The area of beautiful peat wetlands in southwest England known as the Somerset Levels has many beguiling secrets; this place is steeped in myth and magic -not least because of it’s strange wraith-like mists and dense, silent fogs. Legends abound -with the ancient town of Glastonbury and it’s dramatic Tor to the east rising from the flatlands, thought to be the Isle of Avalon where King Arthur was taken to be buried; a thorn tree planted by Christ's companion, Joseph of Arimathea, is said to grow nearby; the ninth century Saxon King Alfred, reputed to be a fine archer, temporarily fled from the Viking invasions into this secret, barely accessible marshy area, and while hiding in secret and unrecognised, was so preoccupied with planning the defeat of the Danes that he burnt the cakes which were left in his charge on the hearth of a Somerset Levels hovel.
Many hundreds of years before any of these legends were formed, in 2,500BC a prehistoric society unwittingly created a modern-day enigma -the Meare Heath bow was "bestowed" upon the waters of the marshes to tantalise and frustrate 20th century archers and archaeologists alike. Just a few miles away and within the same century, (c 2,690BC) the Ashcott Heath yew bow was also left in the marshes. This too was half a bow but of a completely different design -more resembling a modern ‘english’ longbow than the bow which has become the most famous English example of an ancient bowyer’s craft.
Existing reports on these bows had been written by archaeologists and archers -none by bowmakers, so I wanted to cast a bowmaker’s eye over it , having formed several practical questions about it’s design. I fully expected these to be answered when I studied it first hand.
So in the summer of 1998, in a back room of a Cambridge Museum, I saw the single limb of the Meare Heath yew bow next to it's smaller and more delicate sister, the Ashcott longbow, for the first time; I was immediately struck -as many had been before me - by the difference in mass between the two. I soon overcame my initial wonder at being able to handle these priceless objects and checked the bow against my notes, hoping to resolve my numerous queries. As time went by, not only did I discover none of the expected answers, but also I found my questions were increasing in number. Gradually, the Meare Heath bow was working it's magic.
The artefact is a single yew bow limb, preserved in Carbowax (a 1960’s system of preservation which predates modern preservatives such as polyethylene glycol) it is of a wide section with a rounded back and flat belly with the outside of the tree to the back of the bow. It is decorated with transverse strips of oxhide, scarf-jointed on the back, with diagonal cross banding between, possibly of sinew or rawhide. It has been carbon dated to within 150 years of 2,600 BC and is currently in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.
It has often been said that the unusual size of the bow and it's decoration indicates that it was something special in it's own day, particularly when compared with the plainer Ashcott find; these two bows have little in common except their material (yew), a button nock, and their date, which is the late Neolithic period. Other bows uncovered in the Levels indicate that a variety of profiles were used, but these were of smaller size than the Meare Heath and made from hazel - a far more common wood than yew. They include a flatbow similar to a modem American longbow in profile with a narrow deepened handle and comparatively flat limbs. Several hazel bows were found during archaeological excavations in the levels, but unfortunately for archer-historians these could not be conserved due to their poor condition and were destroyed after photographic records were taken.
As far as I can tell, the decorations to the Meare Heath's limb form no practical function in terms of bow performance or longevity. I can see no basis for one theory that the binding quieted the bow in use, neither do I believe it could have assisted strengthening of the limbs as the ‘scarfed’ joints on the back would have little strength in use. Perhaps the bindings held further decorative fabric in place.
The bow was made with the grain lying off-centre to the limb, and while this would possibly make the bow twist on drawing up, it looks remarkably straight considering it's age; it has string follow, but this is slight. so it looks like it was a shootable bow which had been used -or at least ‘tillered’.
The more I considered the find, the deeper the enigma became. I was under it's spell. Was it a shootable bow, cast aside when it failed in the hunter's hands? Or an offering to the Gods? Was it buried with some unseen prehistoric dignitary with other grave goods -fine flint heads and axeheads for instance, to help him on his way to the afterlife? The bow itself was a key to a door opening onto the archaeology of the times, and inspired me to study the area in which it was found and the peoples of it's time in an attempt to understand it's context.
The Meare Heath bow's survival is entirely due to the nature of the land in which it was found. For thousands of years the area was flooded by sea and river, at different periods forming reedy swamps, fenland, or raised marshland; it had been inhabited before 4,000 BC, initially by hunter gatherers, and the earliest manmade trackway in Britain (the ‘Sweet Way’) was laid down between Meare & Shapwick Heath in 3,806BC, indicating more settlements were beginning to form into well run agricultural communities. Somerset means ‘The land of the Summer People’ and communities would have travelled here from higher ground with their herds once the winter floods and foul weather had receded.
