1800 years ago, Roman troops carried a very unusual kind of missile weapon for defeating their enemies. Those weapons were “whistling” sling bullets,
1800 years ago, Roman troops carried a very unusual kind of missile weapon for defeating their enemies. Those weapons were “whistling” sling bullets, and new research suggests these were employed as a kind of terror weapon against their barbarian foes. These small, distinctive lead bullets have been uncovered by an archaeological site in Scotland.
The sling stones found at the site weigh 30 grams (1 ounce), and contain a drilled hole 5mm (0.2 inches) wide. This hole was probably designed to increase damage by creating a compressive effect on impact, similar to a modern hollow-tipped bullet. Moreover, this hole created a whistling effect during flight, one which apparently terrified those facing them.
The Discovery of the Stones
The discovery was made at Burnswark Hill, near the town of Lockerbie in south-western Scotland. The hill was the site of a significant battle between the Romans and local tribesmen in the 2nd century AD, centered around a defensive hillfort. The whistling stones recovered were those launched by the Romans troops in their attack on the locals.
Burnswark Hill, Scotland (Charlie Kennedy / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The holes discovered in these whistling stones are what makes them so special and so dangerous. Once launched they would make a distinctive whistling noise as they fly towards their targets. This sound apparently became familiar to those facing the Romans in battle, and was associated with an incoming attack, such that the mere sound of the stones in flight became an effective terror weapon. And the terror, as much as the damage they caused, is what gave Romans an edge over their enemies.
The stones uncovered at the site are notably smaller than traditional sling bullets. Researchers had predicted that the soldiers might prefer to use various different types of stones within their slings for the fight, depending on the situation. The slings used were made up of two cords, long enough to give the sling useful range but short enough be held easily in the shooting hand. The pouch of the sling was significantly larger than the stones recovered, suggesting that several stones could be packed into it and launched in a single volley.
Cheap, Effective, and Used All Over Europe
Roman sling stones have been found all over Europe, wherever the Romans entered battle. The largest of all of these whistling stones were in the size and shape of lemons, weighing around 60 grams (2 ounces).
Roman Lead Sling Bullets (Peter van der Sluijs / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Much more common however were bullets that were of the size of acorns. This possibly has a purpose beyond convenience, as acorns were considered as a form of the symbol of luck for the Romans. Almost all finds in Scotland were this smaller size.
Similar, but distinct bullets have been found in battle sites in Greece, dated to the 2nd or 3rd century BC. These stones are made of pottery, but retain the distinctive hole which would have made them whistle in flight.
However, these Greek bullets apparently used the holes for another function. Records indicate that these holes were designed as reservoirs of poison, which would be delivered into the bloodstream of anyone unlucky enough to be hit by one. There is no corresponding evidence that the Romans poisoned their stones.
Compromised By Design?
Although small, the holes in the whistling sling stones had some negative effects with respect to speed in flight and distance travelled. By comparison, larger bullets used with slings could potentially travel much further.
Dr. John Reid, an archaeologist from Trimontium Trust, has undertaken detailed research into the whistling stones. His research has shown that the holes were made only in the smaller stones but not in the bigger ones. Given that the bigger stones could travel further and cause more damage this suggests an interesting hypothesis, where the Romans sacrificed effectiveness for psychological impact.
Slingshots are an effective and easily improvised weapon to this day (Yaron Ben-haim / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The tests carried out by Reid proved that the flying stones with these holes did indeed make a distinctive whistling, buzzing sound when flying through the air. Given the smaller size of these stones, the slings used by Romans can easily throw four in one shot. This means that, even as a shorter range weapon, a barrage of these stones could be extremely destructive.
But the primary impact of these projectiles is believed to be one of fear. The Romans believed that the sound of these flying bullets will make their enemies freeze, or abandon their positions to take cover. Romans may even have fired these stones from out of range, to announce their approach and weaken the resolve of their enemies.
Evidence is still being compiled to fully understand whether this was a truly effective terror weapon, as records suggest. But as of now, the only thing that is certain is that Romans used these whistling sling stones as assault ammunition, and that the Romans did tend to win their battles.
Around 20% of all of the sling bullets discovered at Burnswark Hill have these drilled holes in them. The research team concluded that a significant amount of effort had been put into preparing these whistling sling stones, for as a weapon. Dr Reid notes that the holes were drilled with some care, as they need to be a specific shape to have the aerodynamic properties necessary to whistle.
What is certain is that the Romans put the whistling stones to use against the defending tribes in Scotland, and that, as part of the Roman war machine, they were very effective.