History

A History of Archery

Early Prehistory and the Origins of Archery

Some date the origin of archery as early as the Aurignacian period (40,000BC) since pictures of what appear to be bows have been found, the oldest examples of which appear in Western Europe. This early in the development of archery we would not expect to find the bows themselves, being made from perishable materials. In fact the earliest artifacts that can be interpreted as being parts of bows do not appear until the late Magdalenian (Mesolithic), and were found at the Stellmoor site, outside of Hamburg. Many arrowheads have been found dating to around this period, but it is not always clear whether these were attached to the ends of arrows, or light spears projected by a spear thrower. Perhaps the earliest site is that of Bir-Al-Ater in Tunisia, with others in Algeria, Morocco and the Sahara (not then a desert). These early sites contain what some have identified as early arrowheads, perhaps dating back nearly 50,000 years. The earliest arrowheads made from Obsidian, flint, chalcedony and jasper that can be positively identified as such date from at least 10,000BC (Upper Paleolithic).

Neolithic Archery

Not until the Neolithic do we see clear use of the bow and arrow. Many Neolithic bows have been found in Northern Europe,  dating to the early Neolithic, in particular around the Swiss lake shore sites. All bows found from this period seem to be made from yew, the most suitable of raw materials. This in itself indicates earlier experimentation, but no examples of earlier bows survive. Pictures of bows have been found on rock carvings in north Russia, and bows have been found in Neolithic levels in the European taiga (forests of Siberia). The earliest bows known from the Iberian peninsular are those depicted on the Levantine rock paintings in eastern Spain. These date to the Late Capsien period (Early Neolithic). Some paintings from this period suggest the use of more than one sort of bow, though whether or not they served different functions we will probably never know.

Bronze and Iron Age Archery

By the Bronze Age the Chinese were using composite bows of more than one design. Usually made from a combination of horn, sinew and wood. The Scandinavians too were using composite bows by the Bronze Age, however these were probably not a native invention. The Egyptians had been using archery since at least 3,000BC, and the earliest Pharaohs were using the bow for both hunting and warfare. Their enemies the Persians were still using spears and slingshot, however not long after successes on the battlefield the bow was widely adopted as a weapon of war. It’s use spread to the Shang Chinese (1766-1027BC), Babylonians, ancient Hebrews and Assyrians amongst others.

The Bronze Age sees a decline in the number of artifacts found in Northern Europe, and by the La Tene period (Iron Age in northern and western Europe) we find little evidence of archery in the archaeology. Neither do the Roman writers of this period mention the bow as a Germanic weapon. In the east archery continued pretty much as before, and we see the first direct evidence for use of the crossbow by the Chinese during the Han dynasty (206 – 220AD), although there is literary evidence pointing to its invention as early as 600BC. The Romans themselves adopted the Asiatic bow for their cavalry, and seem to have owed much of their military success to the use of archery.

Medieval Archery

By the early medieval period the Romans were finding themselves being beaten by people with better archers than themselves – namely the Goths, Huns and Vandals.

During the Middle Ages the English Longbow evolved to become the English national weapon and a formidable force on the battlefield. Originally invented in southern Wales during the twelfth century, the English were quick to adopt and improve upon it. The longbow was primarily a peasants weapon (in contrast to the Japanese, Mongolians and Chinese where the bow was the weapon of choice for the aristocracy and was usually shot from a chariot). It was cheap, light, reliable, easy to manufacture and above all had a rapid rate of fire. It was to the French crossbows of the time, what today a submachine gun is to a rifle. English Longbows could weigh in excess of 170 pounds to draw as the examples from the Mary Rose show, and would have required years of training to master. The English used their battlefield superiority to subdue both the Welsh and the Scot’s, before making great inroads into France. On the continent the Crossbow remained popular, but was expensive and hard to manufacture, and so largely remained in the hands of mercenaries, and was of more use in a siege than on the battlefield.

During the Renaissance, the bow and arrow were the most important weapons in east Asia, the Americas, Central Africa and the Artic regions. However the introduction of gunpowder gradually made it become obsolete as a weapon of war towards the end of the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, the Chinese continued to use archery in warfare until the 19th century when they fought the Japanese.

The earliest surviving tale of Robin Hood (“Robin Hood and the Monk”) dates from around 1450AD, with the best known tale “A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode” having a number of extant copies dating to around 1500AD. The first known organised archery competition was held in 1583 at Finsbury in England and attracted some 3,000 participants.  Many English Monarchs have practiced archery including Queen Victoria and Henry VIII, and some of course were killed by the bow like Harold at the battle of Hastings (though this is now open to some debate amongst historians). Henry VIII in fact helped found the first ever archery club “The fraternity of St George” in 1537.

Archery in the 20th/21st century

The peoples of central Africa and South America still use the bow for hunting to this day, and some of the worlds special forces continue to make use of the bow or crossbow as a silent weapon of the night.

However the main use of archery today is for recreation. Target archery became an Olympic sport in 1900 at the Paris Olympics, appearing intermittently until 1972 whence it became a permanent fixture. Field archery is also popular, as are a number of more curious activities such as Popinjay, Clout, Flight and Roving. In parts of Europe and North America the hunting of game is still a common pursuit, though it is illegal in the UK.

Archery has helped shape the world we know today, and there are still traces left that hint at its importance in times gone by, and the fascination it still commands. Expressions such as point blank, high strung, straight as an arrow, bolt upright, bolt from the blue, wide of the mark and boss eyed all derive from archery, as does the two fingered gesture used to express displeasure. Folk hero’s like Robin Hood and William Tell remain in the public consciousness, and  numerous references to archery in mythology, from the Chinese mortal Yi, to the Greek and Roman Gods of love, Eros and Cupid who use their bows to shoot prospective lovers, and the Goddess of the Hunt Artemis survive that show us how important Archery both was in the past and still is today