The Levels continued to flood regularly making travel across the boggy marshland extremely hazardous, and for over 2,000 years these societies constructed many raised wooden prehistoric walkways, some of them several kilometres in length, criss-crossing the area to link communities with their pastures and fields on higher ground; the level of sophistication required to construct these tracks cannot be understated –they possessed fine practical engineering skills and their labour was highly organised. Occupation of the Levels continued throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and beyond; since mediaeval times they have gradually been drained with extensive ditches and artificial riverways, so vast areas of marsh have given way to agricultural land of strange beauty. Vigourous archaeological work in the 20th century has barely scratched the surface of the prehistory locked beneath the ground, perfectly preserved in layers of deep, rich, dark peat. This high-quality peat it is a valuable resource which has been recognised and exploited since 1100 AD and recent use of modem peat-cutting machines put the area at risk both environmentally and archaeologically, threatening prehistoric artefacts and cutting through the ancient trackways which it encapsulates so perfectly, yet it is due to an individual peat worker's diligence in June 1961 (Mr. M. Spencer) that we have this unique example of prehistoric bowmaking. Still enclosed in it's peat, the bow limb was taken to Cambridge for archaeological study and preservation.
(Picture caption : The Somerset levels are now being protected from peat exploitation and now a new elevated timber trackway has been built over reclaimed marsh very close to where the Meare bow was found, to provide access to natural wetland -this must resemble it’s appearance all those centuries ago.)
Why are there doubts whether the Meare Heath was everyday weapon? At the time of the bow's making, communities supplemented their diet of cereal crops and meat from domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs with local wild harvests including game. The remains of “hides” from which hunters could shoot game have been found in the marshes, showing that this method of hunting was well established thousands of years ago. Bones of wildcat, beaver, wild boar, badger, horse, and deer have been found in various settlements; finds of transverse arrowheads (considered best for shooting small game) increase in number around this period, and barbed and tanged flint heads of the later neolithic and a hazel arrowshaft with nettle fibre binding were found very close to the site of the Meare Heath bow.
A growth in population in Britain at the time put pressure on resources and so livelihoods had to be protected, therefore the main means of defence -bows and spears-would have been essential and common in all the settlements. Yet on seeing the Meare Heath bow for the first time, a bowmaker is immediately struck by unusual factors in the design, particularly the narrowness of the handle (just over 20mm at it's most narrow point by 22mm thick) in relation to the massive limbs (at their widest 65mm by 17.5mm thick); the keeled "fadeouts" seem too short to resist the stresses at this critical point between handle and limb. If I had designed a bow with a high risk of breaking in the handle, this would have been it. I have made several approximations of this bow, in yew, ash and hickory- and I have never risked making the handle quite that narrow and the fadeouts that short -although some of these bows have worked through the handle , I have not considered it prudent to ‘push my luck’!
How powerful was the Meare Heath bow? It is extremely difficult to assess true draw-weight by size alone, particularly with yew where grain density, mass, and weight can be so variable. The preserving process has probably shrunk the artefact, hidden some of the marks and enlarged others in addition to increasing it's weight, so care has to be taken in assessing these clues. The yew from which it is made is very good, and I've not yet found a stave of the right quality and grain density suitable for making an approximation which could provide any information regarding likely draw weight and cast. A version made from American Cherry, which is 90% of the original's scale (assuming the limbs were of equal length), shoots well with no string follow and little kick in the hand, weighing in at 55lb. My yew approximations came out at 75lb and 90lb -all at a modern archer’s drawlength of 28 inches, English Ash at 75-80lb. A self yew bow made for the BBC, with a draw weight of over 80lb at 28 inches, cast a 32 inch hazel arrow over 150 yards. There are so many ways of drawing a bow, one can only guess whether the archers of the time drew to the nose, shoulder or chin. The bows I have made are also symmetrical but there is no indication that prehistoric peoples were hidebound by symmetry. I can only speculate that a bow this size would have cast a heavy arrowshaft a goodly distance. A more refined answer in the case of this particular bow doesn't’ seem important!
The Neolithic peoples of this area were excellent woodworkers, which is amply
demonstrated by the construction of their timber walkways which were fashioned without benefit of metal tools; flint tools were well established, and a flint barbed and tanged head, presumed to be late Neolithic, was found close by the bow’s location. The workmanship on the bow is equally outstanding, however, six parallel decorative slashes across the l0mm wide transverse binding, while a testament to the sharpness of the flint tools used and the skill of the craftsman wielding them are troubling. Why was the bow's survival put at risk by what appears to be careless use of these tools when applying the decorative leather bands? The oxhide bands and diagonal "decorations" were trimmed after their application to the bow, the consequent deep slashes across the grain on the back of the limb and nicks along it's edges would certainly have put it's working survival in jeopardy —no modern bowmaker would take such risks. So, was the decoration applied by other than the bowmaker's hand? Or, was it never intended for use as a regular weapon, therefore such carelessness was irrelevant?
