The arrows were typically tipped with two or three-sided bronze arrowheads. At the western end of the steppe the arrows that survived were usually between 55 and 60 cm long [xiii]. At Pazyryk, however, broken arrows were reassembled to suggest a length of 80 cm. From western steppe tombs, large gold plates were excavated which were evidently the covers of the outside faces for the wood and leather gorytoi. In art, the gorytos was usually two-thirds to three-quarters the strung length of the bow. The gorytos plates for which I have measurements are about 45 cm long. The whole gorytos was probably about 55 to 60 cm long, making it about the length of the arrows found in the same area.
Figure 9 Simplified view of a Western Scythian Gorytos. Another characteristic feature of the Scythians was that they used an early form of saddle. This basic saddle consisted of two quilted, stuffed cushions sewn to a cover with a gap down the centre between them. Each cushion was reinforced and decorated on its front and rear faces. This helped keep the front and rear of the saddle higher than the middle. A strap was attached at the front and another at the rear of the cushions to reinforce them and cover wooden spacers than kept the cushions apart.
A third strap went over the centre of the saddle and it was used to attach the girth and the breast strap. There were no stirrups and no rigid tree to hold the shape of the saddle. However, it was a great improvement of the basic saddle blanket, which had been its predecessor. A felt pad was sewn underneath it and it was usually covered with a decorative saddle cover.
Real examples were found frozen in the tombs of Pazyryk [xiv] and a dried-out saddle [xv] near the burials of our bows and gorytoi. The Medes and some Persians are shown in the Persepolis reliefs wearing gorytoi that are longer than those of Saka tribesmen in the same group of reliefs. In both cases, there is a cover over the projecting part of the bow, so details of its shape other than its profile are impossible to see. The exception is that there is some detail of the recurvature of the bow because the bow was strung and carried belly-up. The soft cover of the bow shows a rounded profile.
In the same group of reliefs other Persian soldiers are shown using a longer bow without a setback handle. They carry a large shoulder quiver instead of the gorytos. In the collection of the Urumqi museum there are bows, arrows and gorytoi of the longer eastern type, but obviously related to the western Scythian equipment. Some features of the gorytos are similar to one depicted in an architectural decoration in the old Parthian capital of Nysa in Central Asia. Of particular interest is the use of multiple pockets for the arrows on the outside face of the gorytos.
Some of the gold gorytos plates from Russia have surviving bases in the form of an elongated teardrop with the narrow end facing upwards. There is usually a ridge down the centre of the base showing the separation of the bow case and quiver sides of the gorytos. The gorytos in the Urumqi museum [xvi] has only a supporting wooden rod rather than the two- or three-sided wooden frame implied by the shapes of gorytoi in Greek and Scythian art and the gold plates with their bases. The Nysa gorytos looks more like the Urumqi example because it has a rounded base rather than the flat one of the Western types.
This is also true of the gorytoi on the Persepolis bas-reliefs. The Scythian Bow. There is a complex of weapons associated with the Scythian lifestyle.
They include the bow, arrows and gorytos. In the West the arrows almost always had socketed, three-bladed heads and were made of bronze [xvii]. There is also a short sword called by the Greeks, an akinakes, which was worn on the right side with the chape of the scabbard sometimes tied down to the right thigh. Another common weapon is a narrow-bladed battle-axe with some resemblance to the Chinese dagger-axe ge and ancient Near Eastern weapons.
Spears and javelins are also common in tombs. Increasingly discoveries in Eastern Europe are adding weapons and armour to this catalogue. The use of scale armour is much more prominent than once thought and long two-edged swords are also more frequent. We can list a number of features that can used to characterize a Scythian bow.
The shortness of the bow is an obvious convenience. Though much is made about the usefulness of short bows on horseback, the early horse archers depicted from Assyria have medium-sized triangular composite bows, which they drew to the right shoulder. The Qing dynasty Manchus and the Japanese, used quite long bows and long arrows in the last period of military horse archery. So the convenience of a short bow could easily be overridden by other factors such as the ability to deliver a large heavy arrow. The Assyrians moreover did not even have the advantage of the basic saddle of the Scythians, but instead used a saddlecloth.
