Monday, June 3, 2013

Muddy Monday: Sands of Time

June 3 Muddy Monday

Last week, I completed a new sculpture that has swept me along, like a petal on a sandstorm.

A local friend suggested we create a historical chariot display for fun. She would supply the accurate chariot scale model, and I volunteered to sculpt the horses. Why? Sometimes, you just have to do something that is not the norm. Also, I was a little punch-drunk from prepping for my all-ceramic show, Clinky Classic 4. Yeah, that was it.

"Antiquity", the resulting traditional 1:9 scale model, is an ancient Hyksos-bred chariot horse. Egypt's first horses were from the invading Hyksos, and were eagerly embraced as engines for their war machines. They were most often depicted in Egyptian tomb art, pulling chariots for war and the hunt, and less frequently shown ridden. They did not look like today's Egyptian Arabian. The Hyksos did some reverent burials of their horses, and this was very helpful for my project. I saw this photo, and told my friend, 

"This must be a mare, she died young, she was not a chariot horse, but she must have been important to be buried in this way."

Photo © Österreichisches Archäologisches Institut (ÖAI) Kairo
The original press release web site is down, so this is the best I can do for you.

A couple weeks later, I found an article which said exactly that. 

"The second important discovery was the burial of a horse, which is situated and stratigraphically well connected within the palace. It was a mare between 5 and 10 years. It was obviously not a chariot horse but more likely used for breeding. It was the Hyksos who introduced the horse to Egypt and it is the oldest undisputed horse burial found in this country. Its position in the palace suggests that this mare was a pet of the Hyksos, most likely king Khayan."

How could I guess all that from just a small skeleton photo? It is from years of reconstructing dinosaurs and studying live and fossil horses. Thanks, paleoart!

More useful for my sculpture prep, I noticed the skull had a straight profile, not dished, as we often associate with any horse in Egypt. Now I had a type set: straight skull, slightly wedge-shaped, small desert body. I then had to add secondary sexual characteristics and mass for it to be the preferred chariot horse gender, a stallion. I did the initial chariot-sizing drawings on cardstock, with all this physical data blended into one shape. The cardstock horses could then be double-checked for pose and scale with the chariot (which is top-secret, for now).

I used the "glamour-side" drawing to make a tracing on regular paper, so I could lay the armature against it, as I was constructing the model.

Right about here is a good time to explain the pose. The tomb paintings and sculptures show the horses in this pose, with legs perfectly parallel. My friend let me pour over her big books of tomb art, and we sat down together and analyzed the tack and resulting biomechanics. The rather sad side of this ancient form of transportation is that the tack did not innovate from its initial use on early domesticated asses. Onagers and horses are not built the same way. The chariot horses were used in neck collars, high up above the withers. The collar set so high, a big section of mane was kept trimmed off. Most modern cultures, around the world, use a shoulder collar as the main connection to the horse's pulling power. The shoulder collar allows the horse to line up his spine and hindquarters (the horse's own engine) and move efficiently. In other words, the ancient chariot horse had all the weight pulling on its neck, not its body frame, and had to work extra-hard.  

As if that was not tough enough, the chariot harness used a bearing rein to create an artificial, proud headset. You can clearly see the bearing reins, and trace them along on several tomb art examples. The bearing rein, in its infamous extreme form, is virtually extinct in modern horsemanship, and for good reason. The bearing rein, used in this capacity, forces the horse to hold his head unnaturally arched and high. It was done because it looks powerful (and intimidating in battle) and adds an element of stylish swagger. In combination with the neck collar harness, this forces the horse to hyperextend or "hollow" his back. The result is inefficient movement and poor muscular development of both dorsal and ventral muscles. It actually made me sad to realize that, to be accurate, I had to capture this pose and body condition. I hope this reminds people to be on the alert for horsemanship fads that do not serve the best interests of the animal. At the time, the horses were trained this way, carefully groomed and maintained, and never knew anything different. One can guess that teams were frequently replaced, and had few years of individual usefulness. An aged chariot horse would be inaccurate.

I suppose when one considers the human rights and public health in context of the time and place, it gives one a more complete picture. Life was hard for everyone.

Knowing this, I went ahead with the pose. When his professional critique came in, I changed all the requests but two: thicken the loins and modernize/correct the spine pose. Parasites, bearing rein, and neck collar all clamored for my attention, and I chose to stay true to the old paintings and carvings of history. Inner conflicts of tomb imagery, ancient and modern horsemanship, art styles, biology... even the artist who did the critique acknowledged that one could go either way, keep or change the pose. It was a tough call.

I wasn't sure how the model horse collectors would feel about this leap into the depths of time. I offered to sell the first ten castings for a very short period, at a discount, just to raise the funds to cover the cost of the silicone mold and the resin raw materials. All I wanted was a mold so I could play: paint a team for my friend's chariot, and customize a couple castings for myself.

From the minute I posted the sales information, it was all a stormy blur for the next eight hours. I had set a long-range goal of capping the edition size at 30 resin castings. They all were claimed in those hours, and there is a waiting list, should anyone drop out. The most frequent note that I received was how glad people were that I stayed true to the culture and showed history, even with its imperfections. Consider me blown away.

I have learned a valuable lesson with the creation and release of "Antiquity". Some art subjects may challenge my personal ethics about horses, but the art itself can serve as a lesson in three dimensions about why and how things were done, in that time and place. We absolutely should know horsemanship history, so we don't repeat it. The next time you see tomb art on a documentary, or in the background of a film, consider how much time and improvement, for humans and animals, has passed between then and now.

These were the only tools used to make this sculpture. 
Not shown is the super-fine armature wire wrap and the spray primer.

As the dust settles, I am finishing up the custom-sculpted base for the resin edition. I am looking at it, thinking about how to alter it so that it would safely support and embellish a ceramic version of this sculpture. So many people have asked if he is going to be released in ceramic, but balancing that body is going to be tricky. It will require a well-engineered, hollow ceramic base. The only thing holding me back is literally the dust beneath his hooves. Maybe it will someday become... muddy hoof prints?

If you would like to see the entire sculpture develop from armature to finished model, there is an Antiquity photo album on my Facebook page, Animal Art of Kristina Lucas Francis.


Bolen, Todd. "Hyksos Palace Excavated at Tell el-Dab'a". Blog post. May 31, 2009. b

Further reading I glanced at, that you may enjoy:


  1. I'm stuck midway on this.. unwilling to close the tab.. STRUGGLING to ascertain what tipped you off that she was a mare. The hip I see is tucked/smooshed even? But was that it? I just can't close this tab until I know! :D

  2. Teeth! Males usually have very obvious canines. Something like less than a third of mares have them.

    1. OH! I was just telling Oakes today how seriously astute your eyes were too.. lol! Man.. that gal.. She can spot a pelvic variation from the SIDE (then of course I had to explain birth canals & hips..).. then I went on to gush praises for anyone though who can take a leg bone and decide just how much flesh to pack on without really knowing much else. Levers & pulley attachments, how it all still was just a lot of really amazing guesswork & "feel".

      Canines though. HA! Too funny. Doh! I've only had to ever pull them on boy ponies (well have a vet do it), but I honestly didn't know that! Very cool. ;) Although some of the mystique has been tarnished here sadly. giggles. :D

  3. I love your above account, Kristina. The mystery, the science, the ethics, all make for fascinating reading. I love the sculpture too, and can't wait to see him in china!

  4. Morgen, it's OK, I don't mind being a little less magical. ha ha!

    Thank you, Karen. Speaking of ethics, if you watch the PBS chariot reconstruction program, you will notice that they do not use a bearing rein, and have significant difficulty getting the tomb art results.