This unique Nordic bronze piece was discovered in Denmark and dates to the Early Bronze Age, c.1400 BC. It illustrates the eternal journey of the sun, as depicted by a divine horse pulling an ornate golden disc, all on rotating wheels. The Sun Chariot is 54cm long, and the sun disc, which is gilded on one side, is about 25cm in diameter. It was cast using the ‘lost wax’ method, whereby an intricately detailed wax model with a clay core is completely encased in clay. On firing the entire work, the wax melts, leaving a cavity that can later be filled with molten metal. Damage on the back of the Sun Chariot’s horse reveals its inner clay core.
In 1902, a farmer ploughing a peat bog on the Trundholm moor on the north-west coast of the island of Zealand, southern Denmark, spotted the elegant horse lying in the mud. Thinking he had stumbled on an old toy, he brought it inside for his children. On further inspection, the National Museum of Denmark was contacted, and the Sun Chariot was properly conserved. Ninety-six years after the initial discovery, metal-detectorists returned to the original find spot, and recovered 21 additional parts of the Sun Chariot. These pieces – elements of the spokes, wheel rings, and axles – were painstakingly reassembled by museum staff.
The Sun Chariot is perhaps the finest example of a crucial aspect of Scandinavian Bronze Age religion: the cosmic passage of the sun through heavenly light and the darkness of the underworld. The motif appears elsewhere in Scandinavia, particularly in rock art and on small bronze objects such as razors. Other mythological forces deliver the sun, including ships, snakes, fish, and aquatic birds.
Nordic traditions, first attested in sources from the 13th century, describe similar solar voyages, suggesting Bronze Age religious components were transmitted orally for millennia before being established in Nordic texts. The Nordic sun goddess Sól travels through the sky in a chariot pulled by two horses, imparting everlasting life-giving energy and the very basis of existence.
The Sun Chariot also provides insight into the timing of the domestication of the horse in Scandinavia. No clear evidence of domesticated horses exists in Europe before the 2nd millennium BC, and the Sun Chariot is one of the earliest examples of a horse being used as a draught animal in southern Scandinavia – though it remains unclear whether the horse was used for riding in the same period.
The Nordic bronze is now a national symbol of Denmark. In 2010, it was introduced on the 1,000-krone banknote. Though no other complete solar chariots have been recovered in Scandinavia, Bronze Age rituals often emphasised the sacredness of water and the placement of spiritually meaningful objects in landscape features such as bogs, lakes, ponds, and rivers. Parts of a golden disc have been recovered in Jægersborg Hegn, northern Zealand. Are these elements of another sun chariot?
Text: Nicholas Bartos
Image: John Lee/National Museum of Denmark