut into the form of the god Horus, a deity identified with the kingship and the solar religion. Details of the feathering on its body appear in carefully engraved details. A gold wire attached to the two wings encloses the circlet, and a counterweight is suspended from a loop at the back. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The golden boy is back

    Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, points out a replica of King Tutankhamun's remains to Salah Montaser, member of the Egyptian delegation, during a preview of "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit in New York. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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