An insight view of the shooting methods of the archers of the Ancient Greek World 1400 BC – 400 BC.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL INSTITUTE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WARSAW
ASSOCIATION OF HISTORICAL STUDIES KORYVANTES
This study was presented by Dr M. Kambouris during the 8th World Traditional Archery Festival (WTAF), October 2014
To download this paper in .pdf format, please click here: Shooting methods of the archers of the Ancient Greek World
Experimental archaeology, Traditional Archery, Greek Archery, WTAF
The Ancient Greek Warfare – as been presented to the public by the modern scholars – is a multi-dimensional kind of war with various troop types, tactics and applications. Recent researches have emerged on the importance of archery to the Ancient Greeks as a platform of “flexible war”, absolutely necessary to most of the famous battles of the era. Greek Archery from the Middle Greek Bronze Age (1400 BC) to the end of the Classical Period (400 BC) contained a wealth of important elements. The various shooting methods of the archers – as been depicted in archaeological findings (pottery, statues, fragments, depictions) – present us a culture that has been very familiar to this weapon and has developed several ways of using it, depended on the needs of war.
In this study we will not focus only on ethnically Greek archers but generally the archers of the Greek world, comprising all of them who fought along with the Greeks in their armies. Taking into account that the surviving literal sources of the drawing techniques are extremely limited, we will try to emerge our conclusions through artistic representations of the era under research. Nevertheless there is always a problem that arises from the fact that in many cases the artist was not an archer, and, furthermore, so long as the bow was stretched no attention was paid to the attitude of the hand in stretching it. Therefore the selected number of artistic depictions that were used and presented in this paper were researched through the – as possible clear – view of the technique, trying to have an adjective perspective.
The «Greek Draw»
Even from the Middle Bronze age, we do see many depictions in which lightly equipped archers are presented carrying single curved bows – probably selfbows- or even composite bows  , trying to shoot at a mobile stance. From the era of the Mycenaean armies to the multifunctional troops of the Hellenistic world the place of the archers in the battlefield was to accompany the massed heavy troops and to support their flanks, in a “shoot and go” tactic, as been depicted in various pottery  or also described by Onasander  and Asclepiodotus . In most of such cases of depictions the arrow is been shown to be drawn to the chest height, in a slightly bending body stance, supposing a need for a quick shot and not one that will need time and a secure position. Homer, in particular, gives us maybe the only noticeable description of such a draw of the bow:
Ἕλκε δ᾽ ὁμοῦ γλυφίδας τε λαβὼν καὶ νεῦρα βόεια·
νευρὴν μὲν μαζῷ πέλασεν, τόξῳ δὲ σίδηρον. 
Translation: “He drew the string along with the arrow knock, to the chest as the iron (arrowhead) reached the bow…”
Τhis is the so-called “Greek-draw”, maybe the most popular way of drawing the arrow among ancient Greeks till the end of Classical era. The “Greek Draw” (pinch draw) was characterized by pinching the bowstring and the arrow between thumb and forefinger and went only to the breastbone , placing the arrow in the right side of the bow, temporarily holding it with the forefinger. The arrow accompanying this release is generally knobbed at the nock end and is gashed or roughened to secure a firmer pinch on the arrow. A very characteristic example of this technique comes from a pottery depiction of Hercules currently exposed in Cabinet des Medailles in Paris  dated between 500-450 BC, where he clearly draws the arrow along with the string using his thumb and forefinger (Picture 1).
The advantage of this draw is that the shot is very “clean”, as the arrow is been released smoothly in the moment when the fingers cannot hold anymore the nock and the string. Nevertheless the shot through this technique requires a pliable bow, which can be inflected easily, unless the archer possesses enormous strength in the fingers. Definitely it is considered to be a high accuracy draw, which can be linked with Snodgrass conclusion  that the immobile and well-protected phalanxes could be confronted by the archers only with high accuracy shots.
Of course we can see some variations of this draw. Morse defines as the “secondary release” the draw when the arrow is not only grasped by the thumb and bent forefinger but the middle and ring fingers are brought to bear upon the string, thus enabling the archer to use a stronger bow . We can see a representative example of this draw in a pottery dated between 450-400 BC, currently being exposed in the Chantilly – “Musee Condee” , where an Amazon archer tends to use as a support her middle, ring and baby finger while she starts drawing the bow.
Morse also describes the so called “tertiary release” , in which the forefinger is placed nearly straight and not bent as in the secondary release and with the tips of this finger and the tips of the middle finger pulling the string while the arrow being held between the tips of the thumb and forefinger. A characteristic depiction of this technique is been presented in a red-figure pottery currently been exposed in the Berlin Antikensammlung , showing a kneeling archer, under the protection of a hoplite (reminding us the battle deployment of “entaxis” or “parentaxis” in which missile troops get into the battle line supporting the hoplites ) , who is shooting probably using this release (Picture 2).
