The Evolution of the Ultimate Weapon of Ancient Times

Possibly brought to the Near East by northern mercenaries in Assyrian employ, aerodynamically improved arrowhead could even penetrate armor, Tel Aviv researchers say

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Assyrian civilization, 8th century b.C. Relief depicting warriors on horses. From the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, Iraq
Assyrian civilization, 8th century b.C. Relief depicting warriors, one with bow and arrow. From the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, IraqCredit: De Agostini / Getty Images
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Human beings have been using bows and arrows to hunt animals and kill their enemies for tens of thousands of years. But in the seventh century B.C.E., a new, especially lethal version of the weapon appeared in the Near East, which would change the face of battle: arrows with wooden shafts to which the arrowheads were attached with sockets. The new arrowheads and sockets were made of a single cast, resulting in significantly firmer attachment to the shaft compared with earlier methods, which involved either tying or gluing the arrowhead to the shaft.

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Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University recently completed assembling a full guide to ancient arrowheads found over the years in Israel from the late Iron Age through to the early Second Temple period, tracing the evolution of this key weapon in the Biblical period.

The new cast bronze socket and arrowhead that appeared in the seventh century B.C.E. is known as the Scytho-Iranian arrowhead. It also featured an improved aerodynamic shape with three vanes, enabling the arrow to spin during flight, diminishing the effects of sidewinds. The arrowhead therefore had excellent flight capabilities and could even penetrate armor from a distance of dozens of meters.

Effectively these Scytho-Iranian arrows were the first “artillery”, in the sense that they could kill large numbers of enemies from a distance of several dozen meters.

Their effectiveness was also a result of the powerful bows of the period. The bow was composed of a number of pieces of wood, and was carried unstrung by the archer to the battlefield. The bowstring, which was made out of animal sinews, was strung on the bow shortly before the fight. (If permanently strung, the bowstring loses tension.) This projectile ensemble was so effective that it continued to serve the armies of countries and empires in the region for about 500 years.

Scytho-Iranian arrowhead
Scytho-Iranian arrowheadCredit: Courtesy of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology

Thousands of Scytho-Iranian arrowheads were found in dozens of archaeological sites in Israel and its neighboring countries, but until now the subtypes of Scytho-Iranian arrowheads had not been classified. The research was published this week in the Israel Exploration Journal by Prof. Oded Lipschits, Dr. Guy Stiebel and Sean Dugaw from the Tel Aviv University archaeology department, who analyzed and classified the arrowheads, categorizing them by the type of army and period.

The earliest known socketed bronze arrowhead was found in a burial in the Tuva Republic, Russia dating to the eighth or ninth century B.C.E., the researchers write. As said, the Scytho-Iranian arrowhead arrived on the Near Eastern historical stage in the seventh century B.C.E. The researchers think it may have been brought to our region by mercenaries in the Assyrian army hailing from the northern parts of the Assyrian Empire: northern Iraq, Kurdistan and the southern Caucasus of our day.

Later this arrowhead was adopted by Babylonian soldiers who rebelled against Assyria and established a new empire. In 604 B.C.E., when the Babylonians destroyed Ashkelon, they used Scytho-Iranian arrowheads, which were found in the excavations of Tel Ashkelon.

But the archaeologists noticed that the arrows found in Jerusalem from the year the First Temple was destroyed, 586 BCE, less than 20 years after the conquest of Ashkelon, were a variant type of the Scytho-Iranian arrow, even though this was the same army.

“According to the Babylonian inscriptions, in 601 the Babylonians tried to conquer Egypt and failed, and the entire army was defeated and retreated,” says Lipschits. “In 600, Nebuchadnezzar writes in the Babylonian chronicles that he is not going on military campaigns and instead he is rebuilding the army. The result of this rebuilding are the arrows we find in Jerusalem and Ramat Rachel, which are more sophisticated.”

Later, bronze socketed arrowheads would be adopted by the Persian Empire, which employed them in its wars with Greece. Many such arrowheads were discovered in the battlefield at Marathon. This type of projectile technology would only be superseded with the advent of Alexander the Great.

Clay cuneiform tablets dating back to the Babylon Exile 2,500 years ago
Clay cuneiform tablets dating back to the Babylon Exile 2,500 years agoCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Scytho-Iranian arrowhead
Scytho-Iranian arrowheadCredit: Courtesy of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology

Even after the major armies in the region stopped using them, Scytho-Iranian arrows continued to pop up in Israeli archaeological sites dating to later periods too. The latest two seem to have been an arrowhead found in Masada and another found in a site in Gush Etzion from the period of the Bar Kochba Revolt. If it was shot during the revolt, then it is the last known use of this weapon, hundreds of years after the Scytho-Iranian arrows were replaced by yet more sophisticated arrowheads. It is assumed that in these two cases they were reused by rebels who found the arrows and used them against the armies fighting them.

Over time the empires improved their manufacturing capabilities for arrowheads, which became more standardized. It seems they came from imperial factories that produced the weapons. The improvement was seen in the development of different types of arrowheads: one type was intended for penetrating body armor, another type had barbs that made it difficult to pull out of the body with causing a serious wound, and a third type was meant for more accurate fire from a great distance.

“Shooting a bow and arrow is an art,” said Stiebel. “As for their power and speed, this is a type of artillery – until the firing engines arrive in the fourth century B.C.E., such as the catapults and the ballistae. This is a decisive weapon. Imagine a rain of arrows, imagine just the noise it makes. It creates a very powerful effect.”

In their study, they treated the arrowheads the same way archaeologists relate to ancient coins. Today, locating a single coin in a suitable context – in a sealed archaeological layer that has not been disturbed, such as under the floor of a house, for example – can date the entire structure to within a few years. This is how the close analysis of different types and versions of arrowheads will allow their dating, and using them as a tool to date other finds and structures.

Scytho-Iranian arrowhead
Scytho-Iranian arrowheadCredit: Courtesy of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology

“It’s like a finding a bullet from an M16 or Kalashnikov [AK-47]. You can learn from it not just about these weapons but also who were the soldiers who were here,” said Stiebel. “It is possible to connect it to certain armies and certain periods.”

“I am already being receiving requests from archaeologists in Jordan, in Israel and other places, asking me about the dating and identification of the arrowheads they found,” said Lipschits. “Now when you find an arrowhead, it gives you a lot more possibilities to analyze and understand.”

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