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African Archery Equipment

back to Grayson Archery Collection


late 19th-early 20th century
Grayson Collection, MAC1992-0111

Although many ancient African cultures, such as the Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians, were prominent for their mastery of archery on the battlefield, projectile weapons such as spears and throwing knives tended to predominate as weapons of war in more recent periods. Still, the folklore and histories of many African peoples describe archery-related feats both in the hunt and in battle, and the development of archery skills remains an important aspect of a boy’s education in many African cultures. The bow and arrow are still commonly used in rural areas for hunting game and in some urban areas as an inexpensive but effective means of protection.

The most widespread traditional bow form in Africa is a simple wood stave that is round in cross section and tapers toward the tips. Bows of flattened or grooved staves also occur frequently. African bows tend to be of moderate length, typically ranging from 100 cm to 170 cm, and are distinguished by a number of characteristic string-attachment techniques, including knotted, eyeleted, and indirect forms. Bowstrings usually are of twisted sinew in eastern and southern Africa and of animal hide or plant material in the central and western regions. Bows are fairly plain; ornamentation usually is limited to animal-skin wrappings that provide decoration as well as support.

Arrows are of reed or wood and have self nocks. Nocks are absent on arrows used with flat bowstrings. Fletching shows considerable variation, ranging from single whole feathers to numerous split quills. Leaf fletching is common in the Congo and parts of West Africa. Unfletched arrows are common across Sudan and also occur among certain groups in other regions. Arrowheads are usually of iron and occur in a number of different shapes. A common form is an ogee blade with the two halves offset at a longitudinal ridge down the middle. Heads often have long tangs or roughened areas on the tips to hold poison. Without the use of powerful poisons, African arrows tend to be relatively weak and ineffective. Quivers are quite diverse in style and construction, ranging from simple hide pouches, to wood and or/leather cylinders, to basketry containers. Fine leatherwork quivers with intricate designs are typical of western Sudan.

This online exhibit presents examples of African archery equipment from the Museum’s Grayson Archery Collection. Included are traditional items that are representative of various cultures and localities, and that illustrate the various forms across the continent.

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Frobenius, L. 1932. Morphology of the African Bow-Weapon. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Leakey, L. S. B. 1926. A new classifcation of the bow and arrow in Africa. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 61:259–299.

Spring, C. 1993. African Arms and Armor. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Tukura, D. 1994. African archery. In The Traditonal Bowyer’s Bible, Vol. 3, by T. Baker et al., pp. 143–162. Azle, Tex.: Bois d’Arc Press.

Text prepared by Mary French, Charles E. Grayson, and Michael J. O’Brien, winter 2006. Photos by Daniel S. Glover.

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