The December Past is Prologue focused on the bow, but where would the bow be without the arrow?
My Uncle Frank Mountford said that in his time as a serious archer - during the 1940s and '50s - "we made our own arrows. It was part of the sport and the skill in straightening, finishing and fletching them was an expression of our skill as much as shooting well on a target."
The precedent for this responsibility for one's product is as old as archery itself. Ancient peoples, of course, had no choice; if they were to hunt, they made arrows, attached feathers and crafted points of many kinds.
But how? Let's investigate the process.
Erik Kiviat has done extensive research on the nonnative common reed, Phragmites communis - an invasive species that is detrimental to Chesapeake ecosystems. He has found arrow shafts made from native phragmites stems that were preserved in dry, desert archaeological sites of the U.S. Southwest. It's unknown how widespread this use of this common reed was, but the phragmites native to our Eastern states was likely not robust enough for this task.
Eastern Indian arrows are represented by only two surviving examples - despite all of the hundreds of thousands which must have been sent flying - now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Both, from the 17th century, are of unknown origin.
The two arrows are 28.5 inches long and fletched with two split halves of a turkey feather set in glue along grooves in the shaft and lashed in place with fine fibers of glued sinew. The feathers fletching these arrows end about 2 inches from the shallow nock, or notch, made for the bowstring. They are set parallel to the string, so they are not damaged while flying past the bow stave upon release.
One arrow is split from hickory, carved down so the business end has a permanent, carved wooden arrowhead as part of the shaft. The other is from a hardwood shoot and its end was left blunt, a technique designed to stun really small game without tearing up skin and flesh by unnecessary penetration.
Very light arrows could be delicate constructs and to strengthen them, the nock was carved from a separate piece of wood and glued on, with the point hafted to a hollow wooden foreshaft that slid over the arrow's business end. This part sometimes stayed in the wounded target as it crashed off into brush, allowing the labor-intensive shaft and fletching to fall free where it could be recovered rather than broken and lost.
Arrows were also shafted from cane - Arundinaria gigantean, the only native American bamboo - where it was available. The points were attached with sinew and adhesive made from evergreen gum that had been melted over a fire, applied and hardened. Arrows from Arundinaria cane were robust. Cane was - and is - relatively uncommon in Chesapeake habitats, although in the southeastern United States it grows in dense brakes high enough to conceal a horse and rider.
An engraving by Theodor De Bry of a watercolor made in 1585 by John White, a member of the Roanoke expedition, shows a native chief or werowance standing with his "self" bow, made from a single wooden stave. (See "Power of the bow known by hunters, warriors throughout the ages," December 2011). At his waist is a quiver for his arrows, which appears to be made of light reed stems stitched together in a cylindrical form.
I shot a bow like this in 1988 while cruising among islands of the Philippine Archipelago. We visited a Batak tribal settlement some distance from Port Barton on the Island of Palawan. These people - once considered pygmies - are very small in stature, standing about 4.5 feet tall in adulthood. They were wary of us at first, but after we offered a few cigarettes and pieces of candy, the people loosened up enough to joke with us.
They brought out one of their traditional hardwood hunting bows, strung with plaited split rattan - a jungle vine often used in woven patio furniture. The arrows were 4 feet long and made of bamboo. They had detachable, sharpened, bamboo foreshafts inserted in the hollow terminal cell of the main bamboo shaft, with multiple barbs along the sides and needle sharp tips. The points were tethered to the main arrow shaft with a short, natural fiber lanyard.
When the tip embeds in the wild pig, monkey or whatever else had been shot, the two parts separate and the long shaft whips around on its tether, acting as an anchor and catching in dense brush as the animal tries to flee.
The Batak showed me how they shot, crouched in concealment with the bow horizontal and the long arrows steadied against a small twig or branch.
Steadying the arrow is quite significant because when it is violently compressed by the bowstring upon release, it, like all arrows of natural material, bend into something like a shallow "S" curve. Once the arrow is in flight, this bending becomes a repetitive oscillation that diminishes as the arrow steadies and flies to its target.
Actor Russell Crowe, who practiced archery - sometimes 200 shots a day - for one of his movie roles, described this beautifully when he said, "the arrow swims" to its destination.
The Batak man then handed me his bow. I shot a tree and a boy ran to fetch the arrow.
