Ancient Asian Archers

by Roewynne Langley

Used with author's permission.
The illustrations were not included with the article and most references to them were edited out.

Many current books on Archery only talk about Western (European) Archery, barely mentioning that Archery was highly developed by Eastern Archers, much less the Archers of Egypt and Africa. In fact, Archers have existed for eons in both hemispheres. Bows and arrow heads have been found and dated thousands of years ago, through the middle ages into modern times. The Americas are also rich in Archery lore — from the Incas and Olmecs, through Mayan history into the Aztecs and the Northern Indian Tribes. Africa, especially Egypt, have lore and multitudes of extant records and artifacts about Archery.

Other civilizations including Babylonia, Assyria, Hyksos, Hettite, Syrian and the rest of central part of the eastern basin, also held archery in high regard. Different environmental conditions produced a variety of both in construction technique and materials. Two methods were tried, either to lengthen the stave, or increase its flexibility.

In East Europe, Russia, China, and Japan, archery has long and venerable traditions Archery skills were honed, developed and exploited. Not only did they used wooden bows and crossbows, but also composite bows. European bows would not have stood a chance, if composite bows had been used against them, which was a factor during the Crusades. If an Eastern region didn't have enough wood to make bows, animal horn and sinew were used instead. This made the bow flexible, creating an action faster than the European bows.

The composite bow was designed on the fact that animal horn will compress and that animal sinew is elastic. Where timber was available, the core of the composite bow was made of wood. On the belly side, the surface facing the archer, horn was glued; on the back, the surface away from the archer, sinew. When the bow was drawn, the horn compressed and the sinew lengthened, released, it snaps quickly back to the original form.

Composite bows also existed during the XXVI Egyptian dynasty, and Ramses the II (XIX dynasty). The Assyrians had conquered Egypt from 672 BC and lasted until about 525 BC. A bow was found in a tomb at Thebes, Egypt. It is of Assyrian construction. Mr. Henry Balfour published a paper in the February 1897 issue of the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. XXVI, no. 3, p. 210. Hickman describes the materials used in the construction of the bow as 1. wood (two kinds); 2. black horn; 3. sinews of animals; 4. birch bark; 5. glue. He goes on to describe the bows and arrows found, where they are currently located, and why they are of Assyrian make. This bow was found in a tomb dated from 1275 to 1208 BC and was introduced into Egypt either by foreign mercenaries or spoils of war. The bow resembled closely the better representations of bows in Assyrian sculpture, in shape and in curve assumed when drawn, and in the way the ends curved over backwards.

Homer, who wrote observations about everything from philosophy to war, could describe a Lady's gown or how a bird looked. Here is his description of an Eastern bow that belonged to Pandarus: His polished bow was made from horns of ibex that he had shot. They measured 16 hand spans. A bow maker worked on them, joined them together, smoothed them and set a nock of gold at each end. Pandarus strung the bow, opened his quiver, chose an arrow and fitted it to the string. He held the arrow nock on the string of sinew and drew back the string to his breast until the iron arrowhead touched the bow. When he had drawn the great bow to full compass, he loosed the string, which sang the sharp arrow into the air. Pandarus obviously has a composite bow.

In Villehardouin's account of the first siege of Constantinople, the knights leaped into the sea up to their waists, fully armed, with helmets laced and lances in hand. In like manner our good archers, sergeants, and crossbowmen, each in his company, landed. Once they gained the Galata fortress, they could not stir more than four bow shots from the walls. The troops had no fresh meat, except for the horses that were killed (from arrows), which is a telling statement of the accuracy of the Greek (Turkish) bowmen.

In later centuries, bows and arrows became dreaded, as swarms of arrows mowed down enemies of Attila's Huns, who were mounted on horses and used short, powerful bows. It's possible that one of the reasons for the failure of the Crusades was the skill and equipment of the Turkish archers. Untold thousands of Richard the Lionhearted's men fell with arrows in their vitals. The Turks were so advance in their archery technology that some of their distance shooting records still stand today.

Like the Persians, they used laminated bows made of wood cores, strengthened with layers of processed horn and sinew. Their weapons were recurved. The Turkish bow curves in two directions. It has the characteristic of a composite and a reflex bow. When unstrung, the bow ends almost touch. When strung, the curve reversed. The bow was constructed with horn, tendons, and Cherry wood.

Persian bows seems to be based on the Asiatic bow designs. I feel composite bows were introduced as Attila and the Mongols spread Westward from China into Europe. After all, they were a superior weapon from the short and long bows that were in use by the rest of the European countries. Archers, realizing the superiority of the Asian bow, would of course want to acquire one of their own . St. Charles does not mention the crossbows that were being used at this time either, except that they were in-efficient in the Hundred Years War, which is a lack (see note in Bibliography). True, most crossbowmen couldn't nock and shoot as fast as a longbowman, but I met a Society for Creative Anachronism member who can nock and shoot accurately (hitting the target), 6 arrows off his crossbow in 30 seconds. There are a few more I met that can load and shoot 5 arrows, within thirty seconds, from their crossbows. How many with longbows and recurves can say that? Crossbows were accurate and deadly, with arrows that went straight through plate armor.