However, the gorytos did enable easier mounting without stirrups. It is always shown with the bow pointing backwards when it is in use. Another feature of the short bow in the West is the large number of arrows carried in the gorytos. The tiny bronze arrowheads are found in numbers above fifty with the remains of gorytoi in the Ukraine. The recurved tips are a new development in archery at the time, though you can see that they had ancestors.
Prior to that narrowing the tip of the bow abruptly to make two shoulders formed the string nock. Every time the king drew his bow he strangled two of his enemies in effigy [xviii]. Figure 10 View of an Ancient Egyptian bow tip. Figure 11 View of a late Assyrian bow tip. Figure 12 View of the tip of a bow from the Achaemenid palace at Susa. Figure 13 View of the tip of the bow from the Urumqi Museum. Set back centre sections have been used in many places at many times, but before the introduction of the Scythian bow, they were usually the characteristic of a bow that was under braced.
Under braced self-bows were designed to reduce the stress on the braced bow, prolonging its life. In the Scythian bow, they were probably introduced to shorten the draw, while still maintaining an optimum amount of limb bending. Then you could carry more but shorter arrows and still get good performance out of your bow. The fragments of a western Scythian bow from the Three Brothers Kurgan [xix] have a circular cross-section of three layers wrapped in birch bark.
Other fragments of bows are similar [xx]. This is consistent with a derivation from the ancient Near Eastern bows.
While they have some reflex [xxi] in their unbraced state, they have nothing like the reflex seen in later composite bows. The various Greek representations of Scythians and Greeks bracing their bows show positions that would not work with bows that are very reflexed. The Egyptians had separate bow cases for their bows mounted on their chariots, but the Assyrians just stuffed them into their quivers.
In both areas, the quiver was worn on the back when it was not attached directly to the chariot. At some stage, someone decided that a bow case attached to a quiver would be a good idea. With the small Scythian bow and arrows, the resulting object was not too unwieldy. The advantages were obvious: the bow was protected from the weather and the points of the arrows.
The case also prevented the bow from being distorted, yet it was ready to hand already strung. Drawing short arrows across the body was no great trouble the Plains Indians in America, when they reinvented mounted archery did a similar thing. However, that brings us back to the Urumqi bows. Their arrows were not short and there is some evidence that even in the West these larger Scythian bows were in use [xxii]. The Urumqi gorytoi [xxiii] are almost a metre long 90 cm and the arrows are about 80 cm long.
So too were the arrows from Pazyryk. The Siberian gold belt plaques show people drawing to the ear. Perhaps they were nearing the outer edge of utility for a gorytos. Coupled with this large size, these gorytoi do not seem to hold as many arrows as the smaller Western ones. This could mean that the archers needed fewer because their larger arrows were more effective. It could also mean these were hunting quivers and they did not have to carry many arrows.
The arrows had a mixture of wooden, horn and metal tips. The Scythians at War. The Scythians were primarily cavalry fighters.
Medieval Weapons: The Composite Bow
They rode into battle and fought on horseback. Herodotus describes their tactics when fighting the Persian army led by Darius the Great. They used traditional scorched earth tactics and retreated before the large Persian army, successive leading the Persians through each of their subject states so that their own lands were not ravaged. After various taunts directed at the Persians, they informed Darius that they would stand and fight if the tombs of their ancestors were desecrated. This was the last straw for the Great King [xxiv] , who turned around and went home. Scythian horse archers had consistently prevented the Persian army from foraging and had left Darius little choice.
This was a tale of frustration from the Persian point of view. The Scythians effectively contained the largest army of the Middle East and actually used it to do their own dirty work by punishing their less enthusiastic allies. Lest we underestimate the Persians, remember that they transported this large army from Persia through Anatolia, across the Bosphorus on a bridge of boats, through Thrace and onto the steppe lands of Eurasia. The logistical skills, with which they consistently underpinned their great military expeditions, are really remarkable. However, they were outmanoeuvred by the Scythians and confined by their swarms of horse archers.
