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.

Ancient Scots Hit By Roman Slingshots With the Force of a .44 Magnum

(Read the article on one page)

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.

 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

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 9 th 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 .

Comments

....I found this article .. "interesting" .. shall we say. :D Several years ago I wrote a -very- similar article for a class on Roman Military History at the University of Washington (Seattle). In my paper, I took the average characteristics of a -lead- pellet and a reasonable sling length (15" or 18", I think it was) and calculated the effect on the "recipient". I used a modern ballistic formula to come up with my results and found it was the equivalent of being shot with a slightly under-powdered .45ACP bullet. My professor said it went a long way to explaining why so much of the material in Roman military medical texts dealt with pellet wounds.
....Just for kicks, I had a friend (who was unnervingly good with a sling - both for power and for accuracy) help me 'test' my idea, -before- I submitted the paper. Only difference I could see was that she threw =under=hand, while most pictures I've seen show slingers throwing -over-hand. Oh, well, the devastation was probably the same.
....The 'target' was a painted piece of 1/2" plywood. Distance was about in the 50' - 75' range. Most pellets hit sideways, because of the way they sat in the 'pocket', I'd imagine. Only a few broke all the way through the plywood, but the rest made a -significant- "dent"! A couple managed to hit end-on, like a thrown football (no, I have no idea -how- they did that), and blew through the plywood like a bullet!! Sure as hell opened our eyes wide, let me tell you!
....If it helps any, he asked to keep the paper instead of returning it. I guess he liked it. :D

So bullets came before gunpowder-powered guns? Cool. Makes perfect sense in retrospect. Thanks science!

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

(1) Knotted tanned hide bundle before extraction of contents; (2) & (4) gold dinars; (3) signet ring with intaglio; (5) contents of knotted tanned hide bundle.
In mid-September, a large treasure was unearthed during a dig at the Abbey of Cluny, in the French department of Saône-et-Loire: 2,200 silver deniers and oboles, 21 Islamic gold dinars, a signet ring, and other objects made of gold. Never before has such a large cache of silver deniers been discovered. Nor have gold coins from Arab lands, silver deniers, and a signet ring ever been found hoarded together within a single, enclosed complex.

Human Origins

Deriv; Ancient Celtic dolmen from Poulnabrone, Ireland and carved Egyptian deity Thoth
When ancient Egypt and Ireland are spoken about in the same breath it usually results in the rolling of eyes, polite exits and the sound of murmurs citing pseudo-history and new age babble. At least...

Ancient Technology

Grinding stone, Dendera Temple, Egypt.
Most people know of the great construction achievements of the dynastic Egyptians such as the pyramids and temples of the Giza Plateau area as well as the Sphinx. Many books and videos show depictions of vast work forces hewing blocks of stone in the hot desert sun and carefully setting them into place.

Ancient Places

El Caracol Observatory at Chichen Itza (Wright Reading/CC BY-NC 2.0) and Composite 3D laser scan image of El Caracol from above
In 1526, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and found most of the great Maya cities deeply eroded and unoccupied. Many generations removed from the master builders, engineers, and scientists who conceived and built the cities, the remaining Maya they encountered had degenerated into waring groups who practiced blood rituals and human sacrifice.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article