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Zurich takes aim at history of bow and arrow

Drawing by Albert Anker of an early hunter. Schwab Museum

The Swiss national museum in Zurich is taking aim at the prehistoric past with an exhibition of some of the world’s oldest bows and arrows – all found in Switzerland.

This content was published on August 9, 2003 - 14:05

It traces the history of the bow with examples dating back to about 3000 BC and even gives visitors the chance to handle replicas.

A tour of the exhibition begins with modern day bows and ends with weapons from the Neolithic age. Among the revelations are that the basic design has hardly changed and that our hunting ancestors used the same materials as we do today.

“For thousands of years bows have been made from the yew tree,” says project leader, Samuel van Willigen.

The exhibition originated at the Schwab museum in Biel, which just like the Zurich’s national museum, is not far from the excavated lakeside settlements where the specimens were unearthed.

Some of them, recently discovered at Pfäffikon, are on public view for the first time.

Playthings

“They are so well preserved because they were buried in organic soil,” the Schwab museum’s chief archaeologist Madeleine Bretschart told swissinfo. “The strings didn’t survive but the bows and arrows tell us a great deal about how they were used.

“Most were made for hunting purposes but there are also smaller ones which we believe were playthings for very young children.”

The exhibition explains how the bow was preceded, some 18,000 years ago, by the Palaeolithic spear catapult. The invention of the bow, 8,000 years later, enabled hunters to fire their weapons with much greater precision.

Prehistoric efficiency

Bretschart says tests with replicas have demonstrated the efficiency of prehistoric bows and arrows, whose manufacture called for a detailed knowledge of the materials used and a high degree of craftsmanship.

The wood they chose determined a bow’s performance and credibility.

Visitors to the exhibition can pick up replicas of prehistoric tools and hunting devices, and compare prehistoric longbows with their modern equivalent. For children, multimedia presentations give more detailed information about bow manufacture.

Later this year, the Swiss public will have the chance to test the accuracy of the old bows by taking part in an archery competition – using replica weapons – at the Swiss College of Sports in Magglingen near Biel.

The Zurich exhibition ends on September 14, one week after the competition.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Key facts

The bow was invented as a hunting weapon 10,000 years ago.
Swiss bows dating from 3000 BC to the Neolithic age have been found at former lakeside settlements.
Some of them were recently discovered near Pfäffikon and are on public view for the first time.
For thousands of years, the basic design has remained the same and wood from the yew tree is still used in their manufacture.

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