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Medieval Arrows Inflicted Injuries That Mirror Damage Caused by Modern Bullets

New research demonstrates the immense power of the medieval English longbow

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Harold II with an arrow jutting from his head, but whether the English king actually died in this manner remains a point of contention. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

Taking an arrow to the head is a decidedly unpleasant way to die. Luckily, most modern humans are more likely to encounter these historical projectiles in a museum than on the battlefield.

A new study led by archaeologists from the University of Exeter clarifies just how destructive the English longbow could be, highlighting surprising similarities between injuries inflicted by the medieval weapon and guns of today.

Published last week in the Antiquaries Journal, the paper details the researchers’ analysis of centuries-old bone fragments unearthed at a Dominican friary in Exeter. In one gruesome example, the team found evidence of an arrow that pierced the top of an unlucky warrior’s right eye and exited through the back of the man’s skull, leaving devastating entry and exit wounds. Per a statement, the injuries appear to be similar to those caused by modern bullets.

The arrow that punctured the skull in question was probably fletched, or outfitted with feathers, to spin clockwise upon making contact with its victim. Historically, most gun manufacturers have designed rifles with bullets that spin in a similar clockwise pattern, though a small minority prefer the so-called “left-hand twist,” according to gunshot wound expert Vincent Di Maio.

“Arrow trauma is notoriously difficult to identify, but this assemblage shows that arrows fired from longbows could result in entry and exit wounds in the skull not incomparable to modern gunshot wounds,” the authors, led by archaeologist Oliver Creighton, write in the study. “These results have profound implications for our understanding of the power of the medieval longbow.”

All of the analyzed bones—including 22 bone fragments and three teeth—displayed evidence of trauma likely caused by arrows “at or around the time of death,” according to the statement. In another graphic example, the researchers found fragments of a right tibia struck by an arrow that punctured its owner’s calf from behind, pierced through the flesh and lodged itself into the bone.

An arrow pierced the top of this man's right eye and exited through the back of his skull. (University of Exeter)

Radiocarbon testing indicates that the remains date to between 1482 and 1645 A.D. Per the statement, archaeologists excavated the bones, found in a medieval burial ground at the friary, between 1997 and 2007. The dig took place prior to the installation of a new shopping center, reported Laura Joint for the BBC at the time.

Medieval longbows first rose to prominence as formidable weapons during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. They played a pivotal role in many 14th- and 15th-century clashes: At the Battle of Crécy in 1346, historians estimate that English archers fired as many as 35,000 arrows per minute, achieving victory despite being outnumbered by a ratio of roughly two-to-one, the Smithsonian Channel notes in its “World of Weapons” series. Some 70 years later, the longbow helped Henry V secure England’s domination over France at the Battle of Agincourt.

The best English longbows were made from yew and measured around six feet tall, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Drawing the weapon required anywhere from 150 to 180 pounds of force; depending on the weight of the arrow, archers could shoot the projectiles a distance of some 1,000 feet.

One of the most famous historical depictions of death by arrow is found in the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England by William the Conqueror. Fighting at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Harold II appears with an arrow through his head.

Whether the English king actually died in this manner is still a matter of debate. As Mark Cartwright writes for Ancient History Encyclopedia, “Is it a case of the tapestry recording history or recording the later legends which had grown around the history?”

In the statement, Creighton notes that death 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 … [acting as] the most famous case in point.”

The archaeologist adds, “Our study brings into focus the horrific reality of such an injury.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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