Ancient Composite Bows

by C.N. Hickman

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 2, 1959.
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It is common belief that composite bows are of recent origin. A bow we are about to describe was fabricated earlier than 600 B.C. and another one that will be mentioned was fabricated earlier than 1200 B.C.

In "Archery", Badminton Series, 1894, p,63,etc., Mr. C.J. Longman describes an ancient composite bow believed to be of Assyrian origin. The bow described by Longman was in the Berlin Museum. He deplores the fact that the specimen is in such poor condition that it is difficult to know much about its construction. He expressed hopes that some day a bow in better condition might be found.

His hopes were realised when a similar bow, together with arrows for it, was found in a tomb at Thebes in Egypt. The excavation was under the direction of Butros, the Italian Consul. In the same tomb were parts of an Egytptian wooden bow of the type which is commonly to be seen in museums and collections of Egyptian antiquities. Both bows with their arrows came into the hands of a mr. Petrie and were purchased by Henry Balfour, M.A. On Nov. 10th 1896, Balfour read a paper before the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in which he describes the composite bow. The paper was published in the February 1897 issue of the Journal of the Anthropological lnstitute. Vol.XXVI.No.3 (p. 210).

Fig.1 shows the shape of the bow. It is 57 3/4 inches long, measured along the belly of the bow It is highly reflexed, the distance between the tips being 53 inches. The girth of the bow near the centre is about 3 inches. It tapers gradually to each end. It was completely covered with birch-bark The greater part of the bark is still intact.

The materials used in the construction of the bow are:- 1. wood (two kinds); 2. black horn; 3. sinews of animals;. 4.birch-bark; 5. glue. A cross section was made at A-A and is shown in Fig.5. The central core (A) or "backbone", consists of a piece of wood tapering toward the ends, which runs the whole length of the bow. This wood is flattened to an oblong in cross section. The wood is not very hard, but is "stringy" with a marked grain, and is brownish-yellow in colour. The surfaces are roughly scored with grooves to give a hold to the glue. Against the edges of this core are glued side-strips (BB) of a harder brownish-red wood, with flattened inner and rounded outer surfaces. These strips also run the whole length of the bow, and are wider than the thickness of the core, and by thus overlapping the edges, make a kind of shallow channel along each face. In each of these channels lies a wide strip of dense black horn (C and D), probably of some kind of buffalo, extending to the extremeties of the limbs.

These strips exactly fill the channels, the strip along the back (C) being thinner than the one along the belly (D), corresponding with the shallower channel. The inner faces of the horn strips are scored with grooves, in the same manner as the central wooden core and side strips, to which they are firmly glued. Overlying the thicker horn strip is a second strip (E) of the same material and of nearly equal width, rather more than 1/16 inch thick at its centre and bevelled away to nothing at the edges. This produced a kind of low ridge along the belly of the bow in the central line. It is safe to assume that the horn strips are in pairs meeting at or near the centre, though without dissection their meeting point is not visible. The wood, on the other hand, runs right through the handle, and so far as can be seen, the central core runs in a single piece from end to end.

Overlying the thinner horn strip (C) which occupies the channel along the back of the central core, is a thick mass of longitudinal disposed sinew, taken probable from the neck or back of some ruminant, which very carefully prepared, and form a very homogenious and dense layer, or rather layers, for the mass is built up of two layers (F and G) of sinews, possibly more than two. The thickness of the mass is nearly 3/16 inch near the centre of the bow, becoming reduced toward the ends, as is the case with the horn strips, This sinew 'backing" is lapped round the edges of the bow, and enclose the two side strips of wood.

Near the ends of the bow, sinews are wound transversely round the whole, so as to bind the parts firmly together, and enable them to withstand, the great strain at these points.

Overlying the whole is a layer of birch-bark (H), of a rich brown-red colour, with very smooth and glossy, almost satiny, surface. It has been laid on in small rectangular pieces, each wound transverseley round (not diagonally, as is so usual with modern Asiatic bows) until one edge meets and overlaps the other a small distance. The adjacent pieces of bark join one another so as to leave no space between, and in this way they form continuous weatherproof sheath from end to end, at the same time protecting the delicate structure of the bow, and hiding its complexity from view.

