How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos?
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How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos?

A reconstruction of a Scythian noble with the bowcase on his left hip. I almost wrote nobleman, but that is not a safe guess in the steppes! Probably from Philip De Souza ed., The Ancient World at War. A Global History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).

For a few years now, I have been trying to remember where I learned that Scythian bowcases (Greek gorytos, Babylonian šalṭu) often contained a hundred or more arrows. I have heard it in various places, including in a lecture by a famous classicist in the sunset lands beyond the Ocean, but what is the archaeological evidence?

  • Ellis H. Minns, Scythians and Greeks: A Survey of Ancient History and Archaeology on the North Coast of the Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1913) p. 68: 200 to 300 arrows in quivers from Scythian graves
  • Geo Widengren, “Recherches sur le féodalisme iranien,” Orientalia Suecanica V (1956) p. 152 n. 2: A gorytos in a kurgan at Solokha contained 180 arrows
  • Richard Brzeinski and Mariusz Mielczarek, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450. Men at Arms 373. Osprey Publishing: Botley, 2002. p. 34: 128 arrows with painted shafts in a gorytos in Sholokhovskii kurgan at Rostov-on-Don (-IV); 228 iron heads, 4 bronze, 9 bone in two clumps in a kurgan near Hutor Kascheevka, Rostov-on-Don (-IV or -III)

Now, citing these sources makes me feel a bit dirty, because the ones after the Bolsheviks seized power don’t cite their sources. Unfortunately very few people talk about the Soviet excavations in English, German, or French, and when they do they do not give footnotes. So in the time I have available, these sources will do.

The famous battle scene on the gold comb from Solocha/Solokha. Wikipedia claims that the gorytos from this tomb contained 80 bronze arrowheads. Also probably from Philip De Souza ed., The Ancient World at War. A Global History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).

Those are remarkable numbers. Soldiers in Babylonia in the same period usually carried 30 to 60 arrows, the Strategikon recommends that Roman soldiers carry 30 or 40 in a quiver, and English archers in the 14th, 15th, and 16th century usually carried a sheaf of two dozen arrows. Medieval hunters often carried as few as three arrows or bolts stuck through their belt! And that tells us that these bows were used in a very different way than those of medieval longbowmen, Belisarius’ hardtack-munchers, or Nebuchadnezzar’s bowmen.

These western Scythian (to use the Greek name) or Kimmerian (to use the Babylonian name) bows were designed for a style of fighting which involved putting vast numbers of arrows into the air. Such small, light arrows might not penetrate shields or inflict immediately disabling wounds, but if enough arrows were in the air that would not matter. The peoples of the western steppes were accused of poisoning their arrows, and that is certainly a common solution for archers forced to use short or light bows. The bows which shot these arrows were nothing like the six-foot-long, inch-thick monsters from the Mary Rose. Some people today want all military bows to have had very high draw weights, but the evidence from the parts of the ancient world which I study does not really support that.

Further Reading: Adrienne Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs (non legi); Waller and Waller, “The Carriage of Arrows from Hastings to the Mary Rose”; Kirstin Kleber “Zu Waffen und Ausrüstung babylonischer Soldaten in der zweiten Hälfte des 1 Jt. v. Chr.”

Edit 2021-10-20: Fixed link and converted to block editor.

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21 thoughts on “How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos?

  1. woodcrafter1372 says:

    If a shaft is 3/8 inch in diameter and you cram them all together, it is possible to have hundreds in a bunch. But the feathers and heads would prove troublesome. The overall weight would be a hindrance.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Apparently they often had reed shafts which would keep the weight down. I think that sockets are usually around 1/4″ wide … its possible that the shafts were a bit wider, especially if they had a wooden foreshaft inserted into a reed shaft. The heads were usually small and light, without hooks on the blades I am not sure how ‘big’ the fletching was. It would be nice to see someone build a bowcase and arrows and try riding around with 80 or 180 arrows in their case though!

      1. paulmacd1 says:

        In 2005, following a tip-off that tomb robbers were excavating into a tumulus, a rescue excavation was mounted. The archaeologists were delighted to discover the tomb intact and unplundered. It belonged to a Thracian prince, a son of King Kersebleptes who died aged 20 (probably in war with Philip of Macedon). Among its treasures were his full panoply which included a completely intact cavalry Tube-and-Yoke corselet, co-incidently matching Xenophon’s description. It was made of 3mm thick leather covered completely in scales. There were also two sets of bronze arrowheads, one of 102 and the other of 75 indicating two gorytus loads…….

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Thanks Paul! If I had time, I would see if there were arrows in the golden gorytos in the mystery tumulus at Vergina.

          Do you mean the tumulus published in Daniela Agre’s book?

      2. Marion says:

        No hooks on the head of the arrow would make sense as the head would be designed to penetrate armor. That would make it easier to cram a lot of arrows into a small place. I would believe 80 to 120 arrows to be the correct number based on the size of the quiver.

