Volunteer Keith Rodger has been applying himself to what is apparently yet one more of many mysteries surrounding ancient peoples. His is the kind of thinking, and experimentation, which archaeologists and historians must do all the time. It makes an interesting read….
I have been thinking about the stone slips, found with numerous skeletons, which are identified as ‘bracers’ used by archers to protect the inside of their wrists from the lash of the bowstring. My wife and I have both been told separately by archers that the bracers will not work because the string will catch behind the near end of the stone. Intrigued and persuaded by their comments, I investigated.
We have seen three designs: one with two holes, one hole at each end, one with six holes, three at each end, both in Salisbury Museum, and at one with four holes two at each end, in Devizes Museum. Internet research revealed similar ‘bracers’ and some with even more holes, some of which were filled with rivets. The only one we have seen that might be in situ is with the “Amesbury Archer”, and that one might be on the outside of his arm and is associated with a large pin. Once again, internet research revealed that others have been found on the outside of the forearm, which is not the place for a wrist guard. From the outside of the display cases, we cannot see any sign of wear around the holes that might have resulted from movement of a cord or thong. One must be careful not to read too much into the position of artefacts in graves. They can be moved and/or they might have been placed in the grave without reference to their function in life. Indeed a second ‘bracer’ is near the ‘Amesbury Archer’s’ feet. The ‘Stonehenge Archer’ might have been buried with his ‘bracer’ in place but his grave had been badly damaged by animals and the photo does not show where the bracer was found.
For a bracer to be effective it must deflect the bowstring without snagging it, as this would cause the archer’s hand to move and spoil his aim. It must be easy to fit single-handedly, be comfortable and non-encumbering.
I have made simulations in wood of both the two and four-holed versions. It is easy to devise suitable means of attachment using a simple loop of string. The four-holed version fitted more snugly to my wrist, snagged the bowstring less frequently and might be a development. Both types protected my wrist effectively, most of the time. However, I still received string lash to my thumb and the fletching cut my top knuckle. If this were my bracer, I would make a better one. In particular, I would want some kind of glove or mitten to protect my thumb and knuckle.
Protection might be provided in numerous ways, e.g. by binding the arm with a leather sheet or sleeve. In this case, the stone slip might have been used as a fastener, rather like a cleat, and/or a spreader/stiffener to stop the leather from creasing. This could explain finding them on the outside of the arm. It might also explain the absence of wear in the holes, since it would be rather static. The Amesbury Archer’s pin might have been part of this fastening. Clearly, the thumb and knuckle guards could be incorporated with the sleeve; this construction would also have helped to keep the sleeve taut.
I have no explanation for the six-holed version, there seems to be no advantage in having the extra hole. However, some multi-hole ‘bracers’ have rivets closing the holes so, maybe, the extra holes were ornamental. Possibly, some ‘bracers’ were purely ornamental; there are examples of such developments, e.g. officers’ epaulets which were once protection from downwards sword cuts.
Clearly, all of this is speculation based on incomplete evidence and looking from outside the display cabinets. Of the various options proposed above, the hand guard plus sleeve with a buckle/tensioner/stiffener seems to give the best design for the equipment and is within the capabilities of Neolithic people. Which raises the question “Why use stone, why not wood?”. I suggest that making a flat wood version rather than using flat slate or similar stone would have been more difficult and a round stick would have got in the way. Of course all of this is speculation and could well be wrong! All we can only ever say is that this or that explanation is consistent with known facts.