Skull wound shows how deadly medieval arrows could be, research finds

New research has revealed how medieval arrows caused injuries similar to today’s gunshot wounds, according to archaeologists analysing newly discovered human remains.

The bones, recovered from a Dominican friary in the English town of Exeter, show arrows fired from longbows could penetrate right through the human skull, creating small entry and large exit wounds. The human skeletons examined as part of the study, who had possibly died in battle, had been moved from an original burial location elsewhere to this consecrated holy ground at a later date.


The research, by a team based at the University of Exeter and published in the Antiquaries Journal, shows medieval arrows may have been designed to spin clockwise as they hit the victim.

Cranial injury right-angled puncture over the right eye of the cranium. Photo Credit: Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter

“These results have profound implications for our understanding of the power of the medieval longbow; for how we recognise arrow trauma in the archaeological record; and for where battle casualties were buried,” says Professor Oliver Creighton, an archaeologist from the University of Exeter who led the research.


“In the medieval world, death caused by an arrow in the eye or the face could have special significance. Clerical writers sometimes saw the injury as a divinely ordained punishment, with the ‘arrow in the eye’ which may or may not have been sustained by King Harold II on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 the most famous case in point. Our study brings into focus the horrific reality of such an injury.”

The burial ground at the Dominican Friary was excavated by Exeter Archaeology between 1997 and 2007 in advance of the construction of the Princesshay shopping precinct in Exeter city centre. This was the final resting place for the brethren and wealthy members of the population, including the local knights Sir Henry Pomeroy (d. 1281) and Sir Henry de Ralegh (d. 1301).

Cranial injury detail of bevelling on the interior of the cranial puncture wound. Photo Credit: Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter

In the burial ground was a collection of disarticulated remains. The human remains analysed were 22 bone fragments and three teeth, including a near complete cranium, a left femur, a right tibia, and a left humerus. All of these bones showed evidence of traumatic injuries caused by fractures that occurred at or around the time of death, most likely caused by arrow trauma. These injuries included a puncture wound to the cranium on the top of the right eye and an exit wound at the back of the head. In this case, the arrow was probably spinning clockwise when it hit the man’s head. Another puncture wound was found in a right tibia, near to where the top of the calf would have been. The arrow had passed through the flesh of the lower leg from behind before being lodged in the bone.

It is thought the arrowheard was an armour-piercing type known as a ‘bodkin’ type, square or diamond shaped in section, suggesting among the remains is someone killed in battle, or by someone with military-style equipment. It is likely that while the arrowhead exited the skull the arrow shaft remained lodged and was later retracted back through the front of the head, creating more fractures to the bone.


Right tibial injury – puncture wound and fracture of the tibia affecting the medial aspect. Photo Credit: Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter

It is well known that medieval arrows were fletched to enable arrows to spin in order to maximise their stability in flight and accuracy, but the puncture wound provides evidence this arrow at least was fletched to spin clockwise as it hit a victim. Gun manufacturers have predominantly rifled barrels so that bullets spin in the same, clockwise, direction.

Radiocarbon dating of the remains show they date from AD 1482 to 1645. The tibia with the puncture wound was dated to AD 1284 to 1395 and the cranium from AD 1405 to 1447. This suggests the injuries to the cranium and leg were sustained by different men.

Click here to read the article “The face of battle? Debating trauma on medieval human remains from Princesshay, Exeter” from Cambridge University Press


Top Image: Reconstruction of the angle of entry into the cranium. Photo Credit: Oliver Creighton/University of Exeter