Carroll County Times

Going primitive: Bow making the ancient way at Common Ground on the Hill

Halee Asch, of Westminster, notched an arrow on the string of a freshly hewn bow of black locust wood, took a moment to take aim and let fly with an arrow — and, shortly thereafter, with a beginner's laugh. The arrow had narrowly missed the cardboard target and dug itself under the grass to the feathers.

"The Renaissance Festival is the only place I have ever shot anything," Asch said.


She will have plenty of opportunities to practice.

Friday marked the fifth and final day for the Primitive Skills: Making a Green Wood Bow class at Common Ground on the Hill, a two-week series of classes focusing on arts, music and culture held annually at McDaniel College. Asch was one of eight students instructor Guy Neal guided in taking a raw stave of black locust wood, and hand carving, shaving and working it into their own basic — but effective — long bow.


"We're shooting for 40 pound and above draw weight and that, in a primitive hunting situation, could easily kill a deer," Neal said. "That's basically what we're going for, an actual lethal weapon."

Hunting in high school is what initially led Neal to investigate the craft of bow making, a process he said involved a lot more reading and trial and error in the days before the internet.

For Asch, who is not much of a hunter, her bow will see service shooting at targets.

"I've really been interested in archery for a long time and it's always been one of those things that's been on the back burner," she said. "When I saw the opportunity that I could make my own bow, I couldn't pass it up."

Working with green wood is easier than with wood that has been fully dried and cured, making it ideal for beginners using simple hand tools, according to Neal. Most contemporary bow makers allow their wood to dry for at least two years before beginning to work on a bow.

"Very few contemporary bow makers work green wood now," he said. "During that process of working the wood, as we reduce it down, it actually dries quickly."

But there's another reason Neal likes working with green wood and that has to do with the primitive skills theme of the course — he just doesn't imagine prehistoric hunter-gatherers took the time to cure wood over two long winters before making a tool as essential to survival as a bow.

"Prehistorically, you don't even know where you will be in two years, and the structures weren't there to make sure it wasn't getting rained on," Neal said. "They probably made an immediate bow, when they broke theirs, and then worked on one, too, because you need to keep going."


That connection with deep human history and primitive technologies is part of what drew Lisa Macurak, a sixth-grade ancient history teacher at Shiloh Middle School, to take Neal's class.

"The reason I wanted to come out is because I do teach about early humans and how their hunting methods helped them to survive," Macurak said. "I like to have a lot of replicas that students can look at, so that's my goal for this, to use it in my teaching."

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She is also taking a class on mosaic making, which will dovetail with teaching about ancient Rome.

In fact, Macurak said, Common Ground is an excellent resource for curious teachers.

"I consider it nourishing the soul, being here for the week," she said. "It's me getting to be a student again."

Or, as Asch puts it, "It's like summer camp for adults."