I can find plenty of information of contemporary javelin throwing techniques, but I am interested to know if there are surviving records of javelin throwing, particularly from ancient Greece, and particularly in war, as opposed to Olympic javelin throwing. I speculate there may be differences between distance throwing and target throwing.

Also, are there any instances of experimental archaeology focused on javelin throwing techniques?

I am less-so interested in the Roman pilum, but would be interested in other peoples who used javelins.


In terms of surviving records, it seems there are almost none. In the paper, Recreating the Ancient Greek Javelin Throw: How Far Was the Javelin Thrown?. The authors observe:

We have no direct records of how far the ancient Greeks could have thrown the javelin in their athletic festivals. To our knowledge ... the only reference to the distance that the javelin was thrown in antiquity is from Statius in the Thebaid, where the distance of a chariot racecourse at Nemea is described as being “three times a bow shot and four times a javelin throw: "finem iacet inter utrumque quale quater iaculo spatium, ter harundine vincas" (6.353). However, we do not know the precise distance of the race course, but we can make an educated guess.

The paper cited by the authors above, Greek Javelin Throwing by H. A. Harris, is available to read online at JSTOR. This paper includes discussions of the Greek use of javelins in both war and at festivals which you might find helpful.

In the context of your question, one observation by Harris seems particularly apposite:

... there was one fundamental difference between Greek javelin throwing and our own: the Greeks, both in war and in the stadium always threw with the help of a thong ...

Although some caution in drawing too many conclusions is appropriate since he goes on to note that:

The evidence is very scanty indeed.

Harris may also be of some help in regard to your speculation about the differences between distance throwing and target throwing. On page 30 of the paper cited above, Harris makes the point that:

The purpose of the thong in warfare was undoubtedly to secure extra force and range. Its use involves some loss of accuracy in aim, but the function of the missile spear in post-Homeric ancient warfare was probably that of the machine gun rather than the sniper's bullet.

  • (my emphasis)

As regards experimental archaeology, there has been a great deal of research over the years. One paper that is available online as a pdf that might be of particular interest in this context is Efficacy of the Ankyle in Increasing the Distance of the Ancient Greek Javelin Throw, by Steven Ross Murray, William A. Sands, Nathan A. Keck, and Douglas A. O'Roark.

To identify other resources (including many that are not available online, but which may be available to you at a local library), Id suggest running a search on Google Scholar using the terms Greek "javelin" experimental archaeology

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    Isn't the question about throwing technique rather than throwing distance? That would seem to make your post not an answer. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 23 '18 at 16:40
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    @PieterGeerkens The OP speculates explicitly about differences between distance throwing and target throwing. As you observed yourself in your comment on the question, _ massed missile use in battle is not an aimed process - it is only necessary to throw the correct range_, so the key question here would appear to come down to one of distance. – sempaiscuba Sep 23 '18 at 16:45
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    Exactly - it is an unclear question, and thus I see your post as a premature answer. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 23 '18 at 17:00
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    @PieterGeerkens On the contrary, I thought the intent of the question was quite clear, although perhaps rather too broad in scope. That is why I directed the OP to Google Scholar, rather than expanding the section on experimental archaeology. The OP may be able to find an answer there (or at least enough of an answer to ask another, more focused, question). – sempaiscuba Sep 23 '18 at 17:12
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    The Op mentions "distance throwing", "target throwing" and "techniques" so the answer seems more than relevant... – Solar Mike Sep 23 '18 at 18:54

The atlatl is a Mesoamerican tool for spear throwing that has been used in war, hunting, and fishing alike. The use and effectiveness of thrown spears were attested by the chronicler of Mexico's conquest, Bernal Diaz del Castillo. An article from 1891 which I have not obtained, The Mexican Atlatl or Spear-Thrower, includes "several descriptions of the manner of hurling the weapon, cited from old Spanish writers". Atlatls appear in codices Zouche-Nuttall and Borgia:

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Experimental archaeology is very interested in the atlatl. The 27th Annual World Atlatl Competition happened earlier this year. Some relevant papers include:

  • Experiments in the function and performance of the weighted atlatl (1986)
  • Spearthrower performance: ethnographic and experimental research (1997)
  • Weapon trials: the atlatl and experiments in hunting technology (2010)
  • How atlatl darts behave: beveled points and the relevance of controlled experiments (2015)
  • Atlatl Dart Velocity: Accurate Measurements and Implications for Paleoindian and Archaic Archaeology (2017)

As we know, velocity kills, so extra leverage to increase projectile velocity increases range and deadliness, if at the cost of some precision. However, atlatls' use in hunting suggests that the spear throws can still be well aimed.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Sep 24 '18 at 15:55

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