Monday, September 27, 2010

Bill Schindler's Study of Stone-Age Weapons and Armor Hits a Bull's-eye in Danish Media

Assistant professor of archaeology Bill Schindler spent a week in Denmark this past summer doing research on early stone-tipped weaponry and the effectiveness of possible forms of armor from the Stone Age. Schindler was working on a grant from Sagnlandet Lejre, or “Lejre: Land of Legends,” a research center and educational tourist attraction established in 1964 in the Danish town of Lejre. While there, Schindler was interviewed for a feature in the Danish weekly Weekendavisen, a publication his hosts compared to the American Time magazine. The following is a translation of the article by Mette Løgeskov Lund.

Deadly Flint

How far do arrows penetrate into a human body? Stone Age weapons technology tested by American anthropologist

It is almost like taking a step back in time. Nature is still wild and there are winding gravel roads and trails. Butterflies and dragonflies flap around in a paradise of wild plants, while flies buzz around the eyes of wild Aurochs. In a small pavilion of rough hewn logs there is a very happy man cradling a bowl he has just removed from the fire.

The sticky substance in the bowl turns out to be homemade glue made from the hides of animals. The man, Bill Schindler, is an assistant professor of anthropology at Washington College in the USA. He is here in Denmark for a week conducting research at Lejre: Land of Legends (formerly known as Lejre Experimental Research Center) in Lejre. He is here to test the effectiveness of Stone Age flint-tipped arrows in warfare.

Lejre: Land of Legends is the perfect place for these experiments. The 43 hectares of land is home to the Stone Age, Iron Age and Viking Age, where everything is replicated from scratch authentically based on archaeological evidence. This is how Bill Schindler conducts research as well. Everything he needs for his experiment he makes completely from scratch using the same materials and technologies utilized in the past. This helps to ensure that the data derived from the experimental research is as authentic as possible. All that remains is that he clothe himself in old animal skins to get into the role. But Bill Schindler conducts his research while wearing worn jeans and a Washington College T-shirt.

Bill Schindler began working with flint 12 years ago. He has always had interest in the outdoors and is skilled in many primitive technologies. "Flint is very predictable. When I strike the rock I can predict the size and shape of the flake that will be removed," says Schindler, and then he demonstrates the claim to perfection. But like so much else, it is a craft that takes time and patience to learn. With his long experience, he is now able to make an arrowhead in half an hour from his first strike of the stone.

When they are finished, he glues the stone tips solidly to the foreshaft, a small piece of wood that can be pushed into the tip of an arrow shaft. Bill Schindler's father and 4-year-old son actually made the rivercane arrows for the experiment. He made the glue from boiling animal skins. It is a very strong glue, which he inadvertently demonstrates when he accidentally glues his finger together after having shown how an arrowhead is affixed to the shaft.

To really test an arrow’s effectiveness in war, you should should it into something resembling human flesh. To accomplish this, Bill Schindler has made blocks of ballistic gel specially formulated to mimic human flesh. The gel is transparent, so he can accurately see and measure how far into the “flesh” the arrow penetrates and how much damage it would cause in the body.

With a replica of a 2,000 year-old longbow, Bill Schindler shoots at a gel blocks from 15 feet away. This corresponds to shooting at a naked man, he explains, and the arrow penetrates 18 centimeters into the body. "It will certainly result in the certain death, "notes Schindler, assuming the shooter has hit a vital place.

Now it is time to test whether different types of clothing or armor can protect against stone-tipped arrows. He covers the blocks with a variety of materials: linen fabric and animal skins from different animals, tanned in different ways and in different thicknesses.

He has tanned one of the skins, the buckskin, using the brains from the animal itself. "Every animal has enough brain mass to tan their own hides,” he says with a smile. It is a laborious process in which a combination of brains and water are worked into the hide. The skin must be worked continuously until completely dry. Then it must be smoked over rotten wood. The result is a very soft leather suitable for clothing. Schindler also has a vegetable tanned cowhide. This process makes the leather hard and rigid and may have been used to create a form of armor.

Just as Bill Schindler has expected, neither the vegetable or brain tanned leathers are very effective against the arrows. In fact, the arrows shot in these tests penetrated only a few centimeters shy of the arrows shot into the uncovered gelatin. “An arrow shot into a human wearing a body covering made of either type of leather, if shot into the right place, would still cause traumatic injuries and certainly lead to death," Schindler believes.

A bigger surprise awaits when he tests the effectiveness of multiple layers of fabric. "There is some evidence that people in the past used layers of fabric as a protection against the arrows," he says. To test this, he performed tests with various layers of linen. The final test using 8 layers of linen was the most surprising, and almost completely stopped the arrow. The tip of the arrow only penetrated 0.7 centimenters through the fabric and would have only caused a small flesh wound.

Clearly, further experiments are necessary to obtain a better understanding of all the factors involved, but it is a good start, Schindler notes with excitement. Although his results are preliminary, he is optimistic about the hundreds of similar experiments he will be conducting during his sabbatical in the spring at his home in the U.S.; he will test all the factors that may impact the penetration of stone-tipped projectiles including size, shape, material choice, hafting style, and distance. "Researchers have been curious about the effectiveness of prehistoric weapons,” says Schindler. “Instead of just making assumptions, we can go out and actually perform tests. Combined, the results from all of these tests will provide a more accurate picture of the effectiveness of the prehistoric projectiles.”

For information on Lejre: Land of Legends: (

View more photos of Schindler's work in Denmark.