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March 2003

World's Oldest Wheel Found in Slovenia


Working on a site in the Ljubljana marshes, Slovenian archaeologists last year uncovered a wooden wheel some 20 kilometres southeast of Ljubljana. Austrian experts have established that the wheel is between 5,100 and 5,350 years old, which makes it the oldest wooden wheel in the world ever found.


Using the radiocarbon method, experts in Vienna established that the wheel found in Slovenia is at least a century older than those found in Switzerland and southern Germany - so far thought to be the oldest. "Near the site where the wheel was found, there is an even older settlement and we first thought that the wheel was even older," says the head of the team of the Research Institute of the Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences (ZRC SAZU). Dr Anton Velušček was not surprised by the find. He was surprised that they also found an axle with the wheel and nearby, even a wooden canoe. "This find will not change what we know about wheels and their use in history," Velušček explained. According to him, what is more surprising in history is that records show that wheels appeared almost simultaneously in Mesopotamia and Europe. Some sources say that the oldest images of the wheel originate from the Mesopotamian city of Ur - which some believe was the site of the biblical flood - and were supposed to date sometime from 4000 BC; yet no such old wheel has ever been found there.


The wheel found in the remains of a pile-dwelling settlement, has a radius of 70 centimetres and is five cm thick. It is made of ash and oak. The wheel is surprisingly technologically advanced, made of two ashen panels of the same tree. The axle, whose age could not be established as precisely, is about as old as the wheel. It is 120 centimetres long and made of oak. Both the wheel and the axle had probably been scorched, in order to protect them against pests. Slovenian experts surmise that the wheel they found belonged to a single-axle cart. The aperture for the axle on the wheel is square, which means that the wheel and the axis rotated together and, considering the rough ground, the cart probably had only one axle. We can only guess what the cart itself was like.


The wheel and axle are now at the Institute of Archaeology awaiting preservation. This demanding project will be probably carried out in Germany and will take years to finish. The wheel will not return to Slovenia before 2006 and will then be displayed at the City Museum, provided that all display conditions are met. Experts have started working on the reconstruction of the cart, and are expected to complete it sometime in June; it may well find its place in a museum too.


The Ljubljana marshes are a perfect place for old objects to be preserved. There have been many finds uncovered in this area. Apart from the wooden wheel, axle and canoe, there have been innumerable objects found which are up to 6,500 years old. It may be surprising, but older finds are more abundant. Apart from the canoe, there is also a mould for copper axes. The area has been rich in finds and has been undergoing exploration since the mid 19th century. The first recognised scientist in this field was Dragutin Dežman, who began planned studies in 1875. Extensive archaeological research in the area though did not start until after World War II. It yielded astonishing facts about the society living in the marshes. In the settlements, archaeologists came upon evidence that indicate that 5000 years ago they had contacts with coastal and inland areas more than 100 kilometres away. They found bones of a sea fish (ray), and parts of a necklace of stones that were not from the area and were probably brought from Pohorje or the Drava Valley (now in northeastern Slovenia).


The ancient wheel is only the latest of many major finds made by Slovenian archaeologists. A few years ago they made a high-profile discovery when they came upon a flute made of bone found at Divje Babe in the valley of the Idrijca River in western Slovenia. This was also considered the world's oldest at the time, but it later provoked much controversy. There is also the Vače situla from the Iron Age and a number of lesser finds. Archaeologists are discovering and examining new and interesting finds even now.



Text: Aleksander Gasser (STA)


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