Roman arrows

1. Introduction
2. Dura Europos background
3. Qasr Ibrim background
4. Comparison of arrows
5. Conclusions
6.1. Arrow with fletching
6.2 Arrow shaft, no fletching
6.3 Arrow shaft with three-bladed iron arrowhead still attached

Caballo (Paul Brown)

1. Introduction

While many arrow heads have survived, very few examples of fletching and the actual arrow shafts remain. Two major finds are from Dura Europos and the Roman Meroitic remains (although there are references in James to arrow finds from Nahal Tse'elim and Masada) . The objective here is to compare these fletchings and arrow shafts; and to draw out some interim conclusions regarding how far these arrows can shed light on others. Having been fortunate enough to examine the Roman Meroitic arrows at first hand, I would like to thank Dr Neal Spencer of the Egyptian section for his invaluable help in allowing the huge privilege of access.

2. Dura Europos background

Dura Europos was a city on the Middle Euphrates in present day Syria. It was founded by the Macedonians, ruled by the Parthians and annexed by the Romans. In 255/6 AD, the Roman garrison was besieged in the city by a Sassanian army. From this period comes an astonishing assembly of items- wooden shields, horse armour, which, when found could be placed on a horse, bolt quarrels, and many other items of military and civilian equipment- including arrows. Simon James's book "Final Report VII: The Arms and Armour and other Military Equipment" cannot be recommended highly enough, and this article draws on it heavily.

3. Qasr Ibrim background

Qasr Ibrim (Arabic, castle of Ibrim, with linguistic link to Castra) is located in Lower Nubia in modern day Sudan. Under Augustus, a Roman garrison was stationed there under prefect Gaius Petronius who defeated a Meroitic army after their invasion of Lower Nubia in 24 BC. Finds include quarrels from bolt-shooters, and artillery balls; some with slogans identifying the century and one identifying the targeted enemy leader!

4. Comparison of arrows

Dura Europos
Qasr Ibrim
Shaft material Reed, wood (tamarisk?), Reed/ wood combination (e.g. arrow shaft of reed cane, 10 mm diameter, into the end of which is inserted a tapered wooden footing which forms the front part of the arrow shaft. Similar design found at Nahal Tse'elim and Vindonissa. James, pp204/5) Reed (diameter 7-8mm), Wood (diameter 8mm, tapering to arrowhead).
Wooden shaft considerably more robust than reed arrows.
Fletching shape Parabolic Parabolic
Fletching length 151-157mm 113mm
Fletching colour White? Light brown
Fletching attached with ... Glue Glue
Fletching Style "Western" style with cock feather set at right angles to the axis of the nock and a hen-feather at 120 degrees to either side of it. Not cork-screwed (to make arrow spin), although natural twist in the feather will accomplish this. Three feathers with "cock" feather set at 120 degrees to nock. Not cork-screwed.
Binding/ whipping between fletching and nock? Yes ("glued fibre (tendon?)… to prevent cane splitting": James) Yes. Appears similar to Dura Europos.
Width of binding 10mm width, 9mm from nock end 4-6mm width, 8-12 mm from nock end.
Self nocked (i.e. no additional material at nock) Yes Yes
Nocking depth 8-10mm 4-9mm
Decoration "cresting" on nock Black base, with white and red (see picture). 2nd century arrows found at Nahal Tse'elim in Judea also possess similar red and black cresting; parallel red and black cresting found throughout Asia, including contemporary Han Chinese crestings) Black painted nock
Arrow head description Sharpened wood; copper alloy two bladed 29-98mm length; copper alloy three bladed 19-50mm; iron two bladed 60-67mm; iron three-bladed 35mm-88mm Iron three-bladed tanged head (still attached). Length along blade edge 19mm. Length of head (excluding tang) 14mm.
Draw type Thumb ring Probable thumb ring (in comparison, a modern parabolically fletched Hungarian arrow -traditionally made- has a gap between fletching end and nock end of c.40mm)
Other comments   Tapered shaft towards arrow head, with signs of "whittling".
  None of these exhibited any signs of a whipping in front of the fletching, nor of a medieval-style linen thread binding the fletching to the shaft in addition to the glue.
None of the sculptural references that I have seen have indicated the "v-shaped" medieval style fletching rather than a parabolic fletching- though erosion (e.g. on Trajan's column) do not make this a conclusive finding.


5. Conclusions

These arrows show a remarkable amount of overlap- parabolically fletched, binding at the nock end, crested using colour combinations. The material (wood/ reed) may also reflect both local materials and manufacturing preference.

A key question is how far it is possible to extend these arrows to other parts of the Roman Empire. Certainly, Dura Europos and Qasr Ibrim were "outposts of Empire" - though from a Roman perspective, no further from the centre than Hadrian's Wall.
James notes "one of the most striking characteristics of the Dura assemblage is the degree to which so much of it matches finds from other Roman frontiers, not only in general form, but often in the finest details…near-identical to, and often indistinguishable from, discoveries made at other Roman sites as far away as Scotland and Mauretania." Having said that, an arrow would be very dependent on what was available locally. Secondly, a Mediterranean draw would involve a different design- particularly a longer distance between fletching and nock.

In terms of reconstructing a Roman arrow, my conclusion would therefore be that there is evidence for an arrow that is:-

  • Made of wood, reed or combined wood/ reed
  • Parabolic fletching stuck on with glue alone
  • Binding or whipping between nock and fletching
  • Decorated nock using black, white, or red paint (also known as cresting - used today to identify arrows belonging to a particular archer)
  • Iron, copper alloy or sharpened wood point
  • Two or three blade heads

6. Appendix

Qasr Ibrim arrow details
Three arrows were examined at the British Museum.

6.1. Arrow with fletching (71841, ref Q1 80.2.2/48 1990-1-27.24)

Length: 178mm
Diameter: 8mm
Nock length: 9mm
Shaft material: Reed
Longest extant fletching: 113m (with gap)
Fletching: Parabolic, light brown colour, attached with glue
Binding: At nock, 12 mm from nock end. Tendon/ sinew/ linen thread (?) 4mm wide.
Nock: Dark colour markings (probably paint)
Other: "Cock" feather at 120 degrees to nock. Three fletchings arranged equally around shaft, without corkscrew effect

6.2 Arrow shaft, no fletching (71845, ref Q178.2.21/12a 1990-1-27,28

Length: 396mm
Diameter: 7mm
Nock length: 4mm
Shaft material: Reed
Fletching remains: Glue attachment only- longest remaining 57mm of glue
Binding: At nock, 8 mm from nock end, Tendon/ sinew/ linen thread (?) 5-6mm wide
Nock: No visible markings
Other: A very light arrow. Three fletchings, one in line with nock, and the others equally spaced at 120 degrees off

6.3 Arrow shaft with three-bladed iron arrowhead still attached (71840 ref q1 80.1.21/61 A 1990- 1-27,23)

Length of shaft and arrow head: 187mm
Shaft length: 173mm
Shaft diameter: 8mm tapering to arrowhead (roughly cut)
Binding: No trace
Arrow head: Blade length 19mm, head length 14mm, tang length uncertain as still in shaft. Two blades bent.