Medieval arrows caused injuries similar to gunshot wounds, study finds

Reconstruction of the angle of entry into a cranium collected during the excavation of the burial ground of a medieval Dominican friary in Exeter, England.
Enlarge / Reconstruction of the angle of entry into a cranium collected during the excavation of the burial ground of a medieval Dominican friary in Exeter, England.
Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter

The English longbow was a powerful medieval weapon said to be able to pierce an opponent’s armor and may have been a decisive factor in several key military victories, most notably the Battle of Agincourt. A recent paper published in the Antiquaries Journal by a team of archaeologists at the University of Exeter in the UK has yielded evidence that longbow arrows created similar wounds to modern-day gunshot wounds and were capable of penetrating through long bones.

Historians continue to debate just how effective the longbow was in battle. There have been numerous re-enactment experiments with replicas, but no medieval-period longbows have survived, although many 16th-century specimens were recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. The University of Exeter’s Oliver Creighton, who led the latest study, and his co-authors argue that such experiments are typically done over shorter ranges, so the arrows are not fully stable and spinning in flight. This, in turn, would affect the kinds of injuries combatants sustained. He and his team believe their analysis shows the importance of osteological evidence in helping to resolve such debates.

It’s relatively rare to find direct evidence of violent trauma from weapons to skeletal remains in medieval burial sites, with the exception of mass burials from known historical battles. The best-known such sites are associated with the 1361 Battle of Visby in Gotland, Sweden, and the 1461 Battle of Towton in North Yorkshire, England. Per the authors, data from these sites has yielded useful information on “the realities of medieval warfare—how people fought and were killed, which weapons were used and what sorts of injuries these caused, and what armor (if any) was worn.” Evidence of trauma specifically caused by arrowheads is even rarer.

The current study examined 22 bone fragments and three teeth, all showing clear signs of trauma. All were collected during the excavation of the burial ground of a medieval Dominican friary in Exeter from 1997 to 2007, to prepare for the construction of the Princesshay shopping district. Established in 1232 and officially consecrated in 1259, the friary’s burial grounds likely included wealthy, high-status laypersons, according to the authors.

One dig site (EPH06 8849) in particular, in the north aisle of the friary nave, contained many disarticulated bones (as opposed to complete skeletons). These were mostly skull bone, lower limbs, upper limbs, and hands, from different time periods, indicating so-called “intercutting” of later graves, a common practice in medieval cemeteries.

One of the 22 bone-fragment specimens was a cranium with a puncture wound atop the right eye and an exit wound at the back of the head. The authors surmise that the arrow was likely spinning clockwise when it hit, based on the associated spalling and fracturing. Medieval arrows were fletched, which put a spin on the projectile to make it more accurate and stable during flight. But this could be the first evidence that the arrow was fletched deliberately so that it would spin clockwise.

“Notably, gun manufacturers have historically rifled barrels so that bullets spin in the same—clockwise—direction,” the authors wrote. There is also evidence the shaft of the arrow lodged itself in the skull and was pulled back through the front of the head, creating even more fractures to the skull.

The authors suggest the arrow in question was a square or diamond-shaped “bodkin” type, a common military weapon. Such arrowheads can sometimes be confused with crossbow bolt-heads, but in this case, the authors have determined that the points of penetration aren’t large enough for the trauma to have been caused by a crossbow. “That the arrowheads were military points suggests that the assemblage is likely to contain at least one battle casualty, or at least a victim of a field accident or murder perpetrated by an individual with access to military-style equipment,” the authors wrote.

There was another puncture wound near the top of a right tibia, suggesting an arrow had passed through the flesh of the calf from behind and lodged itself in the bone. And one of the femurs showed signs of trauma “consistent with a glancing impact from an arrow,” although the authors acknowledge that a similar injury could have come from some kind of “bladed implement.”

All three of the aforementioned samples may even have come from the same casualty. “One scenario is that [the fatal wound to the skull] occurred first and that the wounds to the tibia and femur occurred subsequently, when the individual was dead or dying and face down,” the authors wrote. “Although this can only be a matter for speculation, this would probably account for the otherwise off angles of entry, which are hard to explain if the individual was standing up.” Alternatively, the individual could have been “mounted on a horse or standing in an elevated position, or on an elevated structure.”

“These results have profound implications for our understanding of the power of the medieval longbow; for how we recognize arrow trauma in the archaeological record; and for where battle casualties were buried,” Creighton told “In the medieval world, death caused by an arrow in the eye or the face could have special significance. Clerical writers sometimes saw the injury as a divinely ordained punishment, with the ‘arrow in the eye’ which may or may not have been sustained by King Harold II on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 the most famous case in point. Our study brings into focus the horrific reality of such an injury.”

DOI: Antiquaries Journal, 2020. 10.1017/S0003581520000116 (About DOIs).

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