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Line drawing of a relief where pharaoh with a falcon overhead draws his bow as his two-horse chariot tramples he fallen or fleeing enemy

A deed done over and over again: two dynasties after Amenhotep, Ramses III smites the Libyans (from The Epigraphic Survey (eds.), Medinet Habu, Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Plate 18 c/o the generous Oriental Institute https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oriental-institute-publications-oip )

While I do not think that many Bronze Age or Classical bows were as powerful as the longbows from the Mary Rose or the hornbows from the Tokapi Palace, I can think of one or two exceptions. Today I would like to give one which I recently stumbled over while reviewing an article by Pierre Briant. As often happens, reading this passage again revealed something which I had not remembered.

The Great Sphinx Stele tells the following story of Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the New Kingdom:

He also came to do the following … Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next. Then his Majesty appeared on the chariot like Mont in his might. He drew his bow while holding four arrows together in his fist. Then he rode northward shooting at them, like Mont in his panoply, each arrow coming out of the back of its target while he attacked the next post. It was a deed never yet done, never yet heard reported: shooting an arrow at a target of copper, so that it came out of it and dropped to the ground.

Andrea M. Gnirs, “Ancient Egypt,” in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge MA, 1999) p. 84 citing the Great Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 41, 42.

One way to look at this passage would to ask whether this actually happened. A little research will reveal that while many of the details are plausible, no bow powered by human muscle can penetrate a palm’s breadth of copper, and that surviving Egyptian composite bows and arrows are far from being optimized for penetrating thick copper plates, so His Majesty was probably fibbing. While that is an important question, I do not think that it is very interesting. We no longer live in an age where a king is considered an inherently reliable source because it would be especially shameful for a king to lie, or expected to be the deadliest warrior on the battlefield (even if we are fascinated by stories about Prince Harry or King Abdullah of Jordan swooping down on the enemy in modern fighting vehicles).

Another way to look at this passage would be to observe that medieval texts on mounted archery from the Moslem world describe a similar feat. Archers would gallop past a series of closely-spaced targets loosing at each to practice shooting quickly but accurately. I do not have any of these medieval texts to hand, but copies are available in most Anglophone university libraries for those who wish to seek them. Four targets twenty cubits (something under 10 metres) apart is not unusually many or close in the texts I have seen. Holding several arrows in the hand to save time reaching for a quiver is also documented in many cultures. While there were many styles of mounted archery which require different skills, I suspect that many of the basic forms of training were widespread across all the cultures which practiced any kind of mounted archery from the charioteers of the Amarna Age to the Plains Indians of the nineteenth century, just as teenagers around the world fought with sticks and hunted large game to prepare for hand-to-hand combat. I find evidence that the common pressures of warfare lead Egyptians 2500 years apart to train in similar ways very interesting indeed.

Further Reading: A Batavian cavalryman in the first century CE boasts of his own feat of archery in Brian Campbell tr., The Roman Imperial Army: A Sourcebook, no. 47 = Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 2558 = Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum III 3767 (Ille ego Pannoniis quondam notissimus …) A team of academics and Mike Loades have experimented with archery from New Kingdom chariots for a series of PBS documentaries.