Researchers have found 400-some lead slingshot balls at the site of a Roman siege in ancient Scotland and say the balls would have struck the natives with nearly the force of a .44 Magnum handgun—one of the most powerful pistols in the world.
The Battle at Burnswark
The occupation north of Hadrian’s Wall began with the rise to power of Caesar Antoninus Pius. A National Geographic article about new research into the siege and occupation of around 140 AD says he had just been crowned and needed a quick victory.
Researcher John Reid of Trimontium Trust is a co-director of the archaeological studies being done at Burnswark, to the south of Edinburgh. He said the locals had only swords and other simple weapons that were no match for the missiles, which could be shot from 130 yards away with near-pinpoint accuracy.
“We’re fairly sure that the natives on top of the hill weren’t allowed to survive,” Professor Reid told National Geographic.
Even with the success of the attack at Burnswark, the occupation of Scotland was to fail after about 20 years. Despite the Romans’ better weapons, they fought an enemy that would just disappear into the marshes and hills, the article states. The Roman soldiers got bogged down and retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall fewer than 20 years after their successful attack on Burnswark.
What the Battlefield Reveals
Research shows the lead bullets could hit a target smaller than a person from 130 yards (118.9 meters) away and be devastating upon impact.
About five years ago Reid and Andrew Nicholson decided to undertake a study of Burnswark to settle a dispute as to whether it was the site of a firing range or a battle. Previous research had shown the site had two Roman camps.
Clay sling bullets from Ardoch, another ancient Scottish battlefield. In the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Ross Cowan / Flickr)
The two men decided to look for ancient Roman ammo. They knew American archaeologists had studied the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn to find buried bullets and shells and determine how the soldiers and warriors moved around on the battlefield. They wanted to do the same thing at Burnswark. They calibrated metal detectors to find the signature of a Roman sling bullet.
The metal detectorists got 2,700 pings from the hillside and summit of Burnswark. Professor Nicholson documented and mapped them. The National Geographic article states:
Then the team ground-truthed the findings by digging five small trenches. The excavations revealed more than 400 Roman sling bullets right where the metal detectors indicated, as well as two spherical sandstone missiles known as ballista balls. The results suggested that 94 percent of the metal detector hits were in fact Roman bullets.
One of the two ballista balls shot by Roman artillery that researchers discovered at Burnswark (Photo by John Reid)
The researchers found a concentration of bullets across the 500-yard rampart to the south of the hill fort, right above a Roman encampment—just what they expected. They found another concentration of the missiles to the north—possibly blocking any escape route.
The Whistling Missiles
About 10 percent of the bullets had holes drilled into them. When such missiles were tested, they made an eerie whistling sound—an instance, the researchers think, of psychological warfare.
Ancient Origins published an article in 2015 about the messages Romans wrote on their slingshot bullets. They included “Ouch!” “Be Lodged Well” and “Here’s a Sugar Plum For You.”
The use of the sling to launch rocks at the enemy is known from the famous battle between David and Goliath in the 9th century BC. Cast lead bullets from 490 BC were also found at the scene of the Battle of Marathon. The use of slings is known in many parts of the world from ancient times.
The ancient Greeks and Romans produced lead bullets for use in slings in mass quantities, sometimes in molds and sometimes just by digging a figure into sand and pouring molten lead into it. The messages that ancient Romans put on lead sling bullets ranged from naming the leader of the sling unit, the commander of the troops or messages invoking a god or wishing injury upon or insulting the targets, according to the Collector Antiquities blog.
Top image: Some of the lead sling bullets from Burnswark that the ancient Romans used against the people of Scotland; some of the bullets had holes cut into them to cause a terrifying noise. (Photo by John Reid)
By Mark Miller