Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Specialized Beaker Archers!! (Ryan et al, 2018)

This study on ancient archers has been in the works for a while, and eagerly anticipated.  Well, it's here.  As this work continues to develop in an upcoming doctoral thesis,  Jessica Ryan's data will add new social dimensions of the Bell Beakers.  There's some surprising results.

Mounted Beaker Archer

This is the first step in what will be an expanding collection of skeletal data on specialist Bell Beakers.  Since trade specialties often leave entheseal and other changes on the skeleton, it's possible to understand the repetitive motions and stresses that may be associated with certain activities.

Because of burial context, Ryan could associate or interpret certain entheseal stress and muscle-headedness with archery stress.  Jessica Ryan took 27 Bohemians, which included 10 suspected archers, and found differences that defined the suspected archers as a group of "specialist archers".  These Central European archers have been hypothesized to have used short composite bows, whose development coincides with mounted warfare.*

As Jessica Ryan will be expanding the study throughout the Eastern Domain for her doctoral thesis, the initial focus on Bohemia is to refine the methodology.  One issue she remains aware of, and in fact has evidence of here, is that most Beakers may have been archers of some competency (similar to the universality of archery in Medieval England). So comparison between groups is formally clarified to mean a distinction between suspected archers (or specialists) and non-suspected archers (presumably mom and pop folks who are not specialists). 

Ryan, Desideri & Besse identify archer burials with the typical diagnostic set.  They look at the stress indicators and musculature, comparing these individuals with non-suspected archer Beakers.  Although the differences between groups are subtle, it's important to define what that means here.  Most individuals had entheseal changes associated with archery, but the distinction between them and specialists is in the severity of those changes and the associated archaeological contexts.  The most important factor in interpretation is not comparison between individuals or groups, it is the network of changes that can be observed working together on the skeleton.  (If enough of the skeleton is present, then it can be used for statistical analysis between groups)

They present an additional line of evidence that stone bracers, whatever their function, are indeed associated with experienced archers.**  Importantly, it is possible to see in the human remains something akin to a social category or distinction in daily labor.  That's what's surprising here.  Non-specialist archers had 'other' physical stresses that the warriors did not.  I don't know what those were, but we've seen in other studies on Beakers where some people work harder than others.

A Mittle-Saale Beaker by Karol Schauer
I'll bet this study expands beyond the Eastern Domain and into potentially related areas, such as hip dysplasia.  This makes me remember Stuart Needham's recent work on Beaker knife fights or Horn's work on halbards.  The data continues to tell a story of a tough people who were frequently feuding with each other or in general war.

J. Ryan/J. Desideri/M. Besse: Bell Beaker Archers: Warriors or an Idealogy?  JNA 20, 2018S, 97-122 [doi 10.12766/jna.2018S.6]

*It would be interesting to see how these numbers correlate with the occurrence of hip dyplasia among archers.  Hip dyplasia is a consequence of frequent horse riding and has been observed in Beaker individuals from Germany and west-central Europe.

**Since I've had a few years to baste on the bracers, my current view is that bracers were worn on the outside of the arm as a dead weight or a shock weight to steady the arm for a short bow or for riding.  I'm guessing if Beakers did ride and shoot that they did not have stirrups and lacked the stability of an Iron Age barbarian.


  1. 'entheseal'

    There's a new word for my vocabulary list.

  2. Meet the ancestors! Scary folk.
    Thanks Bell Beaker Blogger.

  3. The image of the archer riding the horse with the gray face looks like a ring-wraith from Tolkien.