How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2

In my first post on Iron Age bows, I showed that there is a lot of evidence that archers in England, the Ottoman Empire, and the Manchu Empire used bows with very heavy draw weights (over 100 pounds / 45 kg at the intended draw length) around the 15th-17th centuries CE. People who are keen on early modern archery often project these heavy draw weights onto all war bows in all cultures. But we have reconstructions of ancient bows from the area from Egypt to India by people who examined the remains of bows and arrows from that place and time. What kind of draw weights did those bows have?

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How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1

See caption for description of painting
Another important detail: A Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in the BNM Munich showing the telltale red belly and yellow back of a bowstave made from the heartwood of a yew tree.

At the moment, many archery enthusiasts are telling anyone who will listen that soldiers’ bows usually had draw weights of 100 lbs and more (Deer hunters today usually use bows with a draw weight on the order of 50 lbs, casual or target archers often use bows about half as heavy, and even hunters of larger game rarely use a bow with a draw weight of 100 lbs or more). In other words, you could draw the bow to its full draw length by hanging it string-down and suspending 100 lbs or more from the middle of the string.  If this idea is correct, many men in the ancient world did something which is much more physically demanding than is commonly thought. This week, I would like to post some of the evidence which I know which might be relevant to the strength of bows used in the eastern Mediterranean around the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. I hope that some of my readers can suggest more sources.

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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.

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Things Found in Footnotes

A silver coin with Athena seated on a throne holding a round shield with a word in Greek and a B-shaped bow behind her
Although the bow was rarely the most prestigious weapon in the Aegean, it was still an important part of life and warfare. Museum label: “Tetradrachm. Obv. Head of Philetairos right. Rev. Athena enthroned left with shield and spear, legend: ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ, bow, ivy left, monogram. The Pergamene Kingdom. Attalos I Soter, 241-197 B.C. Silver, chasing. Provenance, 1952.” Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015, of an object in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

On New Years’ Day I was sorting through some old papers from my time in Calgary and found something which set me to cursing. I was looking for an article which I had ordered while I was writing my MA but never done much with. As it was delivered on paper, and I never typed up the citation, I did not have it in Innsbruck and could not find it again. A.D.H. Bivar’s “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier” mentions in passing that:

There is support for the general hypothesis that the so-called “Mongolian draw” was used by the Huns, and from them taken up by the Byzantines, in a passage from the anonymous sixth-century chapter on archery, περὶ τοξείας. (p. 284)

He cited a German translation and commentary with the Greek text attached. I was intrigued because the sources on archery in the Mediterranean which are most often used are written in Arabic and date between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. I now have it in arm’s reach, and it is indeed a treatise on archery, and it does date to the first millennium CE.

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Sasanid Archery on Silver in the Hermitage

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.

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A Deed Never Yet Done

Line drawing of a relief where pharaoh with a falcon overhead draws his bow as his two-horse chariot tramples he fallen or fleeing enemy
A deed done over and over again: two dynasties after Amenhotep, Ramses III smites the Libyans (from The Epigraphic Survey (eds.), Medinet Habu, Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Plate 18 c/o the generous Oriental Institute )

While I do not think that many Bronze Age or Classical bows were as powerful as the longbows from the Mary Rose or the hornbows from the Tokapi Palace, I can think of one or two exceptions. Today I would like to give one which I recently stumbled over while reviewing an article by Pierre Briant. As often happens, reading this passage again revealed something which I had not remembered.

The Great Sphinx Stele tells the following story of Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the New Kingdom:

He also came to do the following … Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next. Then his Majesty appeared on the chariot like Mont in his might. He drew his bow while holding four arrows together in his fist. Then he rode northward shooting at them, like Mont in his panoply, each arrow coming out of the back of its target while he attacked the next post. It was a deed never yet done, never yet heard reported: shooting an arrow at a target of copper, so that it came out of it and dropped to the ground.

Andrea M. Gnirs, “Ancient Egypt,” in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge MA, 1999) p. 84 citing the Great Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 41, 42.

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Military Equipment for Ten Men

Stone relief with soldiers with spears and shields running up ladders placed against a city while a wheeled battering ram with a tower attacks its walls and archers shoot from behind pavises
Assyrians storm a city in the reign of Tiglath-Pilser III (745-727 BCE). British Museum Catalogue number ME 115634; ME 118903. This photo is copyright of the British Museum and is used with permission.

One of the collections of texts which I have been working with is a collection of texts associated with an Assyrian governor in the first half of the eighth century BCE (about sixty years before the relief above was carved). Aaron Dornauer has published a luxurious edition with sketches, a specialized sign list with the readings used in these documents, and detailed commentaries. Many more documents were written on clay in Neo-Assyrian times than under the Achaemenids, and because of the burning and abandonment of many Assyrian cities, a higher proportion have survived. It is therefore very important to study earlier periods to see what traditions the Achaemenids inherited and compare what is known in Achaemenid times. This weekend I will discuss one of these texts which deals with one of my interests, arms and armour.

This text is No. 48 in Dornauer’s edition and comes from two fragments whose total size is 4.1 x 6.5 cm. Like many Assyriological collections it was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century. I have written words which are written as logograms in the original with CAPITAL LETTERS.

Upper Edge: One CHARIOT
Verso: 4 HORSES
10 BLADES (patrū)
10 spears (kutahatē)
10 helmets (qurpissī)
10 quivers (azanatē)
10 shields (aritū)
10 shirts
10 leather belts
Bottom Edge: 10 tunics
Recto: 1 OX
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Roman Archery

An archer on a galloping horse takes aim at a king with a broad-headed arrow
My library lacks photos of east Roman archers, but they and the Avars influenced peoples in western Europe,
so how about this nineth-century picture from folio 32v of the Stuttgart Psalter in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek

In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the Greek-speaking Romans systematically copied the military methods of the Huns and Avars who were ravaging Europe. One effect of this was that Roman soldiers and scholars began to write treatises on archery, and when Arabs and Turks conquered their lands they also adopted the practice of writing about archery. Because a certain YouTube video by a trick shooter (to which I will only link indirectly) has been making the rounds, I thought that it would be a good idea to post a passage from the only one of these treatises which I have to hand. This is the Strategikon of the Emperor Maurice, written within a decade or so of the year 600 (I quote from page 11 of G.T. Dennis’ translation).

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