Arrows in all cultures where archery is employed have considerable value. Consider how the Chesapeake Indian made an arrow before the availability of iron and steel tools. He first had to make scrapers out of suitable stone. Then, using practiced eye and the heat of a campfire, he prepared the shaft. He would need tendons for sinew from a previously hauled, skinned, butchered and parceled-up carcass, as well as feathers from a turkey, which would have to be hunted and cleaned. He would have to make glue that was at least moisture resistant. And, he would have to have a point.
Glue for this purpose can be made by putting scraps of sinew in a small amount of water and keeping it "stewing" on low heat, not allowing it to dry out, till some hours later the tendon material has been rendered almost to the molecular level and is a thick, yellowish, translucent "syrup." This will dry and cure into a tough adhesive.
This glue was widely used in 19th century U.S. industry, and the raw material, which included many different tissues, was the source of the expression "sending old horses to the glue factory."
Sometimes, the dried gum from a tree wound that releases sap can be melted, producing a waterproof coating for sinew lashings. I've tried this with success.
Each hunter making arrows had to have previously acquired the proper material for fashioning the arrow's business end. Archaeologist Darrin Lowery and paleontologist Ralph Eshelman have researched the use of Chesapeake fossil Miocene shark's teeth as tools and projectile points. (See "Past is Prologue," November 2008.) Despite the availability of these teeth - they can be found along many of the Bay's high cliffs and must have been strange objects for native hunters - most points were made from a variety of stone.
Stone, in general, was hard to find along sandy and muddy Chesapeake shorelines. There are occasional out of place quartz cobbles found in many places around the tidewater tributaries, though. Since the Archaic period, a few thousand years back, natives broke these usually granular rocks and laboriously knapped the split pieces into serviceable points.
The best material for making points was acquired during trade with inland tribes, even the warlike cultures that were the enemies of Coastal Plain tribes.
Basically, forms of "glassy" material are the best to work with. (On Southwest Australia's Rottnest Island, imprisoned Aborigines made quite serviceable arrowheads from the broken bottles left by their jailers.)
Natural glasslike materials are basically volcanic in origin, produced when the molten rock pours out of the earth. Native American archers in the U.S. West used obsidian, which is formed when lava quickly cools with only minimal crystal growth. This shiny black material fractures and knaps like a piece of flint.
Although it has been a long time since there were volcanoes on the East Coast of North America, there are many grades of hard, glasslike stone found in the Appalachians and Piedmont. These flints and flintlike cherts and chalcedony were traded to the coastal Chesapeake Indian nations. All of these materials are basically silica; only their crystalline form differs depending on the conditions and length of time of their formation. Their colors vary as minute metallic impurities combine. But they all behave in a similar fashion under the knapper's tools.
The many points lost and later found in archaeological sites may contain memories of their own that we never dreamt of. Stone points and butchering tools around 9,000 years old were found along the shores of Yellowstone Lake by National Park Service personnel. Kenneth Cannon, then project archaeologist for the National Park Service Midwest Archaeological Center, and colleagues subjected three dozen points to a process - called modified cross-over immunoelectrophoresis - that identifies proteins. Ten of the artifacts revealed antigens, or tissue reactions, to a spectrum of animals that could have been their targets in ancient times.
Extremely glasslike points, like those of obsidian, which is not porous, showed limited reactions, while sandstones, chert, chalcedony and quartzite exhibit some capillary action that retained evidence of their work long ago.
The scientists found biochemical "memories" for deer, bear, elk and "canid," which one presumes were fox or wolves on the points. Consider the potential knowledge to be gained if this technique were to be applied to properly handled collections all over the Chesapeake.
It would be unusual indeed to find a bow hunter today who uses traditional handmade arrows. Like the composite materials and compound bows that replaced the ancient bow, engineered materials have replaced the traditional arrow.
Today's highly engineered projectiles - although assembled by the shooter - are fashioned from high-tech components like carbon fiber shafts with straightness tolerance as close as three thousandths of an inch at a cost of $60; razor sharp expanding points at three for $25; and engineered material "vanes" in place of traditional feathers. Even the highly engineered nocks with which to engage the bowstring can run $30! A quiver full of these represents not only a large investment, but substantial work and equipment assembling them.
Meanwhile, modern Navajo crafters in Arizona and New Mexico sell nicely made, functional arrows to tourists for $10-$15, reflecting the value they place on their time making one.
The bow and arrow together were important parts of Native American life and work around the Chesapeake. They reflected technical choices and craftsmanship in both in manufacture and use.
I stand with my late uncle, in feeling that all of these elements were delightful in the way they drew on the environment and culture immersing each hunter. They were men who could truly be called archers.