Tag Archives: tbt

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.” 

Photo 22-02-2015 14 04 11

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 old and the new

8 October, 2015


#TBT: archery on primetime British TV, as a strong historical VT segment on the re-enactment of the battle of Agincourt in northern France bleeds into a slightly dumbed-down live piece featuring GB internationals Becky Martin (recurve) and Jo Frith (para compound) ‘against’ Nick Frost‘s local darts team. The whole thing overseen, for some reason, by Geena Davis, who has several well-known connections to archery, but wasn’t shooting – she was in town to talk about something else.

The Agincourt piece is pretty strong (NB am going to write an extended piece for publishing on the anniversary on the 25th), but the ‘dartchery’ piece I have problems with.

I’m always a bit torn with TV exposure like this. On the one hand it’s going to expose archery to a lot of people, some of whom might make it part of their lives. On the other, the dumb, jokey format reinforces the popular public opinion that it’s more a frivolous pastime than a serious Olympic sport that can change your life. Like archery is the ‘giant chess set‘ version of darts, played in the pub back garden. In the long run, I think this is detrimental to the sport, because it diminishes popular respect for it.

It should be pointed out that this has nothing to do with Becky or Jo, who did a great job, and everything to do with the lazy TV researchers who decided to go with the first dumb idea in their heads. Enjoy.

UK readers can watch the full episode here for a while. 



#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.)