Tag Archives: history

the oldest bow in the world

22 October, 2015

Holmegaard bow


It lies quietly in a glass case on the ground floor of the National Museum of Denmark in the centre of Copenhagen, just a couple of hundred yards from the Christianborg Palace where the World Archery Championships were held in July 2015.

In four pieces, it’s 64 inches long and a glowing, deep brown colour, resting next to a wooden paddle and a skeleton of a prehistoric horse. 

It is known as the Holmegaard bow, and it’s one of several bows found during WW2 in the peat bogs of Denmark. At first glance, it’s not the most incredible sight in the world, for something so important to history. The small sign on the wall doesn’t really do it much justice, and there are hundreds of other things to draw the eye in the ‘Prehistory’ section and all over this interesting museum. 

Because this is the oldest bow in the world. Or rather, it’s the oldest complete bow, and the oldest existing bow we know about, and the oldest thing that is unquestionably a bow. As a piece of technology, it’s striking how modern it looks – elegant and symmetrical. The second bow found is even longer (170cm / 66in), and there are fragments of more.

It is dated to around 7000 years BC, in the Mesolithic period. This date is not particularly in question, but it was based upon the layers it was found in. The heavy formaldehyde preservative it was treated with after its removal from the safe, oxygen-free confines of the bog has hindered any further attempts at chemical or carbon dating. 

Bows and arrows obviously existed for many thousands of years before the Holmegaard bow, but this piece of dark elm is the ‘stop date’. No one knows exactly when bow and arrow technology was first invented. Some scientists believe it was invented closer to 70,000 years ago, which would put it towards the tail end of the Paleolithic.

HG bow wide

I spoke to research fellow Lasse Sorenson after my visit: “The bow was found in 1944, during the second world war. There was a shortage of coal, and people started digging up the peat bogs on the island of Zealand for fuel.”

“These bows were made and used by people of the Maglemose culture. They were sophisticated nomadic hunters who had jewellery, domesticated dogs and decorated dugout canoes.”

“But they have found triangular worked flints which are almost certainly arrowheads from the Solutrean period in Europe, over 20,000 years ago.”

“So this was a piece of technology that had probably already gone through thousands of iterations already. It’s really a very sophisticated machine.”

Many bowyers have produced reproductions of the Holmegaard bow, and it is regarded as one of the classic European wooden self bows of antiquity along with the Mollegabet and Meare Heath bows. It has a characteristic design with wide, tapering limbs and a cutaway handle, which Sorenson believes would have been wrapped in leather. It is an efficient weapon even today.

“At the time Denmark and much of the rest of northern Europe would have been covered in dense forest. There would have been plenty of large animals: aurochs, red deer, wild boar, fish. It would have been a good place to hunt.” 

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The bow communicates across the millennia. It tells us, in an almost mystical way, something about what people were thinking. The culture that built the Holmegaard bow was contemporary with and archeologically related to a site in Britain – then still just about connected to mainland Europe by a land bridge –  known as Star Carr. This site is most famous for the extraordinary headdresses made out of red deer skulls, one of which I photographed in Cambridge earlier this year.

Whoever the craftsmen who built the Holmegaard bow were, they were likely part of a culture who bound hunting, religion and magical thinking together in ways that it is almost impossible to imagine now. The bow, and possibly the bowyer, may have been a source of great power and infused with a deep magic, as humans stumbled into the Holocene. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Some other pics of the Holmegaard and other ancient Danish bows here

The Battle Of The Bows

10 June, 2015

Brief video from the Smithsonian channel exploring the differences between a yumi and a longbow, briefly explaining why recurves are more efficient than simpler self-bow designs.

Amongst the many things it doesn’t explain or gets wrong include why the longbow became popular despite more efficient composite designs existing contemporaneously. The reason is that it was a mass-produced weapon, much cheaper and quicker to manufacture and requiring less maintenance and care than composite Eastern bows – the Kalashnikov of its day. The classic English yew longbow of historical battles also used much higher draw weights than the 50lb weapon shown here, usually 100lb and up for long range, heavy war arrows on European battlefields, very different to short-range (and often mounted) samurai combat.

It ends with a slo-mo illustration of archer’s paradox on the longbow, without explaining why the yumi doesn’t suffer from it as much (it’s to do with twisting the bow on release, as I understand), and without explaining why it’s not an issue.

Unfortunately, archery is complicated, and traditional archery even more so – but the conventions of TV mean that things get reduced to ‘which one is better’. That’s OK. If you want more, there’s a big deep pool to dive into which you can swim in for life. 😉

(Via Archery Scrolls).


#tbt – archery on coins

12 March, 2015

Did you know that some of the first coins of all, and the first thought to have borne royal or imperial likenesses were of Darius the Great, ruler of Persia in the 5th century BC, and they depicted him as an archer?


The coins played a major part in making the modern world. Via Wikipedia:

“Darius introduced a new universal currency, the daric sometime before 500 BCE, which came in gold and silver versions. The gold daric had a standard weight of 8.4 grams with a purity of 95.83%, and it bore the image of the Persian king or a great warrior armed with a bow and arrow.  Darius used the coinage system as a transnational currency to regulate trade and commerce throughout his empire. The daric was also recognized beyond the borders of the empire, in places such as Celtic Central Europe and Eastern Europe…  Trade goods such as textiles, carpets, tools and metal objects began to travel throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. Their use ended with Alexander the Great‘s invasion in 330 BC when they were melted down and recoined as coins of Alexander. “

“In ancient times, the coin was actually nicknamed “the archer”. For instance, the Spartan king Agesilaus II remarked that he had been driven out of Asia by “ten thousand archers”, referring to the bribes distributed by the Persian King.