A recent publication of the PhD of Todd Alexander Davis  presents us a unique discovery: an archery thumb ring that was found in the area of the Citadel of Mycenae and was dated to the Late Bronze Age. Even if it was a ceremonial gift from an eastern Noble, or a trade good from the Egyptian or Near Eastern markets, this thumb ring is a strong indication that it could be a functional item used by the Mycenaeans in War. Moreover, this thumb ring could be best adapted to the chariot-archery warfare, that was well developed by the Mycenaeans at least till the 13th century BC . It is considered that the Mycenaeans were strongly influenced in chariot-warfare by the Hittites , while the bow was the primary weapon of the Hittite chariot warrior , and the Egyptians (the other prime chariot-archery culture of that time) used the thumb form in archery at least from the 19th century BC .
In the Archaic Period we observe the first indications of this technique probably after the interaction with the Scythian mercenaries. There is always a debate about if the depictions of Scythians archers in Archaic and Classical pottery were real Scythians or archers of different ethnical groups , as an iconographic conventionality symbolizing a second rank character accompanying a “hero” . Professor Ivantchic concludes that the ‘Scythian’ clothes corresponded to the character’s function, not to his ethnical identity. The ‘Scythian’ attire of the archers on the vases, therefore, has nothing to do with the real Scythians of the North Pontic area . As most of the depictions of archers in Archaic and Classical Pottery are actually figures of such warriors, we must always remember Ivantchic’s interesting conclusion. In a Pottery currently exposed in the Brussels, Musees Royaux and dated between 525-475 BC (Picture 3) we can see an archer shooting in motion with a short composite Scythian bow, drawing the arrow to the face height and looking very similar (although one cannot be certain) to the thumb technique. He may be using a protection for his thumb or not , but definitely we have a clear example of horizontal wrist grip, an indication of holding the string locked in his thumb, a placement of the arrow in the right side of the bow thus having a lot of similarities to the basic characteristics of the thumb form.
A pottery being exposed in the Museum of Classical Archaeology of Cambridge  (Picture 4), dated between 550-500 BC, present us an archer dressed with Scythian clothes. The archer uses a “reverse grip”, by pulling the string with the forefinger and the middle finger locking them with the thumb. This technique is been considered by many modern experts to help the quick arming and release of the arrow , while it is also believed to help the draw of stiff bows. It is believed to be of Central Asian origin which can be well explained by the fact that the majority of depictions of this technique show archers dressed with Scythian dress  with a unique exception: a depiction of Hercules drawing his bow with a reverse grip, from a black figure pottery (550-500 BC) which is exposed in the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano in Vatican City . Morse believes that this technique could be functional, although he suggests that it could also be an artistic mistake of the “tertiary” release .
A representative depiction of this form, from the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford , from the 6th century BC, presents Hercules drawing a single-curved bow to face-height, using a “Mediterranean” draw (Picture 5). The “Mediterranean” technique is considered to be the most powerful draw form, and consists of drawing the string with the tips of the forefinger, middle and ring finger. The arrow rests between the forefinger and the middle finger, while the wrist can be either straight or flexed away from the archer . The representations of this technique are linked generally to middle and big size bows, while the majority of the cases imply that the draw reaches the chin or ear height. Contrary to the weak and –almost always in motion – “Greek draw” , the Mediterranean technique could be explained as a way of a more stable draw, which can be used with more powerful bows and therefore cause more damage to the enemy from a greater distance. Of course we can observe many illustrations of a variation of this form, with the use of all the fingers pulling the string , and a clenched wrist. Of course this cannot be functional and must be considered as an artistic mistake, trying to show the basic form.
Some very interesting results are being highlighted by applying a statistical perspective various draw techniques among the archers of the Greek world in representational art. A representative tank of images, selected through 22 volumes of Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, supplemented by searching through the online University of Oxford’s “Beasley Archive” , provided a highly detailed list of tens of thousands of black figure vases, white-ground technique vases, red-figure vases, stone sculptures, metal objects, terracotta sculptures and painted images, from the Archaic to late Classical Period. The classification was made through depictions of all the relevant figures that are being represented as shooting archers at the pottery, included warriors, Amazons, Heroes, Gods, “Scythians”, “Thracians” or other obscure figures. The selected period of depictions was from painted pottery of 575-425 BC, summoning results from maybe one of the most interesting and military “active” periods of the Ancient Greek World.
