Sasanid Archery on Silver in the Hermitage

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Categories: Ancient, Medieval
Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

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.

Detail of draw: plate with Khosrow II with nobles. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 6th century CE. Found in the Perm Region before 1908. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1926 from Kungur Museums.

Here are two details from the plate at the top of the post.

Detail of draw: Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.
Detail of draw: Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

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.

Plate with a horseman hunting. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th or 8th century CE. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1840 by order of Nicholas I with the funds from the Imperial Cabinet. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.
Sigma-shaped composite bow with ears; peculiar draw where the bottom three fingers are free, the thumb is hooked over the arrow and points downwards away from the body, and the index finger is hooked over the thumb towards the shooter's chest
Detail of draw: Plate with a horseman hunting. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th or 8th century CE. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1840 by order of Nicholas I with the funds from the Imperial Cabinet. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Sasanid archers did not always shoot from horseback.

Detail of draw: plate with a king hunting antelope on camelback. Label not available. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

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 in Ancient Warfare X.5!

Edit 2021-09-27: Fixed links to images after transfer to self-hosted wordpress, and converted to block editor

0 thoughts on “Sasanid Archery on Silver in the Hermitage

  1. ryddragyn says:

    Thank you for the GREAT quality photos. The first image in particular is interesting in that it appears to clearly depict the arrow on the right sight of the bow (on most other silver plates this is very difficult to make out). This would seem to support the theory that the Sassanid draw was a thumb draw variant.

    The second to last plate (“Plate with a horseman hunting. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th or 8th century CE.) is one of the ones that Edward Morse described in “Additional notes on arrow release” in 1922 ( a follow up to his 1885 work):

    https://books.google.com/books?id=8MOfAAAAMAAJ&lpg=PA35&ots=ggAODIYJYC&dq=morse%20additional%20notes%20on%20arrow%20release%20persia&pg=PA32#v=onepage&q=morse%20additional%20notes%20on%20arrow%20release%20persia&f=false

    Unlike later authors like Bivar, Morse thought that this and other Persian artwork was clearly showing a thumb draw. As far as I am aware this is the only plate to unambiguously show the conventional thumb draw, instead of the hypothetical Persian variant. As Morse notes, the contemporaneous Taq-E-Bostan reliefs show essentially the same thing.

    With that plate as an obvious exception, what’s really striking is how the sassanid hunting scenes are otherwise relatively consistent in how they depict the archers’ technique. That could mean strict adherence to artistic conventions, but it could also suggest that the artists were somewhat accurately portraying their subject matter.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You are welcome ryddragyn! It seems that the plate with the horseman hunting has the arrow on the right side of the bow too. On one of the plates the engraver even tried to show how the bowstring is knotted into a loop … incredible detail. I have not read the booklet by Morse yet but will try to make time for it.

      I do wonder if one of the early Greek or Arabic archery manuals says anything about how the Persians hold the arrow. The specialists seem to think that those manuals sometimes describe practices which had fallen out of use.

      Taking photos of shiny metal through glass is hard … I would like to take a photography course one day. A little hand flashlight sometimes helps.

      1. ryddragyn says:

        The Arab manuals talk about a lot of minor variations of how to do the thumb release, albeit almost 1000 years later.

        http://www.archerylibrary.com/books/faris-elmer/arab-archery/docs/xv.html

        One part is really interesting:

        “there are three schools concerning the position of the tip of the index finger: to hold it outside the string [to the left], inside the string [to the right], and on the string. The first draw, with the oblique [slanting] position of the string in the joint of the thumb, insures the quickest release, and is the oldest method. It was used by the expert Persian archers.”

        At least in the way that I read it, that is entirely consistent with the angled, not quite horizontal, not quite vertical appearance of the hand in the Sassanid plates. In replicating my interpretation of the plate images, my leather thumb ring even took an oblique/angled groove in it.

        The text obviously differs from most of the plates in terms of how the index finger is used, though.

        By the way, I did write to the editor at AW magazine, but I have not heard back yet.

        1. Sean Manning says:

          I think the staff at Karwansaray are busy launching a new magazine this fall, but they are reliable at getting back to people a few months before the deadline for proposals. I think that I proposed the article on the Hittite Instructions for the Royal Bodyguard six months or a year before they had an issue to fit it in.

  2. A Lombard Silver Bowl | Book and Sword says:

    […] in the Castelvecchio of Verona is an extraordinary silver plate. It dates a bit later than the Sasanid silverwork which I have blogged about before, to the age which gave us Maurice’s Strategikon when East […]

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