Notes on Ancient Archery
Part 1 of 2
IT is obviously impossible within the limits of the present volume to attempt a history of archery as practised among the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean lands, and this chapter merely aims at supplying a few notes on some points of interest to archers connected with the use and structure of the bow in ancient times.
It appears that the bow was in use in all the lands bordering on the Mediterranean, in greater or less degree, from a very early date it was, however, among the Assyrians and the Egyptians that it assumed its highest position as a military weapon It is evident from the mural sculptures discovered by Sir A. H. Layard in the palaces at Nimroud and Kouyunjik that archery was as important an arm in the Assyrian hosts as it was in the English armies in the Middle Ages The mere fact that the king himself is generally represented in battle armed with the bow, sometimes even dismounted from his chariot, and shooting at his enemies on foot, shows that the weapon was held in the highest repute so important was the archer considered, that we find him accompanied by a shield-bearer whose business it was to ward off the arrows of the enemy. Sometimes the Assyrians fought in groups of three, consisting of an archer, a shield-bearer, and a swordsman. At other times we find one shield-bearer allotted to two archers, as in the illustration (fig 49) Frequently the archers fought from chariots, and here, again, we find them protected by a shield-bearer. Horse-archers were sometimes employed, also in pairs, one horseman holding the reins and guiding both horses, while the other used his how (fig. 50).
It would be not unnatural to suppose that, considering the large number of representations of archers and of bows that have come down to us, little difficulty would be found in recognising the structure of the bow used by the Assyrians. This, however, is very far from being the case, as the Assyrian bow, and to some extent the Egyptian bow, has been the cause of great perplexity in the minds of inquirers. It is evident that the Assyrian bow was an efficient and powerful one, not only from the fact that it was the principal weapon of war, but also because their kings and nobles appear to have relied on i, largely in hunting even so formidable a beast as the lion. Fig 51 shows King Asshur-na-zirpal He has apparently slain one lion, and is shooting at another. Now it is evident that if the bow was a trustworthy weapon against lions, it must have been capable of delivering an arrow with great force. Yet, to judge by the sculptured representations, the bow was as ill-made a weapon as can be conceived. We must therefore conclude, either that the sculptures are inaccurate, or that the bow was of a construction somewhat different from any that we are accustomed to, and was capable of doing better work than its appearance would lead us to believe. The former alternative is the one which at first seems most probable. the Assyrian sculptors, though obviously artists of great skill, were unacquainted with many of the elements of drawing, and frequently made the sort of mistake which children make in their first efforts. For instance, they delight in showing in a picture more than the eye can see at one view In depicting all archer in profile, with his back towards the spectator, they cannot resist introducing the drawing hand, as well as the back of the bow hand, when it would in fact be hidden by the body of the archer. Again, the artists frequently show no appreciation of the relative sizes of objects. It might therefore be argued, that if they make such obvious mistakes about matters of which we are able to judge, their representations of objects such as bows are likely to be equally faulty. This would be an easy way of dismissing the question, but on the whole it does not seem the right view to adopt.
In the first place, though the sculptures abound in instances of ignorance of perspective, yet they appear to be singularly accurate and exact in the representation of details. Secondly, if we are to assume that the representations of bows are ill done, and drawn without any attempt at accurate delineation, it seems certain that they would vary considerably from each other. This, however, is not the case. Great numbers of representations of bows have come down to us, executed at periods distant from each other by hundreds of years, but the type of bow is remarkably constant. It is impossible to believe that this uniformity can be due to any other cause than the fact that the pictures were accurately drawn from the bows in common use throughout this period.
Fig. 52 represents King Asshur-na-zirpal with a strung bow in his left hand. At first sight this appears to be a bow consisting of a single wooden stave about five feet long, with almost every fault that a how can possess. The curious angular shape which it shows violates the first principle of the bowyer's craft (according to our ideas), namely, that a bow shall have a stiff, unbending centre of a foot or eighteen inches, according to the length of the bow. This angular shape is very typical of Assyrian bows, and is also frequently found in Egyptian art, especially when Asiatic foes or mercenaries are depicted. Frequently, however, the bows are represented not absolutely angular, but always bending freely from the centre, and this is especially the case in the later sculptures of the time of Asshur-na-nipal. Bows with stiff centres occur in Egyptian art, but not, so far as I know, in Assyrian. Again, the bow appears to be of the same thickness all the way down, instead of gradually diminishing towards the ends. It is beyond all doubt that if this really represents, as it appears to do, a single stave bow of wood, it is a bad bow.
