May. 8, 2022

Run for the Peanuts


Since yesterday was the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, it seems appropriate to write about horses in pre-dynastic Egypt. Appropriate but impossible, since there were none.

‘Just hold on, now!’ you say, scratching your chin authoritatively. ‘I clearly remember last Easter, when I was watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, Ramses definitely came after Moses with an army of chariots drawn by horses.’

This is true. This is the scene everybody remembers about ancient Egypt, and so we assume there was never a time when Egypt didn't have horses. And that's another reason research is so much fun. It eventually takes all of our most cherished and beloved beliefs about the world and makes you feel like an idiot for believing them. Like with William Herschel.

It's amazing that Herschel isn't a household name. He's the man who discovered Uranus. (Insert joke here about how it wasn't Herschel but actually a blind date you had when you were in college.) Herschel was an astronomer, who in 1795 came up with the theory that the sun was not a raging, 27,000,000-degrees Fahrenheit nuclear furnace, but actually a big planet teeming with life that was adapted to the extremely bright conditions. It was likely that so many people laughed at Herschel over this, that he eventually went back to simply talking about how he discovered Uranus, which, unfortunately, only increased the laughter.

But back to Moses. The most likely date for Moses leading the exodus from Egypt would be around 1290 b.c., and at that point, there were definitely horses in the house. But they weren’t always there. Horses first came to the Land of the Pharaohs around 1700 b.c., brought by the Hyksos who also brought chariots and rode roughshod over Egypt’s gobsmacked armies until they learned the basics of equestrian warfare. A scroll from that time reflects the awe and wonder of two Egyptian soldiers seeing the approaching horses for the first time ever:

Soldier 1 (squinting): ‘Dave, I don’t think those are camels.’

The second soldier’s wide-eyed response is recorded as a glyph that defies easy translation, but which some believe might have been history’s first written f-bomb.

By Moses’ time, however, the Egyptians had 400 years of practice with chariots and so were able to race them expertly across desert landscapes, holding the reins with one hand and wielding a spear in the other which, unfortunately for them in the Moses scenario, left no hands for swimming once the Red Sea came crashing down upon them.

Of course, this means there were no horses in Egypt to help haul stones to build the pyramids at Giza, roughly 2500 b.c. And pre-dynastic Egypt was another 500 years before that. So there was no betting on horse races in ancient Egypt. But Egyptians did, apparently, gamble. Dice made of elephant tusks have been found in tombs. And that means that even though there were no horses, there were elephants.

And y’know, imagining elephants lumbering around the track at Churchill Downs is awesome. Of course, we also know that elephants never forget. So even though other astronomers may eventually forget that William Herschel told everybody he discovered Uranus and stop laughing, elephants will remember.