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Wrought and gilt silver plate with relief of a crowned archer on horseback shooting panthers

Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

In the comments section of an earlier post I have been talking with ryddragyn about archery on the border between the Roman and Sasanid empires around the sixth and seventh centuries CE. Often we do not have sources to answer all the questions which people have today about how soldiers used their weapons, because ancient people preferred to pass that kind of knowledge on in person. But it happens that we have many kinds of evidence for archery in this period, including slightly later archery manuals, books on generalship, a wide variety of works of art, the remains of archery equipment, and odd references in histories and other kinds of literature. I would say that we have at least as good evidence for how Romans and Persians shot at each other in the age of Khosrow and Heraclius as for how Greek hoplites fought one another in Xenophon’s day.

One of the most important pieces of evidence for how the Sasanid Persians drew their bows is a group of gilt silver plates and vases hammered with images of the king hunting with the bow on horseback. It happens that I was recently in St. Petersburg, and I was able to photograph many of these bowls and vases in the State Hermitage Museum. This week I thought I would post some of my photos. Because I have not shot a bow for too many years, nor read up on this period of history, I won’t try to provide a commentary. The captions for each photo are based on the English labels in the Hermitage.

A wrought silver plate showing an archer on horseback shooting backwards at ungulates.

Detail of draw: plate with Khosrow II with nobles. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 6th century CE. Found in the Perm Region before 1908. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1926 from Kungur Museums.

Here are two details from the plate at the top of the post.

Details of bow, draw, and grip on arrow

Detail of draw: Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Details of bow, draw, and grip on arrow

Detail of draw: Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

I think that the following plate is especially interesting for the question whether the Sasanids used a thumb draw or hooked three fingers over the string in the ‘Mediterranean’ style.

Wrought silver bowl with relief of bare-headed archer on horseback shooting a lion which pounces on his horse from behind.

Plate with a horseman hunting. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th or 8th century CE. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1840 by order of Nicholas I with the funds from the Imperial Cabinet. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Sigma-shaped composite bow with ears; peculiar draw where the bottom three fingers are free, the thumb is hooked over the arrow and points downwards away from the body, and the index finger is hooked over the thumb towards the shooter's chest

Detail of draw: Plate with a horseman hunting. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th or 8th century CE. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1840 by order of Nicholas I with the funds from the Imperial Cabinet. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

Sasanid archers did not always shoot from horseback.

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Detail of draw: plate with a king hunting antelope on camelback. Label not available. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

I hope that someone finds these photos helpful. Although these Persians are almost a thousand years later than the ones I focus on, I think that ancient archery is an important topic, and one where academics and enthusiasts both have something to contribute. And because I have not read up on this topic recently, and not experimented with the right types of draw on the right types of bow, I think that the best thing I can do is to make some sources available and step back.

Further Reading: A. Shahpur Shahbazi, “Army i.5 The Sasanian Period,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (link), A.D.H. Bivar, “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 26 (1972) pp. 271-291 (paywalled JSTOR link), ryddragyn, The Persian Draw- What Was It? (video link). Some other Sasanid silver plates showing warriors on horseback are in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There will be an issue of Ancient Warfare Magazine on archery in March 2017, and the deadline to propose articles is still well in the future.

Edit 2016-12-07: That issue is now in print, so go check out Alexander Stover’s article on