Depiction’s Period: 575 – 425 BC
|Number of Appearances|
The overview of the results provides us some valuable information about the preferences of the drawing techniques of the Archaic and Classical archers. Most trite exaggeration is that we have a strong confirmation of the widespread use of the “Greek draw” and all of the related variations of it. It seems that the battle tactics in that period required such a technique which adjusted to the mobile warfare and the need for more precise and technical shots. The “Mediterranean” draw comes second in favor among the archers, as a way of shooting presented in a more static stance, and could be used also through a more powerful and bigger of size bow, than the typical small Scythian composites. The reverse form is surprisingly shown to be almost as much popular as the Mediterranean technique. Nevertheless it must be considered as a form used mostly by “Scythians”, keeping in mind that it can be an artistic mistake or an attempt of the artist to underline the exotic elements of those warriors. Finally, about the thumb technique, although there is no clear evidence of its extensive use, one may find some strong indications, but definitely it is a research area that can be revisited.
- Hariclia Brecoulaki, Caroline Zaitoun, Sharon R. Stocker, Jack L. Davis, Andreas G.Karydas, Maria Perla Colombini and Ugo Bartolucci Reviewed, “An Archer from the Palace of Nestor: A New Wall-Painting Fragment in the Chora Museum”, The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol.77,No.3 (Jul. – Sep., 2008), p 376
- Snodgrass A.M. , “Arms and Armors of the Greeks», The John Hopkins University Press, London 1967,p 30
- Onasander “Strategikos” 19 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928
- Asclepiodotus “Taktika” 6.1.3 Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928
- Homer, “Iliad”, D123
- Bradford James C, “The Military and conflict between cultures”, Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series, p47, 1997
- De Ridder, A., “Catalogue des vases peints de la Bibliotheque Nationale”,Paris, 1902, p 311
- Snodgrass Anthony, “Early Greek Armour and Weapons”, from the end of Bronze Age to 600BC”, Edinburg University Press, Chicago 1964, p156
- Morse Edward, “Ancient and modern methods of arrow-release”, BULLETIN OF THE ESSEX Institute, Vol. XVII. Oct-Dec. 1885
- Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae: VI, PLS.339, 343, PHYLONOE II1, POLITES III1 (B, PART OF B)
- Morse Edward, “Ancient and modern methods of arrow-release”, BULLETIN OF THE ESSEX Institute, Vol. XVII. Oct-Dec. 1885
- Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum: BERLIN, ANTIQUARIUM 2, 21-22, PLS.(993,995) 64.3-4, 66.6
- Kambouris M, “Warriors in Ancient Greece, Weapons, Tactics, Organization in Classical Greece” (In Greek), Alkalios Publishing, Athens 2008, p147-148,
- Davis Todd. “Archery in Archaic Greece” , Phd Thesis, University of Columbia, p 11
- Howard Dan, “Bronze Age Military Equipment”, Pen and Sword Military Publishing, Great Britain 2011, p57
- Greenhalgh P.A.L., “Early Greek Warfare: horsemen and chariots in the Homeric and Archaic Ages”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1973, p11
- Beal R.H., “The organization of the Hittite Military”, (Ph.d Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1986)
- A wrist guard dated from the 12th Dynasty currently being exposed in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/544274?rpp=20&pg=16&ft=deir+el+medina&pos=320 As seen on July 22 2014
- Ivantchik, A.I. “Who were the ‘Scythian’ Archers on Archaic Attic Vases? In D.Braund (ed.), Scythians and Greeks. Cultural Interactions in Scythia, Athens and the Early Roman Empire (sixth century BC – first century AD) (Exeter), 100-113
- Beazley, J.D., Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters (Oxford, 1956): 715
- Some characteristic depictions: 1) Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum: MUNICH, MUSEUM ANTIKER KLEINKUNST 1, 12, PL.(103) 9.3-4 , 2) Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum: TUBINGEN, ANTIKENSAMMLUNG DES ARCHAOLOGISCHEN INSTITUTS DER UNIVERSITAT 3, 12-13, PL.
- Boardman, J., The Greeks Overseas, 4th edition (London, 1999): 150, FIG.187 (PART OF BD)
- Morse Edward, “Ancient and modern methods of arrow-release”, BULLETIN OF THE ESSEX Institute, Vol. XVII. Oct-Dec. 1885, (fig 47)
- Hall Dohan Edith, “Archaic Cretan Terracottas in America”, Metropolitan Museum Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jun., 1931), p225
- Grayson Charles, French Mary, J.O’Brien Michael, “Traditional Archery from Six Continents”, University of Missouri Press, Columbia 2007, p8
- Beazley, J.D., Paralipomena (Oxford, 1971): 61
- It involves the depictions of all variations of “Greek draw”, including “secondary” and “tertiary”
- It involves the depictions of all variations of “Mediterranean draw”, including the clenched wrist draw
- The number summarizes the depictions of draws that cannot been classified in any of the other categories due to bad quality of scetching or doubt.
Spyros Bakas is a postgraduate student of the Archaeological Institute of the University of Warsaw and member of the Association of Historical Studies KORYVANTES.
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Great post here Spyros. Plenty of information for those interested in archery.
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