        1. Sean says:

          It would be interesting to hear from the people who reenacted Scythian cavalry at Plataea 2022. I think making arrows with small fletchings and narrow heads that pack tightly is a skill.

          I would not want to pull 100 arrows out at once because a barb on one arrow caught on another arrow caught on another arrow.

  2. paulmacd1 says:

    Sorry…..meant to mention the source. It is indeed Daniela Agre’s book about the Golyamata Mogila tumulus, from c.351 BC, near the villages of Malomirovo and Zlatinitsa in Bulgaria. Each set of arrows are of the typical trilobite type, but one set (the 102 arrowheads) are a larger size than the other, and both sets have several variants, and slightly conical shafts.

    I assume by “golden gorytus” you are referring to the cover plate found in the antechamber of Philip II’s tomb ( I don’t think there is much doubt that it is his any more). With this plate were found 74 bronze arrowheads of the usual trilobite type…..

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Well, there are an awful lot of archaeologists who doubt in print whose tomb it is!

      1. paulmacd1 says:

        I have followed this subject with great interest since the discovery in 1977 – one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

        It is not strictly true that there are an “awful lot of archaeologists who doubt in print whose tomb it is.” There are a mere handful, while the vast majority in Greece and the world agree the tomb is that of Philip II. Perhaps you have that impression because a number of the doubters are North American. And those ‘doubters’, beginning with jealous rivals of Andronicus and his good fortune in his find, put up unconvincing and false arguments for why the tomb could not be Philip II’s, such as ‘anachronistic salt cellars’ which weren’t at all,’no barrel vaults before Alexander’, demonstrably untrue, ‘silver plate uses Attic weights not in use in Philip II’s reign’ – except they were and so on. Every single one of the ‘doubters’ arguments has been thoroughly debunked. The latest, back in 2015, was a claim by Bartsiokas that a skeleton in Tomb 1 was Philip’s, by virtue of a leg injury – except that the leg in this instance was ankylosed to almost 90 degrees, and for a variety of reasons ‘blind Freddie’ could see that it couldn’t possibly be Philip.
        Following a four year study using the latest forensic medical tools and methods, Antikas and his team concluded that the occupant of tomb II could only be Philip II. At the time Maria Liston, an unrepentant follower of Bartsiokas, tried to decry the Antikas report, but as always with the doubters, her reasoning was false…..
        No further doubts have been expressed in the last few years and the matter appears to be settled, as far as it can be. (You’d need an artifact with Philip II’s name on it too be absolutely certain )

        Given that you are familiar with all this, I am a little surprised that you apparently uphold the cause of the few ‘doubters’, Sean.
        Still, we digress, and this is not the place to discuss this subject……

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Hi Paul, I would be interested to see evidence for the number of supporters of different theories! (That might be hard, because this is a topic where many experts share their opinions in person but refuse to write them down and deal with the angry letters).

          Rather than opening with phrase like “jealous rivals” and “a mere handful,” I will suggest that people interested in this problem, and the ways that bad reasoning and rough treatment of finds have confused things, read Jolene McLeod, “Understanding the Bones: The Human Skeletal Remains from Tombs I, II and III at Vergina” Pages 7 and following discuss the modern politics which have influenced interpretations.

          I would not claim to be familiar with the research on Vergina: all I am familiar with is how to spot areas of science which are highly politicized and avoid taking a position on them unless I have time to look closely at the evidence. Agnosticism is the default position, not something to defend.

  3. paulmacd1 says:

    Naughty Sean ! You are changing the premises! You began by referring to archaeologists ( and others) who were published in print. Over 30 years, that is about a dozen doubters, hence a “handful”, especially compared to the uncountable number who have supported Andronicus’ conclusion that the occupant is Philip II, including the official Greek archaeology view, the Vergina museum, UNESCO, and many other august bodies – all incidently without caveat or expressed doubts. As to “jealous rivals”, that is not my phrase but a well accepted fact, starting with Andronicus’ bitter rival Petsas. Such rivalries, politics ( both external with FYROM and internal) and a number of other ‘red herrings’ have sufficed to obscure the facts of the matter, but beneath the smoke and mirrors, the evidence is there – and plain. Jolene McLeod is an excellent source but considers only the skeletal evidence which alone cannot be conclusive – see my previous comment; M. Hatzopoulos 2008 summing up of the cases as a whole, considers all the evidence, and nothing has emerged since to alter his conclusions. There are really only two candidates -Philip II or Philip III Arrhidaeus, and Hatzopoulos concluded in part that adherents of the latter faced “insurmountable obstacles” ( i.e.the evidence is all against him). The circumstantial historical evidence is all in favour of Philip II.

