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A reconstruction of a Scythian noble with the bowcase on his left hip. I almost wrote nobleman, but that is not a safe guess in the steppes! Probably from Philip De Souza ed., The Ancient World at War. A Global History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).

For a few years now, I have been trying to remember where I learned that Scythian bowcases (Greek gorytos, Babylonian šalṭu) often contained a hundred or more arrows. I have heard it in various places, including in a lecture by a famous classicist in the sunset lands beyond the Ocean, but what is the archaeological evidence?

  • Ellis H. Minns, Scythians and Greeks: A Survey of Ancient History and Archaeology on the North Coast of the Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1913) p. 68: 200 to 300 arrows in quivers from Scythian graves https://archive.org/details/scythiansgreekss00minn
  • Geo Widengren, “Recherches sur le féodalisme iranien,” Orientalia Suecanica V (1956) p. 152 n. 2: A gorytos in a kurgan at Solokha contained 180 arrows
  • Richard Brzeinski and Mariusz Mielczarek, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450. Men at Arms 373. Osprey Publishing: Botley, 2002. p. 34: 128 arrows with painted shafts in a gorytos in Sholokhovskii kurgan at Rostov-on-Don (-IV); 228 iron heads, 4 bronze, 9 bone in two clumps in a kurgan near Hutor Kascheevka, Rostov-on-Don (-IV or -III)

Now, citing these sources makes me feel a bit dirty, because the ones after the Bolsheviks seized power don’t cite their sources. Unfortunately very few people talk about the Soviet excavations in English, German, or French, and when they do they do not give footnotes. So in the time I have available, these sources will do.

The famous battle scene on the gold comb from Solocha/Solokha. Wikipedia claims that the gorytos from this tomb contained 80 bronze arrowheads. Also probably from Philip De Souza ed., The Ancient World at War. A Global History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).

Those are remarkable numbers. Soldiers in Babylonia in the same period usually carried 30 to 60 arrows, the Strategikon recommends that Roman soldiers carry 30 or 40 in a quiver, and English archers in the 14th, 15th, and 16th century usually carried a sheaf of two dozen arrows. Medieval hunters often carried as few as three arrows or bolts stuck through their belt! And that tells us that these bows were used in a very different way than those of medieval longbowmen, Belisarius’ hardtack-munchers, or Nebuchadnezzar’s bowmen.

These western Scythian (to use the Greek name) or Kimmerian (to use the Babylonian name) bows were designed for a style of fighting which involved putting vast numbers of arrows into the air. Such small, light arrows might not penetrate shields or inflict immediately disabling wounds, but if enough arrows were in the air that would not matter. The peoples of the western steppes were accused of poisoning their arrows, and that is certainly a common solution for archers forced to use short or light bows. The bows which shot these arrows were nothing like the six-foot-long, inch-thick monsters from the Mary Rose. Some people today want all military bows to have had very high draw weights, but the evidence from the parts of the ancient world which I study does not really support that.

Further Reading: Adrienne Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs (non legi); Waller and Waller, “The Carriage of Arrows from Hastings to the Mary Rose”; Kirstin Kleber “Zu Waffen und Ausrüstung babylonischer Soldaten in der zweiten Hälfte des 1 Jt. v. Chr.”