It wasn’t just Persia; the archer was a potent numismatic symbol in antiquity and appeared on coins in India and the Parthian Kingdom during the same period.

(Not to be confused with an Archer.  Or Spanish Archer. For the archery fifty pence piece produced for London 2012, go here.) 

from the maa

23 February, 2015

Visited Cambridge yesterday, and popped into the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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Bow and arrow from the Solomon Islands circa 1920s. Both are covered with elaborately plaited cane, which at least suggests that they were status symbols rather than efficient hunting weapons. That arrow reminds me of a multi-stage rocket…

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These are 19th century Aboriginal Australian arrowheads knapped from scavenged glass.

From an article on another museum’s website: “Since first contact, Australian Aboriginal people have ingeniously adapted discarded European goods from campsites, shipwrecks and rubbish to their own ends. Salvaged clear, green and brown bottle glass was often used for knife blades, spearheads and arrowheads because it could be flaked using a large pebble, in much the same way as quartz, from which most traditional blades were made…. a sharp stick or animal bone was used to ‘pressure flake’ very fine, serrated edges.”

Away from archery, possibly the greatest treasure of the MAA is one of the Star Carr red-deer headresses which looks like something out of True Detective; 9,500 years old and looking probably as strange and terrifying as it did then. The human need for ritual and magical thinking goes back a long way.

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wood working

7 January, 2015

ahrents arrows

“The Ahrensburg culture or Ahrensburgian (11th to 10th millennia BCE) was a late Upper Paleolithic nomadic hunter culture  in north-central Europe during the the last spell of cold at the end of the Weichsel glaciation, resulting in deforestation and the formation of a tundra with bushy arctic white birch and rowan. The most important prey was the wild reindeer. The earliest definite finds of arrow and bow date to this culture, though these weapons might have been invented earlier. More here.  A perfect demonstration of the capacity of human beings for finding elegant technical solutions. It’s extraordinary what you can do when your survival depends on it.

More pics here and here.

170 years ago…

14 July, 2014


1823arch (1)

Picture via http://austenettegallery.files.wordpress.com/

Just been reading the Rules & Regulations of Thirsk Bowmen*, an archery club in Yorkshire, England, published in 1845. Thirsk Bowmen exists today, but the current club apparently has no direct connection with the 19th century club. The committee structure, voting in, and roles and responsibilities are entirely familiar to any member of a sports or social club today. But there were some interesting sections:

1) The official ‘season’ was outdoor only and ran from the first Tuesday in May to the last Tuesday in September. Only gentlemen were allowed, and the cost per year was ten shillings and sixpence – approximate cost relative to wages in 2014: around £400. No word about indoor shooting.

2) Shooting was permitted on Tuesdays and Fridays starting at 5 o’clock. All arrows had to be marked with their owners initials or they did not score – a rule that persists in the UK and worldwide.

3) Every Tuesday archers shot nine dozen arrows – four dozen at 100 yards, three dozen at 80 yards, and two dozen at 60 yards. (A similar imperial round called a St. George, which has three dozen at each distance, is still shot in the UK). Maximum score using five zone scoring would be 972. Archers shot three arrow ends. Given that sunset in May in Yorkshire is around 8pm, they would have to get moving pretty quickly to get the round in before dusk.

4) The highest score each week would be made ‘captain of the target’, and get to hold a silver medal for the week. To encourage all archers, a handicap system existed – if you had won once in a season, you got four points removed from your score for the next and all subsequent weeks – twice in a season, eight points removed; three times, sixteen points and so on.

5) These Tuesday shoots were compulsory – unless you could prove you were at least ten miles outside of Thirsk, you were fined sixpence (relatively, about £20) for every shoot you missed! Swearing incurred a similar penalty. Turning up without all your equipment incurred a stiffer fine of a shilling (about £40).

6) Every year in September there was a ‘Grand Annual Meeting’. The highest score of the day would receive a silver bugle and the title ‘Captain Of The Year’, the best gold (nearest the centre) would receive a silver arrow and the title ‘Lieutenant Of The Year’ – and the last place finisher would receive a ‘Wooden Spoon’ and the title ‘Master Of The Green’. Yes, that’s right – archery puns haven’t improved much in the past 170 years.

7) Gambling on results was clearly a problem – the rules go into some detail about not letting betting corrupt the ‘manly amusement’, and a rule existed that any wagers discovered would have to be forfeited to club funds – although sweepstakes of up to five shillings (about £200) were allowed with prior permission of the Secretary.

*A copy of these rules sold at Bonhams in Harrogate for £192 in 2007.



Archery in London: the good old days

8 March, 2013



Great piece from The Londonist about archery practice in London in the good old days.  If I want to shoot after work I have to head at least three miles north of the river. 450 years ago I could have strolled down the road with my longbow and got busy – in Tudor Englynde people shot at ‘standing pricks’ in the middle of the City. [Insert your own joke here]. I think they were just tall posts or marks to shoot at; people still do things like that today:


As for the ‘standing pricks’ bit, well I know that post-Chaucerian English was far, far bawdier and ruder at all levels of society than it is now (post Puritans / Victorians). Such a ‘hilarious’ comparison wouldn’t have seemed nearly as rude back then – witness the Shakespearean double-entrendres of a generation or so later.

London was of course a walled city in those days. You have to look long and hard for traces of the wall now, although the gate names on that map above such as ‘Moor Gate’ and ‘Byshoppesgate’ are still very much in use. The Londonist get a mild smack on the wrist for the oft-repeated assertion that the famous mandatory archery practice laws are still in force in the UK, when they were actually repealed a looong time ago.

‘Fynnesbury Fields’ only remains as Finsbury Square, near to Liverpool Street station.