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Ancient Weapons

From The Official Guide to Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations by Alex G. Malloy (reprinted by permission of the author)

Ancient and Medieval Weapons in the Forum Ancient Coins shop

Collecting ancient weapons and tools is rapidly increasing in popularity. The books and research in this field of collecting has long been overlooked. Now the volume of information gathered and objects found has grown, with an increased emphasis on dating and origins of weapons. Petrie paved the way close to a hundred years ago with his studies on tools and weapons. Now, with closer studies on the published archaeological finds, the chronological dating is becoming more clear. 

The earliest known tools and weapons are stone hand axes. These stone implements were crafted in Africa, the cradle of mankind. The migration of early man has resulted in stone artifacts being found at thousands of sites out the world. These stone artifacts trace the story of mankind down to the emergence of the Copper and Bronze Ages and the technological changes. From this period, change came rapidly with the development of metal, especially in the use of weapons such as daggers, metal arrowheads, swords, and axes.

The Ancient Metal Arrowhead

The metal arrowhead is the natural evolution of the Neolithic and Copper Age flint arrowheads. The earliest metal arrowheads came from the Western Anatolian tradition and spread to Susa-Iranian and Egyptian areas. The Beaker Culture (2250-2000 B.C.) of the Spanish peninsula was the first to develop metallurgy in Europe, and specifically the arrowhead in Europe. They produced arrowheads extensively: the early copper arrowhead known as the Palmela type has been found at fifty-five sites throughout Spain.

In approaching the study of the metal arrowheads, their purpose must be explored. The elements used by the archer are the bow, an arrow consisting of arrowhead, shaft and feathers, and later the quiver. The earliest shafts were reeds: naturally straight, somewhat stiff, and light in weight. These were ideal for use with an arrowhead with a tang. The socketed arrowhead would be used with slender wooden shafts. The arrowhead is a ballistic device; its weight must be considered in relation to the "weight" of the bow (the force necessary to draw the bow). The weight of the arrowhead must be in a 1:7 ratio to the total weight of the arrow (the sum of the arrowhead, shaft, feathers, and binding material). Scholars have contended that the weight of an arrowhead could be no heavier than 10 gm, even taking into consideration longer arrows and big bows. Heads heavier than 10 gm. must belong to the javelin class. The Neo-Assyrians had javelin throwers in their army along with bowmen. Each Roman soldier had a javelin as part of his accoutrement.

The next consideration is the purpose of the arrow. This can be determined only with the arrowhead. Wide-bladed arrowheads were used for attacking flesh; the barbed arrowhead made the arrows hard to remove from the flesh. The narrower forms were ideal for penetrating armor, leather, and clothing. The heavy arrowhead could be used for up-close attacks. Lighter, trimmer arrowheads were good at a distance. During the Mongol invasion, each horseman would have several quivers, each containing thirty or more of a specialized type of arrow. 

The earliest forms of metal arrowheads are of hammered copper; we can find early copper arrowheads in Susa, Anatolia, Egypt of the XI Dynasty, and Spain in Europe. Each dates to the 3rd millennium B.C., with Susa and Anatolia being the earliest. Each arrowhead has a long tang and hammered blade and edges. The workmanship is much cruder than their predecessors. 

The copper types quickly gave way to the bronze arrowheads. Bronze was commonly used from 2500 B.C. through the Parthian and Roman periods. Bronze's properties made it excellent for casting and filing  by the soldiers. The Romans did, however, have arrowsmiths who probably worked in iron for arrows and small javelin heads. 

The earliest bronze types were hammered flat using rounded leaf-shaped heads; this slowly changed to cast arrowheads with various midribs, some with flanged tangs.  The Anatolian type was a flat, broad midrib, while the Fertile Crescent saw a single ridge rib; later the midrib became rounded and socketed. From the later 2nd millenium, the number of arrowheads made increased along with various new types. The rhombic and barbed arrowhead from Egypt was used and is found in iron in sites from Israel; this was popular in the late 2nd to early 1st millenia B.C. By the 9th century B.C. most prominent ancient centers were using the barbed type. Iron leaf arrowheads were also used extensively in Levant. Many sited from ancient Israel report this type dating from 1200 to 800 B.C. 

The varieties of shapes changed vastly from area to area. Petrie classified the arrowheads in thirteen categories of shapes, which can be found inmost bronze types:

The Scythians were members of a trans-Caucasian nomadic culture which began its conquest of southern central and western Asia in the 8th century B.C. As they advanced the pushed the Cimmarians before them, each causing havoc in Asia Minor. For a period of twenty-eight years, the Scythians held sway in Asia Minor, western Persia, and Syria. Even Egypt felt this nomadic power in the 7th century B.C. The Greek historian Herodotus spoke of them initially as a barbaric people who drank blood and used the skulls of their foes as drinking cups. By the 6th century the Greeks had developed good rapport with the Scythians, resulting in the Greek colonies of Pontapacum and Olbia in the Euxone region. The Scythians acually protected thes Greek colonies; in this region of the northern Black Sea even some Scythian kings were half-Greek. 

