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Jean Spruytte

1st November 1919 - 20th June 2007

Appreciation by
Gail Brownrigg

Jean Spruytte image
Jean Spruytte with the Compagnie Méhariste du Tassili in May 1948

Monsieur Spruytte is best known in England for his reconstruction of ancient harness and chariots (Early Harness Systems, London 1983, first published in Paris as Etudes Expérimentales sur L'attelage, 1977), which confirmed by practical experiment that the yoke harness of antiquity did not choke the chariot team. Combining his knowledge of horses with great practical ability, an enquiring mind and a scholarly attention to detail, he also published a large number of papers in French, concentrating on his reconstruction of Egyptian, Greek and Saharan wheels, chariots and harness as well as equine themes, and a further book on the subject which had sparked his interest in ancient technology, Attelages Antiques Libyens, Paris 1996.

His experiments were all carried out for his own interest and at his own cost in his spare time - the 1/5 scale model of a Greek chariot and horses took 268 hours to make. He contributed frequently to the equestrian magazine Plaisirs Equestres, but also to academic publications, with an emphasis on the technology of the wheel and of ancient vehicles. He was, however, deeply hurt by the reaction of certain academics and authors (Henri Lhote among them) who criticised his studies on the basis of their own "armchair theories" or failed to understand the principles clarified by his reconstructions. Spruytte held that only practical experiments would indicate how a particular harness system would function in a way that purely theoretical reasoning could never achieve.

Jean Spruytte joined the army in search of adventure as soon as he reached 18. He learned to ride with the Algerian Spahis, then transferred to the famous Camel Corps, with whom he was to see active service. During the next 11 years he got to know the desert and its people well, developing a great interest in the Sahara and its history.

On retiring from the army in 1952, he remained in North Africa supervising the construction of wells. He never forgot the years he spent travelling throughout the region as a Méhariste and as a civilian - perhaps the happiest time of his life.

In 1962 he opened an equestrian centre at Vinon sur Verdon in the South of France, where he taught both riding and driving, highly respected as a top-class instructor and judge. He was instrumental in organising the first long-distance ride in France, and trained many successful competitors in this field.

Though a busy man, married with four children, he found time to continue his research into the history of the Sahara and its ancient horsemen. He contacted museums and obtained photos, books and articles to build up the background information he needed to study early vehicles and harness. He constructed wheels of different designs and then complete chariots, first as models and then full size, which could be harnessed and driven and thus fully tested. One of his early projects was to build a light chariot similar to those he had seen on the Saharan rock paintings, without using metal tools. His conclusions about the balance of a vehicle and the function of the relevant harness system would have been almost impossible to reach without practical experimentation - though he had great admiration for Mary Littauer who recognised the way in which the yoke saddle would function (Antiquity 42: 27-31) in accordance with his own findings. Their subsequent correspondence led to her translation of his first book, and to a friendship lasting more than three decades.

Jean Spruytte - horseman, self-taught scholar, and pioneer in experimental archaeology - passed away in 2007. His ashes were scattered on the Tassili plateau in south-east Algeria, where he had so happily roamed the desert and first seen the enigmatic rock paintings, on 11th March 2008.