If we now refer to fig. 51, representing the same monarch, Asshur-na-zirpal, lion-hunting, we see what is presumably the same bow, or a bow of the same kind, fully drawn. This picture is as typical of the fully-drawn bow throughout the Assyrian sculptures as fig. 52 is of the bow when merely strung. This bow, again, bends very badly, judged by the standard of English wooden bows, as it bends right through the hand. The curve is, however, such as might be expected from the shape of the bow as depicted when strung, without any rigid centre. The length of the arrow, which is fully drawn to the head, is, moreover, so great when compared with the length of the bow that the two ends are brought much closer together than would be possible with any modern wooden bows without fracturing the bow. The curve described seems, in fact, to be only practicable with a bow made of a material far more elastic and less liable to fracture than any wood which, in modern times at any rate, has been used for bow-making. It is possible that the Assyrians knew of a wood which possessed the necessary qualities, which has long since disappeared or been forgotten, but it is improbable. Indeed, no ' self' bow, unless it were made of whalebone, could be expected to bend in the fashion of these Assyrian bows. The only remaining alternative, if we are to accept the evidence of the sculptures, is to assume that the Assyrian bow was in fact a composite bow. The appearance of the bow when strung affords little support to this theory, and, unfortunately, the ruins of Nineveh have not produced a single example of the Assyrian bow by which the question might be definitely settled. Fortunately, in the dry climate of Egypt a weapon has survived which may, perhaps, throw some light on the subject.
It will be remembered that the composite bow is, and has been from a remote period, essentially the weapon of Asia and of Eastern Europe; while in Africa the simple wooden arcus is the type of bow in general use. Consequently, it would be in accordance with what is generally known of the distribution of the bow if the Assyrian bow should turn out to be composite, while the occurrence of the composite bow in ancient Egypt would require some explanation. A considerable number of bows have been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt which are simple wooden bows of the typical African character. Fig. 53, from Rosellini's ' Monuments,' represents a bow of this type being drawn the stiff centre will be noted in comparison with the arch of the Assyrian bow. It dates probably from B.C. 1600, or somewhat earlier. It was therefore with great surprise, in the spring of 1893, that the present writer observed in the Egyptian section of the Royal Museum in Berlin what appeared to be undoubtedly a considerable fragment of a composite bow. I he curator of the department had not closely examined this piece, which came from a tomb at Thebes which is said by experts to be of the time of Rameses II. the writer, however, called the attention of Dr. von Luschan, the head of the Berlin Ethnographical Museum, to the bow, and he, recognising its importance, made a careful examination and dissection of it, and subsequently published a brochure on the subject. The illustrations (p. 65) of this unique bow are taken from drawings kindly supplied by Dr. von Luschan.
The bow is not perfect, one end being wanting, which has been restored by the dotted lines in the illustrations. The portion preserved measures 1.025 metre in length; the complete bow, as restored, would measure 1.245 metre. It will be seen that a deep groove runs the whole length of the bow, which is enclosed on each side by wood. Dr. von Luschan says that this consists of three strips on each side, though in his drawing there appears to be only one strip on each side in the centre at B. and two strips at A. These are the only portions of the bow which are of wood, the most important part of the bow probably its back being a hard, shiny, fibrous tissue of a pale yellow colour, of animal origin. Dr. von Luschan considers that this substance consists of the sinews from some large beast, probably cattle. The groove was in all probability filled with horn, which is known to be very perishable, even in the dry climate of Egypt. In some places traces can be found of a covering of leather and another, outer skin, probably of birch bark. Here we have a true composite bow similar in many respects to the modern Asiatic bow.
