TK Waters has been an adjunct professor of religion at Western Kentucky University for six years. They have a master's degree in religious studies from Western Kentucky University and a bachelor's degree in English literature and religious studies from Western Kentucky University.
When you see movies depicting warfare in the ancient Near East, what are some common elements you notice? You probably have noticed—or at least remember seeing—that most of the soldiers are carrying iron weapons, or maybe that they are riding chariots into battle. These commonalities can be attributed, at least in part, to the Hittites, an ancient Near East group from the second millennium BCE. Despite the fact that many people have not heard of or know little about the Hittites, they were one of the major powers in the area during their time, alongside Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria.
Invention of Iron Weaponry
Iron weaponry and armor is something you might not have considered the origins of. Iron was not always used for warfare, however, because many ancient groups did not know how to refine iron ore to make it into a weapon. This credit is given to the Hittites who, by most accounts, were the first to make iron into weapons and armor, ushering in the Iron Age, which was a period dominated by the use of iron.
The Bronze Age
To understand the significance of this, we must first look back at the Bronze Age, which directly preceded the Iron Age and was named such because of the use of bronze for weapons, tools, armor, and so on. Bronze is an alloy metal, meaning it's a compound of other metals—in this case, copper and tin. Making bronze into weapons and armor requires some skill, of course, but not as much as iron work since bronze can be cold-hammered, or formed into something without heating the metal. You can imagine that, though it provided some protection and force, bronze did not make incredibly strong tools or armor.
The Iron Age
The use of iron made a huge change in warfare. The Hittites were skilled metallurgists, or people who study the properties and composition of metals, and had iron mines near the Black Sea on the northern part of the their kingdom. They discovered the strength of iron and how to make it into weapons and armor. They first smelted the ore, meaning melting it into liquid form. Instead of just using a wood fire to smelt it, they used charcoal, which added carbon into the iron and made it even stronger. After pouring into in flat sheets or shapes, they used a technique previous unheard of and put the iron piece into the fire to soften the metal, then used a hammer to mold it.
Not only were these instruments stronger and sturdier, the blades were sharper as a result of the hammering. Iron was less expensive as well, so the Hittites were able to furnish their army with weapons and armor at a lesser cost and boost their economy by trading with surrounding nations who did not know how to work with iron.
The Chariot Advancement
Chariots were common in the ancient world and were not created by the Hittites, but were redesigned by them for efficiency and speed. Chariots were typically two-wheeled vehicles pulled by horses (though other animals were sometimes used) with a carriage area for soldiers to ride in during battle, often carrying bows or spears. The Hittites followed this basic structure, though making the riding compartment bowed for more space by wetting the wood to make it pliable.
The major innovation the Hittites made with the chariot was with the wheels. Chariot wheels differed depending on the civilization. Most made wheels with eight spokes, though some made ten-spoke wheels while others made four-spoke wheels. The Hittites developed something that bridged the wide gap and made six-spoke wheels. While this might not seem like a huge change, it was a major improvement for chariots.
The Hittites found the perfect number of spokes to both maintain support and durability while speeding up the chariot by making it lighter, just by cutting out two spokes. Because they were lighter they could go faster, making them efficient in battle and transport. The Hittites had spearmen in the chariots, and some scholars claim they added a third man responsible for holding a large shield to protect them from incoming arrows.
All right, let's take a moment to review what we've learned. The Hittites, a major power in the ancient Near East in the second millennium BCE, are credited with being the first civilization to make iron into weapons and armor, transitioning from to the Iron Age (where the use of iron was predominant) from the previous Bronze Age, which saw the use of bronze that was cold-hammered into weapons and armor (meaning they formed metal into something without heating the metal). The Hittites were skilled metallurgists, or people who study the properties and composition of metals, and, after mining iron by the Black Sea, smelted the iron to turn it into liquid form, then making it into strong and sharp weapons.
The Hittites did not invent but did make major modifications to chariots, which were typically two-wheeled vehicles pulled by horses (though other animals were sometimes used) with a carriage area for soldiers to ride in during battle, often carrying bows or spears. Specifically, they created six-spoke wheels, which used the perfect number of spokes to both maintain support and durability while speeding up the chariot by making it lighter, just by cutting out two spokes. Whether in weaponry, armor, or chariots, the Hittites were a major factor in the change of warfare in the ancient world.
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