I became intrigued by 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, three examples (Figa 1,2,3) one hole at each end and one with six holes, three at each end Fig 4, both in Salisbury Museum, and 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 (witness mark) 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 disturb the arrow’s release and deflect the arrow. 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 but I needed a helper to put it on. The two hole version stands up and snags the bowstring most of the time. The four-holed version fitted more snugly to my wrist but it still snagged the bowstring far too often. Both types protected my wrist effectively, most of the time but not often enough. I received string lash to my wrist when the bracer snagged the bowstring and 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; which seems to be an impractical modification to the bracer as normally shown, Fig 5 The example with the Stonehenge archer is so small it would provide little or no protection. In short, used as shown in Fig 5 would be inconvenient, useless and an encumbrance.
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 is unexplained. 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 holes. However, some multi-hole ‘bracers’ have rivets closing the holes so, maybe, the extra holes were ornamental or perhaps it was a two hole version later modified. Possibly, some ‘bracers’ were purely ornamental; there are examples of such developments, e.g. officers’ epaulets which were once protection from downwards sword cuts and the small silver shield that was worn by army officers on a silver chain around the neck is a vestigial breastplate.
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; of course, if it is inconsistent, it is wrong.
For a more information see:
Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 74, 2008, pp. 109-140
‘Bracers or Bracelets? About the Functionality and Meaning of Bell Beaker Wrist-guards’ by HARRY FOKKENS, YVONNE ACHTERKAMP, and MAIKEL KUIJPERS1
The Bell Beaker bracers, or wrist-guards, are traditionally thought to have functioned as archery equipment, protecting the arm against the sting of the bowstring. Their position on the body is therefore thought to have been on the inside of the lower arm. Through analysis of the position in which wrist-guards are found, we have come to the conclusion that they were, however, more often than not fastened to the outside of the arm, which leads us to consider a range of new possible uses and meanings for the bracers. With combined information from archaeological and ethnographic surveys we have come to think of the stone wrist-guard as an artefact that was associated with a martial, ideologically-laden activity in the Bell Beaker culture.
It may be seen online.
My major comments on this work are given below, they state:
“The surprising conclusion of our survey (Of the positions of “bracers” in Neolithic graves.) is that, while the majority of the bracers were indeed positioned on the lower arm, generally the left arm, they had been worn on the outside. —- only eight out of 30 examples were located on the inside of the arm, with 17 definitely on the outside. Even if we leave — the position that is hardest to interpret – out of the equation, still c. 60% are positioned on the outside of the arm. That was, in fact, wholly unexpected and is difficult to explain as evidence for a functional position. It is also clear that this position on the outside of the wrist is not exclusive, so both a functional and a non-functional or ornamental position are possible, although the majority appear to be ornamental.”
I suggest that it is wrong to suppose that the functional position must be on the inside of the arm. It seems to me that that they are the fastener for the wrist guard and therefore the outside of the wrist is their functional position. So why were some found on the inside? For that, I have no good answer, perhaps movement of the bracer occurred after death. For example, the arm may have withered allowing the bracer to slip round during the burial ritual.