The bow, in Chinese history, was always respected as an effective fighting instrument. There were made larger than any other Asian country. They were made in four sizes for the army — 70, 80, 90, 100 pounds pull. some were 150 up to 200 pounds, but were intended for parades. Arrows were made according to bow size. A particular method of holding the bow, widely used in China, was called the Mongolian release. This necessitated the use of cylindrical thumb rings, which were often made of jade.

The construction of a Chinese bow was complicated. The frame was bamboo with pieces of deciduous wood glued into the hand grip and at the sharp bends near the ends. Pieces of horn were glued onto the belly, and sinews to the back. The hand grip and ends were bound with leather or fish skin. Parts of the back were covered with a thin layer of birch bark, which was frequently decorated with designs. Narrow blocks were glued and doweled onto the belly of the bow about 8-10 inches from each end, and it was on these that the string bore when the bow was not in use. Many hand grips were covered with cork. The Chinese also made sectional bows that could be folded for convenience in carrying. Theory was that sectional bows were of longer length, and used for parades. I only have a recurve, but it would be a lot easier if I had a break-down bow, that could fit in my car. These bows usually come with cases, as travelers had in the past. The cases were either a solid leather or wrapped in cloth.

Workshops for bows and arrows were unearthed in China, that existed during the second century BC, were used by charioteers and horsemen. One of the biggest finds of this century was the soldier army of Qin Shi Huang, who ruled for eleven years, about 230 BC.

Qin Shi Huang developed many new ideas for his country: bronze coins, written language, currency, standardized weights and measure, and also built the Great Wall. He wanted to take his army with him when he died. Articles can be found about this burial site on the standing soldiers and horses, etc., but very few are about the Archers.

Figures of the Archers unearthed at the Xian sites are dated 221 BC, well before the Middle Ages. The Archers were kneeling, standing, and were prepared to rain arrows upon the foe. Archeologists think that the Archers were well preserved because most of the Archers were in a kneeling position when rebels set fire to the site and the roof collapsed, four years after Qin Shi Huang's death.

The armor the Archers wore never changed drastically from century to century until the modern era. The Archers are one of the earliest sources that use armor plate. The armor consists of rectangular metal scales riveted to some type of leather over the chest and back. Each scale is held in place by two to four fasteners. Shoulder guards reach mid-way down the upper arm, they are secured and articulated by laces or cords. The skirting is likewise laced the same for ease of movement.

The pants of the archer were royal blue with a wide purple band around the hem; the purple band matches the under tunic, which looks like it was slit on the sides. The over tunic has elongated sleeves that were pushed up the arm. The tunic's color was green, with some sort of white undertunic showing on the rolled back cuffs, and at the neckline. The white cloth seems to be wrapped around the neck, giving the appearance of a muslin-like texture. The ancient pigments were made from minerals mixed with binding materials such as animal blood or egg white. Charcoal may have tinted the hair.

The archer wore leather plate armor that is riveted and tied in a decorative manner with red strips of leather or heavy cloth. His hair was tied on top in loops by a leather band. Each terra-cotta face is distinctive, and experts believe that real soldiers served as models. In fact, Chinese Archers can be seen in ancient silk paintings, reliefs, and other decorative works throughout the Middle Ages.

The bows could shoot other objects, and China had one that shot stones. It is recorded in China from the second millennium BC, and was widely used throughout the East. In Europe, records exist of it as having been employed only from the 14th to 18th centuries.

Jinghis Khan used archers to great advantage. In Curtain's book on the Mongols he sites a conversation about the Battle of Herat, during 1222 (no date or where this quote comes from): "'I was,' says a Gurjistan cadi, 'in Herat on a tower, which stood just in front of Tului's headquarters. Arrows came in such numbers that I went down and was lost in the dust, among Mongols.'"

Clearly, whatever Curtin's source was, this passage implies a multitude of Archers. How else would you get dust enough to obscure sight?

In a manuscript by Nizami, Persian c.1540, are short horse bows being shot during a battle. There are many bows and large quivers full of arrows that are depicted in the scene. A reproduction of the picture can be found on page 185 of Encyclopedia of Arms and Armor. The archers do not seem to be wearing protective armor, but several layers of colorful clothing. Some have braces over their tunics, others have a fitted sleeve to protect them.

By the Han Dynasty in the second century BC, the crossbow probably existed for a long time. It was in Roman use by the third century AD, according to William of Poitiers who was among the Norman arms at Hastings. Anna Comnena called the crossbow the French weapon, which had by the 12th century almost superseded simple bows.