Against a smaller army, the Scythians could be much more aggressive and use their weapons more directly. In later years, they were a thorn in the side for Macedonia and it took Alexander the Great to defeat their king, Ateas. This combination of effective archery and speed of manoeuvre led to an arms race on the steppe. Armour became popular and the Scythians themselves eventually became victims of their more heavily armoured relatives, the Sarmatians [xxv]. These bows are significant for two separate reasons. They provide use with examples of how an early type of bow looked and will eventually help us learn how it was constructed.
They also show us how widespread the Scythian steppe culture was and how the Chinese were able to absorb some of its technical innovation. If I have spent so much time on the Scythians, it is because this archery evidence of their presence so far east is remarkable and it shows that the great civilisations of the world were not as isolated from each other as we often think.
Some Questions. There are several questions raised by these bows and their associated equipment.
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What technique was used to draw the bow? What materials were used?
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How did they perform? Various theories have been advanced about how the Scythians in the West shot their bows. My opinion is that the most likely is a variation of the Mediterranean release called the Flemish release where the index and middle fingers draw the string with the nock of the arrow between them. I think that the existence of armguards bracers in some later tombs in the area supports this view. The Western bows were so short that this grip was necessary. Some authors have suggested a Primary Release or a Secondary Release could have been used, but the primary release is not very strong and the secondary is clumsy with a very short bow.
In fact, there are several features of them that generate other problems when shooting. The centre section of the bow is 4 cm wide and would be quite a handful for most people. The archaeological evidence suggests that the people in the cemeteries were quite large [xxvi] and perhaps were not inconvenienced but the large cross-section of the bow. Unfortunately, there are no X-Rays of these bows yet and we do not know their construction.
The majority of bows seen by Stephen were in such good condition that their internal construction is undetectable.
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The odd triangular cross-section of the bow in its central parts may reflect the shape of the horn available [xxvii] or it might be something else entirely. There is always the possibility that the bows are meant as grave goods only, merely full sized models of weapons. In that case we are only looking at the form of the original.
Some comments [xxviii] can be made however. The complex shape of these bows is not likely to be accidental or the result of parallel evolution of designs. The most likely construction is a horn-wood-sinew composite. The cross-section of the bow would put very high stresses on the belly of the bow. Even with the reduction of reflex that Betteridge advances in an upcoming paper, composite structure is about the only way to make this bow work effectively. Of course modern bowyers could combine diverse technologies to achieve a workable bow, but these were not available to the dwellers of Central Asian oases before the current era.
The binding of the bow would make a major contribution to its strength. The many changes of curvature increase the risk of the laminations of the bow separating from each other. In modern Mongolia, some bows are bound from end to end with transparent thread like fishing line to prevent de-lamination. In was common in later periods to bind points of high stress with sinew in glue as with the section of the much later bow Stephen brought back from Xinjiang.
Other resins aside from Chinese lacquer could have been used to waterproof and protect the sinew. We will not know until one of these bows is subjected to much more intense study. Historical evidence mentioned above also supports the contention that the Scythian style of bow was effective in hunting and war. Several people already have made reproductions of Scythian bows, but as more material is published on the Xinjiang bows, their next bows will be more useful for estimating the range and efficiency of these ancient bows.
It is up to the bowyers to expand our knowledge in this area and I do not doubt that they can. I think it is likely that the bows were made locally, but the future studies of the artefacts themselves could reverse this view. Perhaps the materials were imported in part. Maybe Chinese craftsmen applied lacquer and binding to previously built bows to increase their durability.
At the moment, there is just not enough evidence. If the local people made the bows, it is likely they represent the eastern extension of the Scythian lifestyle. However, whether this supposition is true or the people in this area simply used bows copied from their more nomadic neighbours is a question that requires further research. If I use a Turkish bow, it neither makes me a Turk nor proves that I am influenced by Turkish culture in general.