The groove in this bow is on the convex side, while the sinew back is on the concave side, as the bow now exists. The universal practice in building composite bows is to follow the natural shape of the horns which form their basis, the maker adding a stiffening of wood and overlaying the concave side with elastic sinew. When the bow is strung the natural shape of the horns is reversed, so that the outer, or convex, curve becomes the belly, or concave curve, in the weapon when ready for use. It appears that this usage was followed by the unknown bowyers who lived in the days of Rameses the Great. The main difference between this bow and a modern Turkish or Persian bow lies in the fact that in no part of the bow does there appear to be enough wood to render that part rigid. The backbone of the bow from end to end was horn and sinew: if, that is to say, we are right in conjecturing that the missing substance from the groove was horn. There is no stiff section in the centre of the bow, as is now customary, and there are no stiff ears at each end, turning on a natural hinge when the bow is strung. On the contrary, the bow would no doubt bend when drawn in one continuous curve throughout from end to end. Now this is precisely what those bows do in the Assyrian sculptures, which are represented as fully drawn, and precisely what the bow figured in the cut from Rosellini does not do. If, as appears at any rate possible, this bow was an Asiatic how, one difficulty as regards these sculptures disappears.
The difficulty of the angular form of the bow when strung but not drawn remains to be considered. The structure of the bow of Rameses II. at once makes this easier to understand. The absence of a stiff centre would naturally cause the bow when strung to fall away rapidly from the middle. In the example under consideration the wood stretches from end to end, so that although there would be no straight centre, which we nowadays expect, yet there would not be an actual angle. It is, however, possible that ill some cases the strips of wood did not actually join in the centre, in which case, when the pressure of the string was applied this curious angular shape Fig.. 54. Composite bow of the time of Rameses II would necessarily be produced. Should more bows of this character be subsequently discovered, this theory may be confirmed, or it may be upset, but in the meantime it is submitted tentatively as a possible explanation of this very curious weapon.
Dr. von Luschan supposes that this was either a bow of one of the Asiatic mercenaries of Egypt, or of one of the captives taken in war. He conjectures that it may possibly be Hittite, and the accompanying figure of a Hittite archer may be compared with it. This figure is taken, by Dr. von Luschan's permission, from a photograph of a Hittite sculpture recently discovered by him, and hitherto unpublished. Rameses II. conquered the Hittites or Khita, so that this conjecture is not improbable; and it is to some extent confirmed by a battle scene between Scti, the father of Rameses II., and the Hittites, engraved in Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson's work on the ancient Egyptians. In this picture the Hittites are armed with a short angular bow very similar to the Assyrian bow. However this may be, the likeness of the bow of Rameses II. toe the Assyrian bows and its undoubtedly composite nature seem to leave little room for doubt that the bows of the Assyrian sculptures are also composite.
No doubt the ordinary bow in use among the ancient Egyptians was the single-stave wooden how, of which several examples have been found in the tombs. These bows do not appear to have been very strong, and possibly they were not war bows, but were used for shooting birds and the smaller quadrupeds. Bows of unmistakably composite form are occasionally represented in the sculptures, and the fact that one composite bow has been discovered in an Egyptian tomb affords fair ground for believing that bows of this character were also in use, and were probably introduced by the Asiatic mercenaries who were employed by Egypt. The Sharu, who are identified by Birch with the Syrians, supplied the Egyptians with bows in the reign of Thothmes III,. which seems to show that they were not content with the indigenous African wooden bows.
Fig. 56 represents a hunting scene. It is taken from a green stone plaque in the British Museum from Tel-el-Amarna, which Dr. Wallis Budge believes to have been sent to Amenophis III. (B.C. 1450) as a gift from one of his Mesopotamian kinsfolk. I he bows bear a considerable resemblance to modern Oriental composite bows, far more so, indeed, than the bows of the Assyrian sculptures. Wooden bows are, however, found in Africa now curiously resembling the form of these bows, one of which is figured in Dr. Ratzel's monograph on African bows. It is possible that this form of composite bow may have been copied in wood by Nilotic tribes, and handed down to the present day. The shape is of course a bad one for wooden bows.