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    snakeskin not birch bark on composite bows in medieval period

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    Post by stuckinthemud1 on Thu Aug 20, 2015 8:07 am

    Hi All,

    following on from the wooden prod discussions (Wood prod II), this bow (http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/34790) is described as "....snakeskin..." which must surely raise questions about the decoration applied to other composite prods of the period, some of which may well be decorated birch bark but surely many may have been mis-identified????
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    Post by twedzel on Thu Aug 20, 2015 8:47 am

    Its not merely decorative, both birch bark and snakeskin are attempts at waterproofing the sinew. Without them the sinew/hide glue is very susceptible to moisture.
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    Post by stuckinthemud1 on Thu Aug 20, 2015 9:05 am

    True enough, but this is the first reference I have come across to the use of snakeskin; all other medieval bows that I have come across have been referenced as painted birch bark, which makes me wonder what percentage of bows, for example in paintings, or those in collections which have not had the benefit of detailed analysis, are in fact not painted to mimic snake-skin, but actually have had a real snake-skin applied: I suspect that the percentage might be quite high as it must be quicker and easier to apply a skin than painting on a detailed pattern, even if the skin were applied onto bark as a sort of belt-and-braces approach to water-proofing.
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    Post by OrienM on Thu Aug 20, 2015 2:22 pm

    I have some experience with snakeskin (snakes being much more common than birch trees in my area Razz ), and have used the material to cover a crossbow prod and several sinew-backed archery bows. It's fairly popular among modern bowyers for this purpose, and makes an effective waterproofing layer over the sinew. I find the patterns very pretty, and as you note it's quick and easy to apply over a sinew back.

    That said, I actually don't think the material on the bow in the link is snakeskin. To me it looks more like painted cloth, something like canvas in texture. The "scales" are too fine, and too regular. Oddly, I've not encountered any period bows that looked to me like they had real-deal snakeskin covers, but quite a few with painted snake-like patterns over cloth and birchbark. The one composite bow I found that did seem to incorporate real snake (probably boa or python skin) was said to be a Victorian reproduction.

    My suspicion is that snakeskin was indeed occasionally used in composite prods (hence the imitations), but that birchbark or painted cloth were the preferred materials, for whatever reasons. It's also possible that the skin may not have held up well over time, leaving the bark/cloth covered prods more common among surviving examples. It may simply be more appealing to pests, like rodents, moths and so on.
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    Post by stuckinthemud1 on Thu Aug 20, 2015 2:42 pm

    A quick google search revealed one other example, (https://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&site=imghp&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1366&bih=651&q=crossbow+snakeskin&oq=crossbow+snakeskin&gs_l=img.3...2449.10416.0.11589.18.12.0.6.1.0.54.514.12.12.0....0...1ac.1.64.img..6.12.518.Y_ppznHM0FQ#imgrc=Q8I2IqA2FsvCHM%3A)   but until today all the medieval bows I knew of have painted cloth or bark coverings.  Still, the two examples do open up an interesting possible alternative.  It also opens a possibility that the painted bark or cloth coverings are copying, sometimes, other examples (now lost to us) that were covered in snake skin
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    Post by OrienM on Thu Aug 20, 2015 3:19 pm

    That first bow is the Victorian copy I mentioned...it's real skin, but I don't think it's a real medieval bow. The period (?) quiver next to it certainly looks to be covered with real snakeskin, though...

    I'd honestly be very surprised if snakeskin was NEVER used; it's very suitable for the needed purpose, and the ancients were always very practical. I think it probably just didn't last very well.