I might think it is a good bow and I might even learn to make my own. A bronze model crossbow from the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi [xxix] has a setback centre like these Scythian style bows, but was it the result of influence or convergence? It did not have recurved ends. Later bows were made with setback handles for many centuries. However, the recurved ends of the bow were lost in the Old World of Europe, Asia and Africa until American bowyers reintroduced them in the 20 th century. The closest bow in appearance is the Korean composite bow, but that has a long history of its own.
The extreme reflex of the Korean bow and its entirely different cross-sections rule out much historical connection. Though many elements of steppe culture entered the Korean peninsula and were absorbed by the local culture, it is unlikely that this bow is responsible for later developments in Korean archery, which probably has more to do with native traditions combined with Ming Chinese influence. The presence of Scythian-style equipment in a cemetery on the frontier of China is not surprising in itself. The presence of the mummified remains of people with Western features in the area is now well known.
What is exciting from the point of view of archery is that a group of complete early bows has been preserved. The burials in various graveyards in the immediate area contain a range of archery equipment from various times. Because of the widespread Scythian nomadic culture, its interaction with the various large states on the periphery of the Eurasian steppe is significant not just for what it says about the Scythians and their relatives. The states on the borders of the nomadic world reacted to the threat and the military technology of their warlike neighbours.
These reactions both provide insight into the nomads and their settled neighbours. While the bows themselves are clearly in the orbit of Scythian culture, if the finish is lacquer and binding, then it is closely related the Chinese technology. In Pazyryk, the same mix of influences is visible. Chinese mirrors and fabrics are combined in tombs with Scythian animal-style artefacts and Near Eastern carpets. We do not know all the answers now, but discoveries like this by archaeologists are helping us learn more.
At this stage of the investigation of the early inhabitants of Shanshan County, we cannot be sure whether all the people buried in these cemeteries were locals or travellers who died there. Even the dates are not precise yet. No one can predict what will be found next in China, Siberia or Russia. Nor do we yet know what will be discovered when more research is carried out on these amazing artefacts. Archery was bound up with the everyday lives of many ancient cultures and in these bows we can see a technological bridge between the East and the West. The Scythians and the Saka and their various relatives and imitators represent the first major exponents of mounted pastoralism known from history.
It is entirely appropriate that their choice in bows should be so distinctive and innovative. I would like to thank Stephen Selby for letting me examine the photographs of the bows and who originally found the book from Xinjiang mentioned below for me. He also permitted me to use a photograph of one of his reconstructions in progress and lent me some of his research.
Edward McEwen, who discussed also the design of the bows, provided me with the first photograph I had seen of one. At the end of the curing period, the bows were tested and adjusted. The manufacture of these weapons was time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive, requiring highly specialized training in the bowyers. Significant strength was required to string a composite bow. First millennium bc ancient Assyrian reliefs show two men involved in this process, although a strong man could do it alone. Its ogival shape meant that the bow could be kept strung for a long time without fear of distortion.
The enormous elastic properties of the composite bow gave it a vicious whip to drive an arrow with immense force, delivering a tremendous punch up to yards. Its absolute range was roughly double this, being two to three times greater than the range of the self bow. Ottoman chroniclers reported that Sultan Selim III fired an arrow yards, a performance that has never been equaled by modern composite bows. The ancients had discovered that the larger the size of a simple bow, the greater its pliability and range.
Bowin' An' Spikin' in th' Jillikins
Unfortunately, its very size made it unwieldy and virtually useless for firing from horseback or a chariot. The ogival design of the composite bow, however, reduced the distance between where the archer gripped the bow and how far he had to pull back the string. Further, because it was smaller—only 35 to 47 inches in length—it was ideally suited to be shot from chariots or horseback.
In all aspects, the composite bow was a vast improvement over the stave bow and the simple double-convex bow, an improvement on the stave that had more tension and firepower. Made of sap and heart woods and boasting admirable levels of force and elasticity, the long bow had two disadvantages: its large size, which meant it could only be wielded by archers on foot, and the weight of its arrow shafts, which restricted the number a man could carry. Another European invention, the crossbow, was powerful and accurate, but its heavy metal frame and cranking mechanism made it both slow to reload and impossible to fire from a galloping horse.
