Sárrétudvari-Hízóföld (Hongrie): Medieval Warriors Were Accomplished Archers

Kristina Killgrove

Source http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/09/30/brawny-bones-reveal-10th-century-hungarian-warriors-were-accomplished-archers/

Fig 7Entheseal changes in the upper limb of the adult male from Sárrétudvari-Hízóföld gr. No. 5. Mainly the attachement sites of those muscle were affected on the clavicles (1. ligamentum costoclaviculare; 2. m. deltoideus), humeri (1. m. teres major; 2. m. latissimus dorsi; 3. m. pectoralis major), radii (m. biceps brachii) and ulnae (m. brachialis) that move the shoulders and the elbows. (Image used with kind permission of B. Tihanyi and G. Pálfi.)

The 9th and 10th centuries AD represented a difficult time for Europe.  As the Eastern Roman Empire gave way to the Byzantine Empire, different groups jockeyed for control over western Europe, including the Vikings who conducted raids from the north and the Hungarians or Magyars who came from the east.  In the 10th century, archers mounted on horseback crossed west over the Carpathian Mountains and settled in the Carpathian or Pannonian Basin, which today is part of several central European countries.  Cemeteries that dot the landscape include graves with horses, arrowheads, and quivers, but new research on the skeletons has revealed that these 10th century Hungarian warriors were accomplished archers.

Although the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin began as a small migration, as they were forced out of their homeland by Bulgarian and Turkic peoples from the east, it ended up being a series of raids and wars throughout central and western Europe in the 10th century. The Hungarian or Magyar soldiers who participated in these conflicts were largely archers on horseback, according to historical evidence as well as artistic representations of them in ancient Italian frescoes. Cemeteries are few and far between, though, with only a handful of them confidently identified as belonging to these first-generation raiders. Most cemeteries only hold a few dozen individuals, but almost all of the males were buried with artifacts related to horse-riding and archery.

HonfoglalasHonfoglalas (1.31 Mo)

Animated map of the first settlement of Hungarian populations in Europe in the 9th century (years 893 through 902). (Public domain image via wikimedia commons.)

One large cemetery dating to the 10th century, Sárrétudvari Hízóföld, was excavated in the 1980s and includes an astonishing 263 people.  Weapons were found in 58 graves, and almost all of them were archery-related: antler bow plates, arrowheads, and quivers. In order to study whether these graves did in fact hold the remains of Hungarian Conquest soldiers,Balázs Tihanyi and colleagues decided to study the so-called archers’ skeletal anatomy because “some weapons have a unique technique of use, so regular practice can develop unique skeletal traces.” Shooting a bow involves using a series of muscles, and repetitive use of the same muscles over time results in changes to bone. This process results in what bioarchaeologists call activity-induced stress markers or musculoskeletal stress markers.

Fig 8Location of the “archer” graves within the Sárrétudvari cemetery, Hungary. (Image used with kind permission of B. Tihanyi and G. Pálfi.)

In a recent article published in the journal Acta Biologica Szegediensis, Tihanyi and colleagues looked at 81 male individuals, which included 49 skeletons from “archer” graves and 32 skeletons from graves without any archery-related artifacts. They discovered that there were lesions apparent in both groups of males, such as the bony attachment site for the biceps muscle, meaning regardless of whether the man was an archer or not, he had well-developed upper forearm muscles. “These common alterations refer to an activity that was widespread among the whole male population,” Tihanyi and colleagues write, although they do not know exactly what that activity was.

Evidence of increased muscle use in the “archer” skeletons was found on the collarbones, upper arm bones, and lower arm bones, such as at the bony attachment sites for the pecs, delts, and lats, suggesting greater use of the muscles involved in archery. This pattern of skeletal changes is even found in children from the cemetery, leading the authors to conclude that “some kind of [archery] training began during childhood.”

Fig 1Muscles involved in usual movements in archery (after Axford 1995 with modification). (Image used with kind permission of B. Tihanyi and G. Pálfi.)

Nivien Speith, a bioarchaeologist at Bournemouth University who has studied activity-induced skeletal changes in other ancient European populations, commented that “this is a really well-formed approach to a topic that is notoriously difficult to analyze and interpret.” In comparing skeletal material with archaeological artifacts, Speith suggests the researchers “provide a fine case-study with interesting results that can be compared to a range of other studies of populations from the Medieval period and beyond.”

The clear difference in the skeletal remains between males who were buried with archery equipment and those who were not demonstrates that “the archaeological and the anthropological data certify each other,” Tihanyi and colleagues write. “The archers were well trained and muscular, presumably conducting archery-related hard physical activity on a regular basis.”

While researchers have assumed for decades that archery equipment in Hungarian Conquest period graves means that the individuals buried in them were in fact soldiers trained in archery, Tihanyi and colleagues have provided the first conclusive evidence of this in relating skeletal stress markers to the particular activity that caused them.