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An arrow pierced the top of this man’s right eye and exited through the back of his skull. (University of Exeter)

New research demonstrates the immense power of the medieval English longbow

Taking an arrow to the head is a decidedly unpleasant way to die. Luckily, most modern humans are more likely to encounter these historical projectiles in a museum than on the battlefield.

A new study led by archaeologists from the University of Exeter clarifies just how destructive the English longbow could be, highlighting surprising similarities between injuries inflicted by the medieval weapon and guns of today.

Published last week in the Antiquaries Journal, the paper details the researchers’ analysis of centuries-old bone fragments unearthed at a Dominican friary in Exeter. In one gruesome example, the team found evidence of an arrow that pierced the top of an unlucky warrior’s right eye and exited through the back of the man’s skull, leaving devastating entry and exit wounds. Per a statement, the injuries appear to be similar to those caused by modern bullets.

The arrow that punctured the skull in question was probably fletched, or outfitted with feathers, to spin clockwise upon making contact with its victim. Historically, most gun manufacturers have designed rifles with bullets that spin in a similar clockwise pattern, though a small minority prefer the so-called “left-hand twist,” according to gunshot wound expert Vincent Di Maio.

“Arrow trauma is notoriously difficult to identify, but this assemblage shows that arrows fired from longbows could result in entry and exit wounds in the skull not incomparable to modern gunshot wounds,” the authors, led by archaeologist Oliver Creighton, write in the study. “These results have profound implications for our understanding of the power of the medieval longbow.”

All of the analyzed bones—including 22 bone fragments and three teeth—displayed evidence of trauma likely caused by arrows “at or around the time of death,” according to the statement. In another graphic example, the researchers found fragments of a right tibia struck by an arrow that punctured its owner’s calf from behind, pierced through the flesh and lodged itself into the bone.

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