It was, however, perfect for shooting down from fortress ramparts on attacking troops.
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The composite bow—light, strong, and compact—had a higher velocity than these other types and outclassed them all. It is arguable that composite bows were the very first composite tools made by man and most likely the first to concentrate energy to propel an object forward with force. Virtually every design and production factor was the product of a well-developed civilization. The composite bow was a product of the city, or the city-state, although knowledge of its production techniques eventually spread to various tribal horse societies.
Construction required a division of labor and skilled craftsmen, knowledge and use of advanced technologies, capital, learned expertise, and specific materials and methods.
Explanation With Examples
Like all great technological developments, the composite bow had spinoffs that were as profound as they were unforeseen. Some scholars have even argued that the development of the mail coat—bronze scales sown onto a leather tunic—was brought about by the need to find a counter to this weapon. This in turn spurred advancements in metallurgy and related industries with concomitant ripple effects throughout early economies.
Moreover, weapon systems radically changed, for the composite bow was perfectly suited to be fired from the ultimate shock-weapon of the day, the chariot, which led to the chariot becoming a major wing of ancient armies, such as those of the Assyrians, Hittites, and Egyptians. From a speeding chariot, the composite bow was a rapid-firing missile delivery system capable of taking out combatants in a quick and deadly manner.
As chariots came to be seen as too costly because of their materials and complex design, and too inefficient because of their two- or three-man crews, cavalry easily adopted the light, compact composite bow. In the hands of such fierce warriors as the Cimmerians, a little-known people from the steppes, and later the Mongols, this remarkable weapon helped make horse archery the most mobile, dynamic, and hard-hitting striking force of an army. Tactically, the introduction of the composite bow revolutionized warfare. With it, enemy troops could be fired upon before they came within javelin-throwing or simple bow range.
For the first time an opponent could be taken by surprise and badly mauled before he came within range of his opponents. Once the composite bow was married to the chariot, armies were able to advance or retreat more rapidly, plunge deeper and more forcefully into the heart of enemy lands, and attack at the flanks or rear of conventional infantry while repelling other chariot forces. Chariots with composite bows played a prominent role in the creation and fall of empires. Although the outcome of the battle produced no clear victor, the Egyptians, licking their wounds, recognized the Hittites as a power to be reckoned with.
When these kingdoms waned, the Neo-Assyrian Empire arose, making good use of the composite bow with its huge chariot forces. When Neo-Assyrian chariots were phased out in favor of cheaper, more flexible cavalry troops, the composite bow remained the principle weapon. The Assyrians themselves were hard-pressed by the Medes, a people from the area now known as Iran, renowned as talented horseback riders and archers skilled with the composite bow. Eventually, the Assyrian Empire was partially destroyed by the Scythians, a mounted warrior nation from the steppes.
They used a small composite bow measuring between 30 and 39 inches long, transported and protected in a case called a gorytos that could hold 75 bronze-tipped arrows. Despite differences in language, customs, and histories, all of these peoples, kingdoms, and empires shared one thing in common: the use of the composite bow as their definitive weapon. The Persian Empire, stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan during its heyday at around bc, was the largest empire the world had seen at that time.
The fatal weakness of this impressive force, however, was that the archers carried no side arms, wore no helmets, and had no shields, relying on other foot soldiers to protect them with their own shields. Although they won many battles against the Greek city states, eventually even the mighty composite bow could not save the Persians when they came up against the heavily armored, well-trained phalanx regiments of the Greek armies. Interestingly, the composite bow never found favor among the empires of the West.
The Greek states, and later the Roman Empire, relied on the sword, the javelin, and well-armored, highly trained and disciplined troops to win victory on the battlefield. Archers armed with self-bows harassed their opponents, but the well-knit line or the crushing charge with spear, sword, and heavy shield was what won engagements for Greek and Roman commanders.
In the East, however, the composite bow reigned supreme. Indeed, a sturdy pony and a composite bow were the main weapons of the Mongol horse-fighters led by Genghis Khan and his successors, who conducted lightning-quick campaigns the scope of which have never been equaled.