On a fortified hill in Scotland some 1,900 years ago, a Roman army attacked local warriors by hurling lead bullets from slings that had nearly the stopping power of a modern .44 magnum handgun, according to recent experiments.
The assault seems to have been deadly effective, for the local warriors were armed only with swords and other simple weapons, says John Reid, a researcher at the Trimontium Trust and one of the co-directors of the archaeological fieldwork at Burnswark, south of Edinburgh. “We’re fairly sure that the natives on top of the hill weren’t allowed to survive.”
But Burnswark was just the opening salvo in a war against the restive tribes living north of Hadrian’s Wall. Despite their superior weaponry, Roman soldiers seem to have gotten bogged down in Scotland as they fought a tough, resourceful enemy capable of melting away into the hills and marshes. Less than two decades after the Romans attacked Burnswark and occupied part of Scotland’s lowlands, they retreated south to Hadrian’s Wall. “This is beginning to look like Rome’s Afghanistan,” Reid says.
RUINS—AND FIERCE WEAPONRY—FROM BLOODY ROMAN BATTLE DISCOVERED
Reid and colleague Andrew Nicholson, an archaeologist at the Dumfries and Galloway Council, began studying Burnswark five years ago, hoping to uncover new clues to the events that unfolded at the site, which includes remains of two Roman camps. At the time, Scottish archaeologists were divided in their interpretations of the site. Some thought a Roman army had used Burnswark as an ancient firing range and training camp, while other researchers regarded the hill fort as the scene of a lengthy siege.
To clarify the picture, Reid and Nicholson decided to scour Burnswark for traces of ancient Roman ammunition. American archaeologists had used metal detectors successfully at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn to locate buried bullets and shells and map the combatants’ movements across the battlefield. So Reid and Nicholson decided to try something similar at Burnswark. As a first step, the researchers learned to calibrate a metal detector so that it could distinguish the lead in an ancient Roman sling bullet from other metal artefacts buried at the site.
Roman soldiers armed with slings used these lead bullets to mow down foes. A skilled slinger could hit a target smaller than a person from 130 yards away.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN REID
Trained metal detectorists then combed Burnswark’s hillsides and summit, producing more than 2,700 hits that Nicholson carefully recorded and mapped. 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.
Impressed, the team began analysing the locations…