A Miniature Antler Bow from a Middle Bronze Age Site at Isleham, (Cambridgeshire), England

By Gdaniec, Kasia | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview

A Miniature Antler Bow from a Middle Bronze Age Site at Isleham, (Cambridgeshire), England


Gdaniec, Kasia, Antiquity


A little bow - at less than half a metre long too small to be a practical tool - comes from the later prehistoric Fenland of east England. Along with the wristguards, fine arrowheads and smoothing stones of the British Bronze Age, it tells of the special meaning of archery in later prehistory - whether in the animal chase or in human combat.

The Isleham site

During the winter of 1994 part of a Middle Bronze Age 'settlement' was excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit ahead of pipeline construction work for Anglian Water's Isleham-Ely water supply pipeline. A well-defined group of large, back-filled pits, interspersed smaller pits and post-holes was encountered in the first 50-200 m of the pipeline easement at Prickwillow Road on the northwest side of Isleham village, Cambridgeshire (TL 6379/7510; [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]). A zone of dispersed shallow prehistoric aceramic pits, partially preserved in natural depressions in the undulating chalk surface and set among known flint scatters, were 'datable' only by a faunal assemblage (wild cat bones and numerous dog-gnawed fragments and complete bones of cattle, sheep and pig) (Hall's Isleham Sites 6 and 7: Hall in press; SMR equivalent: 10957, 10954 and 07537).

The bow and its manufacture (with Brian Boyd)

Beneath the back-fill of a large pit in the cluster (F.58) lay a miniature antler bow - its presence sufficient to show that ritual activity played a part at the site. And in a heavily plough-damaged shallow pit were 18 human rib fragments and pieces of sternum - the remains of a double burial of an adult human with a flexed young cow in an association suggesting a high regard for domestic cattle.

The bow is 455 mm long. Its breadth ranges from 5 mm at the limb extremities to 16 mm midway between these and the central hand grip, which is 13 mm broad. The average thickness is 9 mm, tapering to 3-4 mm at the limb extremities. The limbs curve away from the hand grip at approximately 45 [degrees] [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. It was fashioned from the beam of a relatively mature red deer (Cervus elaphus) antler. The natural pearling on the outer surface has all but disappeared, probably due to post-depositional factors, and the spongy bone tissue on the inner surface is worn down.(1)

The piece of antler has been cut from the beam by the groove-and-splinter technique (Clark & Thompson 1954), then shaped along its edges using the facet of a flint burin. Marks on one side of the bow show that two small splinters (c. 35 mm long) were removed by groove-and-splinter prior to shaping. Microwear analysis (using a Wild Photomacroscope M400 and a Schott KL1500 cold light source) show the fine parallel horizontal striations characteristic of shaving action running along the sides, and a number of chattermarks vertical to the striations on the edges [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] - caused by the flint implement bouncing across the uneven antler surface. The limb extremities have been tapered to form rounded tips, one slightly more pointed. Overlying the horizontal striations are a number of fine, closely spaced parallel striations running diagonally along the bow edges, likely caused by abrasion, for instance by rubbing and polishing with a relatively smooth stone. The symmetrical shape of the limbs suggests deliberate working. Intensive soaking is likely to have been the method of bow moulding, although Piggott (1971: 89) indicates the use of sustained heat (as in a manure heap) for the modelling of ash walking-stick handles.

There are no discernible traces of use on the artefact; polish around the hand grip and at the tips was probably caused by handling [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. There is no indication that the bow was strung as there are no nocks, although bows can be otherwise strung (Heath & Chiara 1977) - if the bow tips are sufficiently tapered the bowstring can be secured by a number of hitches or a fibre collar (McEwen pers. …

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A Miniature Antler Bow from a Middle Bronze Age Site at Isleham, (Cambridgeshire), England
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