The yew is clean and close grained, and I have difficulty in obtaining such a good piece nowadays. I did not detect any sapwood, but the age of the artefact and the preservation process makes it difficult to be sure, and there are no X-rays available. Pollen counts analysed from the period in this area (Abbotts Way track, 2,500 BC) indicate that yew trees were not common at the time (less than 1% of all tree species) and there are few archaeological finds made from this wood although yew survives extremely well in peat: current archaeological records list a 5,000 year old yew mallet (so hard that it broke the steel blade of the peat cutting machine), and a set of highly polished curved yew pins which were decorative for hair or clothing, so was yew highly prized at that time and a valuable item of trade? It is certainly a beautiful wood and unique in it's properties, something which the peoples of the time would have appreciated, a good piece could have had a very high value. It is possible that the yew from which this bow is made could have grown some considerable distance from the Levels. Trade was substantial with other areas of Britain and Europe at this time, for example jadeite axeheads have been found which are sourced from the Swiss/Italian Alps over 750 miles away and these were very likely to have been traded for the prehistoric equivalent of a King's ransom; one perfect example was found adjacent to the Sweet Track and just 500 metres from where the Meare Heath bow was found; this axehead had never been hafted or used —was it an offering to the Gods perhaps? It is not impossible that the Meare Heath bow, being made of such good quality material and decorated in such a fashion could also have been such an offering. We can only speculate about the rituals enacted in accordance with prehistoric man's beliefs, whether for the blessing of safe passage across the bog, or the provision of a good harvest to feed a growing community.
Around the middle of the third millennium the population increased greatly and there is evidence of crisis among the farming communities in the South West of Britain, with the consequent shortfall in food production causing instability and internal strife. Could the occupants of the Levels have been involved in such troubles? Was the Meare Heath bow ever used in anger? There is evidence that parts of the area, once extensively cleared by farming communities, had reverted to regenerated woodland by 2,400 BC, so did major upheaval and relocation take place at this time?
Around this period, belief systems in Britain were changing from the cult of the ancestors to the worship of sun and moon. Within the date range of the bow, and less than 50 miles away, a new type of stone circular monument of stone was being developed, replacing those made of wood -the famous Stonehenge.* Here the link with archery and religious ritual continues, for in 1978 a burial pit dated to approx. 2130 BC was uncovered near the entrance causeway, containing the skeleton of an apparently healthy young man with three flint arrowheads in his ribs and a stone bracer on his arm. A sacrifice? Or (it is apparently a shallow grave) a murder? Would special bows be needed for such a ritual, and then offered to the Gods? Certainly Neolithic beliefs incorporated the concept of an afterlife; those prestigious enough to warrant grave goods were well provided for; buried alongside them were flint spear- and arrow-heads, together with pottery and other everyday artefacts, but all these items were of special “grave goods” quality which made them distinct from those in everyday use. In many cultures throughout history, weapons are included with the burials of significant members of the community, so it is not unthinkable that a highly prized, decorated bow would have been included in such circumstances. Perhaps a much-loved weapon was decorated on the archer's death, thus "upgraded" to grave-goods quality to protect him on his journey to the afterlife, only to be separated from it's owner over time by flood or other disturbance, to be found by our peat worker some 4,600 years later.
I started my study of the Meare Heath bow wanting answers, but instead I began a fascinating investigation into the mysteries of archaeology and anthropology. Beguiled by this bow, I ventured into areas of the rich and vast subject of archery which I would never have discovered without it's influence; I'm more than happy that such an artefact, found buried in the land of myth and magic, should keep it's secrets, for it has sent me on a wonderful journey of speculation and imagination.
The Somerset Levels Papers: Somerset Levels Project.
Prehistoric Britain: Timothy Darvill
Prehistory of the Somerset Levels: JM Coles & BJ Orme
The Archaeology of Somerset: Aston & Burrow
Neolithic bows from Somerset, England and the prehistory of archery in north-west Europe: GD Dark (Prehistoric Society Papers)
Prehistoric Bows from Britain: H Gordon & A Webb.
Society of Archer Antiquaries Journal
SAA Newsletter: extract from The Making of Stonehenge. R Castleton
Somerset Levels & Moors Project
Prehistory of the Somerset Levels. JM & BJ Coles
Somerset Heritage Project.
© H Greenland 2021