This bow differs in several respects fron the ancient composite bow in the Berlin Muesum, described by Mr. Longman. It is rather longer, 57 3/4 inches against 48 1/2 inches measured along the belly of the bow, It is somewhat more reflexed. The shape as seen in the section differs, being in this bow inclined towards a pentagonal form, with the angles well rounded off, while in the Berlin bow the section at the centre of the handle is nearly circular, and at about one-third of the distance along the limbs it is piano-convex, approaching the semi-circular. The disposition of the strips of wood forming the main portion of the bow differs markedly in the two specimens. A single deep, narrow central groove runs along the whole length of the Berlin bow, sunk right through to the sinew mass, which forms the back of the bow. This groove, of course, was originally filled with either wood or horn, but in what nature or in what proportions, cannot be ascertained, as the whole groove is now empty, and no clue to the nature of the substance which once filled it remains. The presence of horn in the bow we have described, lends probability, almost certainty, to the idea that this material, either partly or entirely, filled the groove in the Berlin bow. This is rendered the more likely from the fact that the horn in the specimen described has suffered severely from white ants, whereas the wood is almost intact. The disappearance of the horn in the Berlin bow may perhaps be accounted for in the same way.

As we may, with practical certainty assume that these bows were of foreign introduction into Egypt, it remains for us to ascertain as far as possible their exact provenance. The possibly Hittite or Assyrian origin of the Berlin bow has been speculated on by Mr. Longman. It has been suggested that this bow had been introduced into Egypt either by foreign mercenaries or as spoils of war. The tomb in which it was found at Thebes has been referred by experts to the time of Ramesu II (XIX dynasty), our according to Mr. Petrie, as from 1275 to 1208 B.C.

Now there are strong reasons for supporting the theory of an Assyrian origin for the bow of the XXVI dynasty which we have described. It not only resembles closely the better representations of bows in Assyrian sculpture, in shape and in curve assumed when drawn, and in the way which the ends curve over backwards, but the date of die tomb in which it is said to have been discovered corresponds with the end of the period of the Assyrian occupancy of Egypt. Mr. Petrie informs me that the Assyrian conquest in the XXV dynasty was about 672 B.C. and lasted till the rise of the XXVI dinasty, which extended from about 664-525 B.C.

It further evidence is requiredto prove an Assiryan origin for this bow such is, I venture to think, supplied by the arros which were found with it. Just as the composite and alien bow differs from the characteristic Egyptian bow found in the same tomb, so de the arrows found with the former differ from those found with the latter. The arrows belonging to the Egyptian wooden bow are themselves in every way characteristically Egyptian in type. They consist of a fairly stout shaft of reed, with for-shaft of wood tanged in it. To prevent splitting the socket is whipped with fibres (possibly sinews), which care blackened with a kind of bitumen. The foreshaft is furnished with a head of chert, With wide transverse cutting edge. Arrows fitted with heads of this shape are frequently shown in ancient Egyptian representations of archery. The nock at the butt end of the shaft is, it is important to notice, of a very simple and characteristic king, cut deeply in the reed end itself just beyond a node. There were three feathers (Half feathers set edgewise), apparently about 2 5/8 to 2 3/4 inches long; the lines of glue which fixed them are very apparent in some of the arrows.

Turning to the Assyrian arrows, well marked differences are seen. On the whole, these arrows are of finer makem than the Egyptian ser. The shafts are cut from more slender reeds than in the others, and vary from 21 1/4 to 22 1/2 inches in length. The fore shafts vary from 10 1/4 to 11 5/8 inches in length, and are carefully finished and smoothed; they are sharper at she tips (See Fig.2). The foreshalts are neatly tanged into the shaft. Instead of the nook being cut in the reed, a piece of hard wood, or horn in some cases, has been tanged into the butt of the shaft. (See enlarged view of nock in Fig. 4). The feathers were about 4 inches long and were set edgewise on the shafts, and were glued and bound with sinew.

Together with those already described, and with the composite bow was found a short wooden foreshaft, (Fig .3), 5 inches long and tanged to fit a reed shaft, and with deep narrow socket at the end, into which is fitted by means of a long narrow tang, a leaf-shaped blade of bronze, The blade is 1 1/2 inches long by 11/16 inch, and is slightly "ogee" in section. The tang mearasures 1 5/16 inches long.

To sun up briefly, the evidence in favour of the theory of the Assyrian nationality of this bow with its arrows rests upon the following facts:

1. The form, Composite structure and materials of the bow are entirely non-Eyptian in character, and point clearly to a more northern origin. The shape corresponds with that of many bows represented in Assyrian sculpture.

2. The arrows found with the bow and evidently belonging to it are quite non-Egyptian in type, and correspond closely with arrows represented in Assyrian sculptures of a somewhat earlier date.

5. The date of the tomb (XXVI dynasty) corresponds with the end of the Assyrian invasion, which took place during the XXV dynasty and lasted till the rise of the XXVI dynasty.

In the Paper by Mr. Belfour, he stated that he is giving the bows and arrows to the University of Oxford Museum, as an addition to the Pitt-Rivers collection which forms an important feature in the ethnological collection presented by him to the University.