The wounds cause by the crossbow in warfare were so barbarous, that its use, except against infidels, was interdicted by the second Lateran Council, in 1139, under penalty of an anathema, as a weapon hateful to God and unfit for Christians. This prohibition was confirmed, at the close of the same century, by Pope Innocent III. Conrad III of Germany, 1138-1152, also forbade the crossbow in his army and kingdom.

Richard I promoted the crossbow during the Crusades (probably because he saw the Infidels using this weapon with deadly force against his own troops). His death in 1199 by a crossbow was taken to be God's vengeance on him for his wicked use of the evil instrument. You can clearly see the migration of the Chinese crossbow across Asia and Europe into the British Isles.

In Japan, a detail from the Kasuga Gongen Scroll (8th century) shows a warrior in a suit of armor with a basket-work quiver at his side, from which arrows were removed by lifting out the base and pulling downward. There was probably a point block being used to separate and secure the arrow heads. Japanese Archers used small baskets well into the middle ages. These were usually just large enough to fit the arrow heads, two to four inches high. Why pull an arrow through the bottom? The arrow would easily be pulled from the bottom in a ritualistic setting, as most Samurai had exact motions they followed. The point be pulled through the separator, the shaft and fletching following. The fletching would not be hurt by this action. Points of those arrows could be ruined or pulled completely off, if the Archer had reversed direction of the pull. Take an anomaly of an arrow shot into hay bails, past the fletching. You pull the arrow all the way through.

The Japanese scroll from the Later Three Years' War (1083 to 1087), which is located in the Tokyo Museum, illustrates the armor of a samurai. The samurai has his page holding his bow, but he is carrying his own arrows. The arrows are jutting out from behind him at waist level, tucked in a small pouch which has loops on either side for the belt to go through and secure it to his waist. The archer has two different sleeves, the left sleeve, being of a different color and tight fighting against the arm.

In one example, a taisho samurai (a high-rank General), is being dressed in his yoroi, ca. 1180. The arrows are held on his right side by a small leather quiver that holds only the arrow heads. The samurai's outfit is a bright orange print, with purple armor. The sleeves are tied crossing his body, under his opposite arm with a fabric string. One sleeve is the same orange print as the pants, the other is a fitted bright blue sleeve for shooting. This sleeve is laced up the seam, starting at the wrist, crisscrossing and tied by the body. The cuffs are secured by fabric strips, tucked in on the left arm, dangling on the right arm. The strips match the sleeve color, or white is used. The sleeves were put on over the short-sleeved komono.

During the War Between the Courts (1294-1336), The samurai Kusuboki Masashige is shown with his red-lacquered bow. He carries a waterproof quiver, and is drawing his arrow from the right side across his waist, getting ready to shoot. (illustration not included)

Foot soldier archers wear domaru, a simplified warriors armor. This illustration is taken from the Gunyoki manuscript of the 14th century (illustration not included). The relief painting of the great hero, Kusunoki Masashige is saying good-bye to his son, shortly before the battle at Minatogawa.

A change can be seen in the quivers over the centuries. Masashige holds a bow in his left, while having a full length quiver on his back, which holds the shafts to the fletching of the arrows. The quiver is secured by a loop at top and another at the bottom of the quiver, that ties in front of his chest.

The bow and arrows themselves have not seen much of a change. Richard Hardy believes that the Japanese bow might be a composite of the Chinese bows. A bow from 1363 has a slight recurve, the handle well below the central point, about two thirds of the total bow length from the tip of the upper limb, partly so that the small Japanese can shoot kneeling and still keep the weapon's foot clear of the grounds, partly so that the bow can be shot from horseback. This type of bow was called the shige-to-yumi and spanned 7-9 feet. There were two other types of bow, the Bankiu and the Hoko-yumi, half-sized bows, and the Hankiu, a composite recurve, with stiffened limb-ends and some metal in its construction. The transition to a composite bow almost certainly took place in Asia. The Japanese longbow (yumi) had a single curve and consisted solely of strips of bamboo at various stages of seasoning to produce different characteristics; for the back, a strip cut from a living plant at the end of autumn; for the belly, a rather dry strip of bamboo was employed that had been cut the year before, at the end of summer. These were made fast by vegetable glues, tied with vegetable fibers and then lacquered. They are slightly longer than the Chinese bow. I believe this is evidence of migration, as bows always tended to get longer as the years went by.

There is extant evidence of Archery in China, Japan, and other parts of Asia that extend over the millennium into modern times. In many countries, archers retained their military importance until recent times, about the 1800s. Even so, in 1807 the Russian Army mounted some archers, and during WW II, a few detachments of American archers were deployed.

Archeological traces of bows or parts of bows, found in Egypt, Scandinavia, Zealand, Hamburg, and Somersett England, give more evidence that archery extended as far back as the tenth millennium BC. Almost every age, including the Mesolithic, bows and arrows and can be found extant almost everywhere in the world.


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