The controversy over the socketed trilobate arrowheads is wide; the archaeologists have for the most part not seriously addressed the so-called Scythian arrowheads. Many American antiquities dealers rarely know what they are actually selling and arbitrarily call all trilobate arrowheads Roman. The academic world is now finding many answers not known what they are actually selling and arbitrarily call all trilobate arrowheads Roman. The academic world is now finding many answers not known to Pertrie and other archaeological pioneers. In an important study, Sulimirski stated in 1954 that the trilobate arrowheads were introduced about 750 B.C. His later studies published in 1978 pushed the date even earlier, as did Boehmer in 1972. By 690-680 B.C., the time of the neo-Assyrian annals of Sargon II and Assarhaddon, the Scythian invaders swept southward and attacked the Assyrian kingdom. The impact of their warfare was profound.The Scythian bowmen became legend with their newly adapted weapon which could fly longer and pierce armor, an which was light to carry. The trilobate arrows truly changed history.

The difficulty is to ascertain the subtle differences in the arrowheads in preceding cultures and centuries. The trilobate arrowhead was copied by various people down to the 3rd century A.D. We can find Greek, Archaminid, Medean, and Parthian counterparts. Muscarella states that the trilobate arrowheads became neutral in battle"... as it no longer was used by one or the other in battle, but by both." After close scrutiny if many hundreds of trilobater arrowheads which have passed through our hands, and a special observation of actual site information, I have devised a chart of the idiosyncrasies of various types.

The earliest trilobate arrowheads have a tendency to elongation and medium sockets. Those excavated at Karmir-Blur, now in the Hermitage Museum, attest to these early Scythian types. 

The Persian types will tend to have broad, more angular deltoid blades and almost no socket shaft. Similar rounded blades were also used. This arrowhead was standard equipment for forces in the Persian army. Schmidt discovered over 3600 examples at the treasury in Persepolis.

The spur was popular in the Graeco-Scythian types; many non-spur types were also used. The Scythian bowman's rig: the pointed cap, bow-case, patterned track-suit, and the trilobate arrows were introduced to Athens in the second half of the 6th century B.C. 

During the Parthian period the barbed types emerged. Non-barbed trilobate arrowheads were also used. These barbed and non-barbed arrowheads are found at Dura-Europus from the  Parthian-Roman struggles and through the Parthian occupation. The arrowheads are not Roman, but Parthian. They are rarely found in Roman cities in the Levant, and are not found at all in the African or European Roman world. It must be remembered that each new generation of trilobate arrowhead did not totally supersede the earliest types. 

Roman Republican arrowheads vary widely as to place of origin: the Italic arrowheads were more diminutive than their counterparts in the East. The trilobate arrowheads are flat-sided with triangular sockets. The western Republican bilobate arrowhead used a small point and long shaft with spur. That was copied after a popular type of the Greeks. We also see some small iron heads trilobate, either barred or not. We find a limited number of Roman arrowheads in Roman cities. 

It must be understood that purely Roman Imperial arrowheads are rare. The Roman legionary preferred hand-to-hand over distance fighting. His main weapons were the short sword, gladius, throwing spear, pilum, and javelin. The javelin point with a tang two to three feet long ended in a solid square point of iron. These are rarely found with the tang intact.  The basic reason was that the iron head was hammered hard while the tang was not. The relative softness of the tang made it bend upon penetration and rendered it difficult to remove. The British Museum had no complete javelins. Today these javelin points are often confused with arrowheads.

Another object used by the Roman legions was the catapult dart or bolt; these were socketed and of larger size. Each legion would have sixty catapults to be employed in sieges; these used the catapult darts.

The Romans did utilize auxiliary troops to augment their powerful legions. During the Republican period slingers were often used along with bowmen. These auxiliaries were often dependent or semi-dependent client kingdom troops with special military skills. Caesar employed archers against Ptolemy in the great Imperatorial struggles in Spain. Germanicus used Gallic and German bowmen in victories in 14 A.D. Septimius Severus used an auxiliary of mounted archers from Osrhoene in Mesopotamia in his many Eastern exploits; Maximus used Syrian bowmen in his eastern Roman army. The Syrians were known for their great skill in archery. The eastern auxiliaries used the same trilobate arrowhead as was employed by the Parthians.

Iron became the standard metal used in arrowheads with the advent of the Dark Ages. The arrows became heavier and heavier, especially with the use of the longbow and crossbow, and with the great skill of the Mongols.     

Ancient and Medieval Weapons in the Forum Ancient Coins shop