    (Sinew is definitely appealing to mice, at least. I recently found they had nibbled a little on one of my sinew/snakeskin bow tips, while the bow was in storage...Razz. The bow was only stored a couple months; it's easy to imagine an entire bow being eaten over several hundred years! Come to think of it, this may be a reason why old composites are so rare in general, they're just too delicious to survive Surprised .)
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    Post by stuckinthemud1 on Thu Aug 20, 2015 3:38 pm

    MMMM, beef chews wrapped for freshness available at your convenience; tasty treats!! Sad about your bow tips, how did you repair them?
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    Post by OrienM on Thu Aug 20, 2015 3:43 pm

    I didn't do anything to fix it, actually; it was just a tiny nibble right on the end of one nock, and didn't affect the bow's performance. It was just enough to tell that they liked it...and that I better move the bow back into the house, pronto!  Very Happy
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    Post by stuckinthemud1 on Thu Aug 20, 2015 3:48 pm

    Always nice to have your work appreciated Smile
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    Post by OrienM on Thu Aug 20, 2015 4:38 pm

    Indeed...lol! Very Happy I never had cloth-backed or all-wooden bows nibbled...somehow I bet a canvas covering would appeal to them much less, especially if covered in oil paint made (in period) with lead, arsenic, or other toxics as well. Might even mask the smell of the sinew underneath.
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    Post by Armbrustier on Sat Aug 22, 2015 8:08 am

    I must say that I have seen most published horn bow crossbows and I have NEVER seen any other bow covering than birchbark with printed patterns and only two bows with what seems to be pre coloured strips of probably parchment glued on over parchment or birchbark.

    Most of the known horn bows have what is sometimes known as the "Forellen muster" or Trout pattern, where the birchbark are first painted white and than printed with the black pattern. This pattern are printed with quite some force so the birchbark gets a relief. 
    Stuckinthemud1's photo shows this regular printed pattern. 
    Thank you for these photos, I had only seen less good copies of them earlier.

    This idea that snakeskin was used has been repeted in some books but it's just because some think it looks like snakeskin. 
    AND most museum personal don't know the difference either.
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    Post by Geezer on Sat Aug 22, 2015 9:27 am

    Personally I wouldn't be surprised to have a composite bow with snakesking cover turn up in a collection somewhere, but everything I've encountered has turned out to be bark or paper covered.  And yes, collection curators are often surprisingly ignorant about their collections.  Guess you can't know everything...Geezer.
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    Post by Armbrustier on Sun Aug 23, 2015 1:57 am

    I WOULD be very surprised if an AUTHENTIC snake skin composite crossbow should turn up Geezer! I don't believe that any exist, but of course I can't prove that in any way.


    Have you actually seen any composite bow that believe is covered in "paper"? 


    I think that paper makes for a very poor covering material. 

    I guess that parchment is a better choice as it is a tougher material, but how you apply a printed sheet of parchment to a bow without getting it stretched and miss aligned is probably not an easy task.


    I think that "paper" and "snake skin" comes from a time when people didn't know better, if it looked like "snake skin" it probably was; now we know that it wasn't so. And I can agree that it in many times look as a composite bow is covered in paper over birch bark when the outer layers of the birch bark has disappeared.
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    Post by twedzel on Mon Aug 24, 2015 10:55 am

    I wonder why they would be going to great pains putting "imitation snakeskin" on if there were no real snake skin covered prods. Its like having imitation wood paneling on station wagons without having the real woodies that came before them. As we know snakeskin and birch bark serve a function beyond decoration. So real snake skin would be a desirable object in the world of sinew prods. Cloth and parchment would actually hinder function in wet environments as they would soak through and then keep the sinew wet. This would be disastrous to function in more damp regions of Northern Europe (unless they had developed another method of keeping them dry that I am not aware of).
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    Post by Geezer on Mon Aug 24, 2015 9:37 pm

    Twedzel:  My reasoning is much the same as yours.  Why go to the trouble to imitate snakeskin cover on a stock if nobody made them that way?  It's sort-of analogous to English 15th century (or thereabouts) laws prohibiting the use of sights on military longbows... One wouldn't bother to pass such a law if nobody ever tried it.  So yes, I think there's a possibility some composite prods may have been covered with laquered snakeskin to keep out moisture, despite the fact that none are extant at present.  Merely an academic question for me.  I'm not going to make any composite prods anyway.  Geezer.
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    Post by Cornerstone on Mon Jul 27, 2020 3:50 pm

    Could someone provide photos of bows covered in birch bark? I'm trying to gather references for a project

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