The Holmegaard bow is a prehistoric bow found in the peat bogs Holmegaard in the east of Denmark. It has been dated to 7000BCE and there is some dispute as to whether it is the oldest artefact identified as a bow but it is certainly the oldest complete bow, although it is in 4 pieces.
It was discovered in 1944 when due to a shortage of coal peat was being cut. It’s one of 5 bows found around this time. They were preserved by the waterlogged peat which is acid and inhibits bacterial and fungal decay.
In my opinion the bow could have been complete before it was unearthed but archaeology was not a priority for those digging up the peat.
It is now in the National Museum of Denmark.
The bow is elm (Ulmus spp) and likely from a pole about 10-15cm diameter from the curvature.
The total length is 177cm. It has a central handle and tapering limbs. The taper on the limbs is somewhat uneven with a very slight shoulder about a third away from the tip. Lightening the tips shows a quite sophisticated design philosophy as the tips have to move furthest when the string is released and the lighter they are the faster they can accelerate leading to a faster bow. For a given arrow weight, the faster the bow the more energy the arrow can go, giving it more distance (cast) and penetrating power.
There has been some speculation that the bow is ‘inside out.’ That is that the curved side was the belly. This is true of the traditional English longbow but not usual for a flatbow.
The bow predates the accepted start of the bronze age in the region by 3500 years so it would have been worked with flint and stone tools.
The workmanship is excellent and the bowyer was obviously skilled and it was pretty obviously a well developed technology.
From the bow as is it is difficult to gauge the exact tiller but from my experiments it seems that it would have been the standard stiff handle with limbs bending evenly from fades to the tip.
There is nothing to indicate a string material but in Northern Europe it was most probably a plant fibre. Linen is known to have been in Europe for 30,000 years so if I had to speculate I would go with linen.
As well as speculation about the way the bow bent the shape seems to have become somewhat confused. A lot of ‘Holmegaard’ style bows have not referred back to the original and have followed some, somewhat erroneous, designs with very distinct shoulders or bottlenecks with almost traditional English longbow section tips. This is possibly a confusion with the Mollegabet bows, also found in Denmark. That has sparked many discussions about whether the tips were ‘working’ or whether they were similar to the siyahs on an oriental composite bow and were just levers. In my opinion the safest and most easily made bow maximises the working wood and as much as possible of the limb would have been bent. Discussions on the tiller of the Mollegabet bows is ongoing and will probably never end.
My own experiments.
I have made a couple of Holmegaard style bows from elm poles about 10 cm diameter. Despite Dutch elm disease, poles of this diameter are not to hard to find. There are some very ancient elm coppices around and the beetle that carries Dutch elm disease seem to have trouble finding them if they are below the canopy. My elm came from close to Tenterdon in Kent. Here you can see one pretty well finished bow and a second one in progress.
And here’s the second bow in action. I left some bark on. It made some suspicious scary clicking noises at first but I shot it for some years before I retired it.
Elm is a very dense wood compared to, say ash. As I found out carrying the poles out of the woods. Species and crosses vary widely in how the grain runs but mostly the grain crosses more than ash which makes the wood particularly suitable for because it does not de-laminate along the rings. The downside of that is it can be difficult to split and it tears when it is worked. Your tools need to be extra sharp. My speculation is that this bow was scraped with flint flakes for the final shaping rather than being cut. I worked mine with mainly rasps when it came to tillering it as a tear when you are getting close to finished is damaging.
It’s a safe, and easily understood design and we use something similar on our bowmaking courses but in ash rather than elm. While ash does not have the elasticity and cohesive grain of elm it’s much easier to work.