In the comments section of an earlier post I have been talking with ryddragyn about archery on the border between the Roman and Sasanid empires around the sixth and seventh centuries CE. Often we do not have sources to answer all the questions which people have today about how soldiers used their weapons, because ancient people preferred to pass that kind of knowledge on in person. But it happens that we have many kinds of evidence for archery in this period, including slightly later archery manuals, books on generalship, a wide variety of works of art, the remains of archery equipment, and odd references in histories and other kinds of literature. I would say that we have at least as good evidence for how Romans and Persians shot at each other in the age of Khosrow and Heraclius as for how Greek hoplites fought one another in Xenophon’s day.
One of the most important pieces of evidence for how the Sasanid Persians drew their bows is a group of gilt silver plates and vases hammered with images of the king hunting with the bow on horseback. It happens that I was recently in St. Petersburg, and I was able to photograph many of these bowls and vases in the State Hermitage Museum. This week I thought I would post some of my photos. Because I have not shot a bow for too many years, nor read up on this period of history, I won’t try to provide a commentary. The captions for each photo are based on the English labels in the Hermitage.
Here are two details from the plate at the top of the post.
I think that the following plate is especially interesting for the question whether the Sasanids used a thumb draw or hooked three fingers over the string in the ‘Mediterranean’ style.
Sasanid archers did not always shoot from horseback.
I hope that someone finds these photos helpful. Although these Persians are almost a thousand years later than the ones I focus on, I think that ancient archery is an important topic, and one where academics and enthusiasts both have something to contribute. And because I have not read up on this topic recently, and not experimented with the right types of draw on the right types of bow, I think that the best thing I can do is to make some sources available and step back.
Further Reading: A. Shahpur Shahbazi, “Army i.5 The Sasanian Period,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (link), A.D.H. Bivar, “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 26 (1972) pp. 271-291 (paywalled JSTOR link), ryddragyn, The Persian Draw- What Was It? (video link). Some other Sasanid silver plates showing warriors on horseback are in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There will be an issue of Ancient Warfare Magazine on archery in March 2017, and the deadline to propose articles is still well in the future.
Edit 2016-12-07: That issue is now in print, so go check out Alexander Stover’s article on Sassanid Archers!