Arrowhead - The Misnamed Object that Everybody Thinks They Know

Why is an Arrowhead Not Really an Arrowhead?

Archaeologist Luther Cressman photographs Reub Long's arrowhead collection in Oregon, 1966
Archaeologist Luther Cressman photographs Reub Long's arrowhead collection in Oregon, 1966. John Atherton

An arrowhead is the word amateur archaeologists and collectors used to describe the sharp pointed objects of stone, bone, metal, or other material found in cultivated farm fields or stream beds, as well as on archaeological sites and in museums all over the world. Because arrowheads are found everywhere, they are the easily the most recognized piece of the past, known to nearly every child who has gone off exploring her own backyard or nearby field.

However, arrowhead is a misnomer, and professional archaeologists prefer to use the word "projectile point" instead of arrowhead. Objects which are identified as arrowheads by the general public were in fact not all used on the tips of arrows, but on the tips of darts or spears or even used without a haft at all. Archaeologists use "arrow point" to refer to the projectile points that were used with the bow and arrow.

Arrowhead Sizes

The confusion occurs because by and large true arrow points are quite small. Projectile points come in a wide variety of sizes from very large to quite tiny. True arrow points are sometimes referred to in the collector community as "bird points"; in fact, experimental archaeology has shown that the tiniest points can be successfully used to hunt deer or similarly sized mammals.

Other sizes of projectile points recognized by archaeologists are dart points, which were affixed to short darts and flung at targets using the technology known as the atlatl.

A spear point is a projectile point that was fastened to the end of a long pole; the pole was then thrust or hurled at a large bodied mammal.

Technological Advances

The ancient stone tool technology which allowed people to make such tools involves embedding a knapped stone tool into a handle with the use of cordage or sinews to bind the stone to the wood, and gum or mastic to glue it in place.

That is a much more technologically complex action compared to single component tools; and there is undoubtedly an additional complexity of determining the best size and shape for an object intended for assisted flight.

Opinions regarding the invention of the bow and arrow and dart and spear thrower technologies vary because finding unambiguous evidence is difficult at best. The earliest known projectile points found attached to wooden shafts so far is from Sibudu cave in South Africa, within a Middle Stone Age Howiesons Poort level dated between 61,000 and 64,000 years ago. Some scholars are inclined to believe the technology is older than that--at least hundred thousand years old.

Arrowheads and Science

Scholarly investigations of arrow points and other projectile points have involved distributions of specific point types such as Clovis; locations of raw source material and how that material is traded or transported and how far; dating of objects by stylistic changes; and specific flint-knapping techniques.

Arrowheads have also been used to provide evidence of the progress of a battle, such as the 13th century A.D. Crusader castle of Arsur in what is today Israel; as well as minor parts of weapons used at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the mid-19th century Montana, and Towton, in 15th century England.

Sources and More Information

See the Top Myths and Facts about Arrowheads for more information about what scientists have discovered and what they have so far failed to communicate to the public about arrowheads.

This glossary entry is part of the Guide to Stone Tools and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Connor MA, Scott DD, Harmon D, and Fox RA. 2013. Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lombard M, and Haidle MN. 2012. Thinking a Bow-and-arrow Set: Cognitive Implications of Middle Stone Age Bow and Stone-tipped Arrow Technology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(02):237-264.

Rosen SA. 2013. Arrowheads, Axes, Ad Hoc, and Sickles: An Introduction to Aspects of Lithic Variability across the Near East in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Lithic Technology 38(3):141-149.

Scott DD, Fox RAJ, Connor MA, and Harmon D. 1989. Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Shea JJ. 2006. The origins of lithic projectile point technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 33:823-846.

Sisk ML, and Shea JJ. 2009. Experimental use and quantitative performance analysis of triangular flakes (Levallois points) used as arrowheads. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(9):2039-2047.

Sutherland T. 2012. Conflicts and Allies: Historic Battlefields as Multidisciplinary Hubs — A Case Study from Towton AD 1461. Arms & Armour 9(1):40-53.