    The agnostic view – that nothing is known – does not stand up to scrutiny, and if you are at all interested you should examine the plentiful evidence as a whole, which while circumstantial, presents a compelling case that the occupant of Tomb II is indeed Philip II.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Paul,

      yes, I typed the wrong word (“archaeologists doubt in print” instead of “specialists doubt in print”). But if you want to make a claim about a consensus, all the people who studied the problem but never wrote about it matter too. I have found that the balance between the Van Wees/Krentz school of thought on Greek warfare, and the Hanson school of thought, looks very different once you start talking to academics and trading emails and not just reading books and articles.

      If there are really uncountable numbers who have published on Tomb 2 and seriously considered the question of the occupant, I would be surprised, but what do I know. When I read the paper by Antikas on the human remains in 2016, their argument for Philip II and his Scythian wife did not really seem conclusive. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to start researching any new topics until my dissertation is done.

      1. paulmacd1 says:

        Yes Sean, the ‘handful’ I referred to included other specialists, not just archaeologists. Equally the ‘uncountable numbers’ was obviously a reference to all the people who never wrote about it, not just those who publish.
        As for the ‘orthodox othismos’ school of Hanson and co or the ‘revisionist’ school of Van Wees and his loose order spear fencing, I say a plague on both their houses for they are equally wrong in their failure to understand the nature of Hoplite warfare. Their arguments are ‘cherry picked’, and anyone who has fully read the source material will debunk both in a heartbeat ( there was no such thing as ‘othismos’ for a start, so they are arguing over a false premise )
        I agree with you that those who publish don’t necessarily represent the best views on any subject, for reasons you refer to, but that is the nature of academic hierarchies.

        By the way, the golden gorytus cover doesn’t necessarily mean Scythian, as similar quivers come from Thrace. In addition ‘suttee’ was a Thracian custom as well, and that leads to an obvious candidate for the burial in the ante-chamber ( which is also consistent with the osteological evidence of the Antikas team)……

  4. Provisions, Loin-Girdling, and Battle Gear in the Long Sixth Century | Book and Sword says:

    […] are issued with 25, 40, or 50 arrows each (eg. MacGinnis no. 27, 50). That was a small number by West Scythian standards, but warriors in Babylonia had traditionally used a different style of bow with longer, heavier […]

  5. Pavel says:

    Dear Paul,

    I saw your comments after years. You say plague on both camps for hoplite debate, now with China coronavirus it’s not needed anymore:)) Honestly van Wees and Krentz are credible to me in this matter. If You want to solve hoplite combat by new opinions, why don’t You recommend me some book, article. Or can You give me a short answer? By the way I can read primary sources for this (Greek only, for Latin I can ask my aquintances for help), yet I hate such mysterious answers like Christian Cameron wrote long time ago. Both camps are wrong, okay, what is right approach then? For me this also useless question, solved long time ago. Yet I would like to hear as many different opinions possible.

  6. Cross-Post: Dis Manibus Paul ‘Xenophon’ McDonnell-Staff (12 March 2020) | Book and Sword says:

    […] Paul was more of a rhetorician and less of a scientist than I am, but I still learned a lot from him. He knew the classical literary sources, including the unfashionable ones like Aelian, very well. There is another memorial from Jasper Oorthuys at Karwansaray and some of his comments on In Antiquity, Fighting Wasn’t a Young Man’s Game and How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos? […]

  7. Provisions, Loin-Girdling, and Battle Gear in the Long Sixth Century – Book and Sword says:

    […] are issued with 25, 40, or 50 arrows each (eg. MacGinnis no. 27, 50). That was a small number by West Scythian standards, but warriors in Babylonia had traditionally used a different style of bow with longer, heavier […]

  8. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Behold brothers in arms:) Finally a study where is carefully documented diameter of sockets from Scythian arrowheads

    It’s really depressing that even Szudy talks in his Ph.D.;jsessionid=96B9AF2CCD27785765FBD54D39CDFD9E.touch01?id=zenon001608516&View=prop about diameter of sockets only few times. His work is not heplful in this regard, same goes for Serminari

    1. Sean says:

      I think sometimes archaeologists have to work with practitioners or engineers to understand which properties of an artifact are functionally important. Archaeologists also have unnamed taboos like the taboo against publishing the weights of artifacts.

      The good news is that “Get to the point: what questions should we ask about a spear?” will be published later this year.

  9. Pavel Vaverka says: Super important debate about strength of Scythian bows!!! You must see this, because fierce debate took place, Jack Farrell is convinced that Scythian bows were powerful to 54.43 kg or even more. There is also presentation

    I am still very sceptical to the use of poison arrow in battles vis Bede Dwyer who has the same opinion.

    1. Sean says:

      Will see when I can get around to it! One of the fundamental divides seem to be whether people are comfortable taking finds from the Takalamakan Desert and the Altai and projecting them on the Western Scythians. The chapter in The Cutting Edge seemed to think that Western Scythian bows were just sinew-reinforced not composite but I don’t know their reason for thinking so.

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