In modern birds (Neornithes), the wing is composed of a layer of long, asymmetrical flight feathers overlain by short covert feathers [1-3]. It has generally been assumed that wing feathers in the Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx [4-9] and Cretaceous feathered dinosaurs [10, 11] had the same arrangement. Here, we redescribe the wings of the archaic bird Archaeopteryx lithographica [3-5] and the dinosaur Anchiornis huxleyi [12, 13] and show that their wings differ from those of Neornithes in being composed of multiple layers of feathers. In Archaeopteryx, primaries are overlapped by long dorsal and ventral coverts. Anchiornis has a similar configuration but is more primitive in having short, slender, symmetrical remiges. Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis therefore appear to represent early experiments in the evolution of the wing. This primitive configuration has important functional implications: although the slender feather shafts of Archaeopteryx  and Anchiornis  make individual feathers weak, layering of the wing feathers may have produced a strong airfoil. Furthermore, the layered arrangement may have prevented the feathers from forming a slotted tip or separating to reduce drag on the upstroke. The wings of early birds therefore may have lacked the range of functions seen in Neornithes, limiting their flight ability.