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Projectiles, Ballistae, and Bersnwark

Абрамков А.О.

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Burnswark Hill

It rises almost 1,000 feet from the gentle surrounding countryside and is one of the most outstanding attractions of the Solway Basin. On a good day, the panoramic view from the summit is breathtaking, while on a cloudy day, the hill looks ominous. But it's not just the frightening appearance of Burnswark that has piqued the interest of scientists over the past 300 years.

At the top of the hill are the ramparts of a 17-acre hillfort held in the grip of two Roman camps. Both of these camps have unusual outlines. The northern camp has an unusually elongated shape, while the southern one has a more traditional shape, but was equipped with three wide gates facing up the hill. All these gates are protected by a large embankment, known as the "Three Brothers". This location of Roman encampments is unique to Britain, and attempts to understand its significance have caused considerable controversy for more than half a century.

General view of the hill

Roman camp - training or siege?

For almost two centuries, these camps were defined as siege camps, but in the 1960s a new theory emerged. She pointed out that the camps were training camps and revealed information about the training regime of the Roman army. Further examples of this theory include the camps at Cawthorne in Yorkshire and the camps around the Scottish settlement of Loden Woden. The former is thought to be an early Roman fort with adjacent temporary camps, while the latter appears to be a marching camp.

It's easy to guess how this theory came about. Many archaeologists in the 1950s and 1960s were ex-servicemen, familiar with antiquity, and also closely associated with the training activities of the British Army.

The first person to come up with the idea of a training camp was Kenneth Steer, then secretary of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland, and a real "Monument Man" with military intelligence experience. Unlike many archaeological speculations that were influenced by the zeitgeist, the idea of training camps near Burnswark proved to be tenacious, entered the academic literature-as a fact.

Previous studies

There have been two major excavations at this site in the past. The earliest excavations were carried out in 1898 on behalf of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which included a survey of the camps and the excavation of the hill. Numerous lead projectiles, stone ballista projectiles, and parts of Roman equipment that had been corroded were found, indicating a fierce conflict.

The second major study was conducted in the 1960s under the direction of the highly respected archaeologist George Jobey. In the publication of his work in 1978, Jobey firmly sided with the idea of training camps. He acknowledged that the stone rampart of the hilltop fortress was already in a ruined state by the time it was shelled, and concluded that no self-respecting Roman general would besiege an unprotected hilltop, although ancient literature suggests otherwise.

Several lead targets were found in the gates of the settlement, the purpose of which, according to Joby, was to check the firing range.

Partially excavated Type I projectile

Over the years, the number of arguments in favor of the idea of training camps and active military camps has increased. As is often the case, many of the ideas were contradictory. For example, the unique appearance of Roman camps is explained either by clumsy construction, or by the requirements of the battle conditions.

The lack of a wall isolating the hilltop has also been frequently mentioned, but the significance of this is blunted by the fact that such blocking walls have been found on less than 20% of known sites besieged by the Romans. There is also the city itself, with some claiming that the "easy" slope leading to its gates eliminated the need for a large number of defenders. Still, it is not a small settlement: the site is the largest known site in Dumfriesshire, while the slope leading up to it is comparable to many European landmarks.

It is against the background of such contradictions that the Trimontium Trust [a special project of the Scottish Museum for the study of Roman history in Britain (approx. Based in Scotland, I decided to analyze all the evidence and get up-to-date data. The data will be collected using state-of-the-art methods that have their roots in battle archaeology, reconstruction, and criminology. After discussing the idea of the project with land owner Sir John Buchanan-Jardine and in collaboration with Dumfriesshire Archaeological Council member Andy Nicholson, an innovative project was developed. It was based on a systematic survey of excavation sites using a metal detector to identify lead projectiles and determine their spread.

Unlike many battlefields that lie below featureless arable land, the site lies directly on top of a fragile and crumbling hillfort, which would make the massive extraction of artifacts a hindrance to any subsequent archaeological research. Therefore, the idea was to investigate without further extraction of the finds. For these purposes, the latest metal detection technology is used to determine the nature of metal targets without extracting finds, and then to conduct test excavations to confirm the spread of the projectile. This was made possible by the use of a high-quality reference detector that was matched to signals obtained from bullet slings from the 1898 Burnswark excavation conducted by the Dumfries Museum.

Of course, the use of such a metal detection method is not new: It has been in practice since at least the 1980s, when the groundbreaking work of Scott and Fox revealed what really happened to General Custer and the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in Little Bighorn. Indeed, metal detection is the main survey method for identifying and determining the scale of battles that took place after the introduction of gunpowder; Roman lead suspension shells provided an ideal opportunity to investigate the true extent of the spread of metal shells.

The Burnswark Project was also designed to explore the structure and origins of the Roman camp and how it relates to the protection of the site (or lack thereof) and the wider landscape. He must also study the ballistic properties of Roman projectiles and their structure.

Due to the high interest in the site and in line with the educational goals of the Trimontium Trust, in 2014 a successful application was submitted for the Heritage Lottery for a volunteer-supported community-based archaeology project, which includes an excavation phase followed by a tourist exhibition. Work began in 2015, and two sites were carefully selected through preliminary systematic metal detection. Here, we were lucky to be able to collaborate with Derek McLennan and Sharon McKee of Beyond the Beep, who lead a team of search experts based in Ayrshire.

Found projectiles

Morphology of the Roman camp

Despite the classic references to the destruction of numerous pyramids in the south of England, no major sieges were seen in the UK. This absence is noticeable, given that there are many examples of siege warfare in mainland Europe and the Middle East. This anomaly has led us to question whether the Roman camps at Burnswark were siege camps in the full sense of the word, or rather assault camps in the south and blockade camps in the north.

This explains a number of unusual features. First, the southern camp was located on a hillside, just 130-150 m from the two southern gates of the settlement. Three gates face the mountain (as opposed to single narrow gates on the other sides), which implies the intention to ensure the rapid movement of a large number of troops from the camp to the entrances to the settlement.

On the other side of the hill, the smaller, elongated northern camp was located at a greater distance from the more protected hillfort, the northern edge of Burnswark. The position and irregular shape of the camp precluded any attempt to pass the only northern gate of the settlement unnoticed. In both camps, the moats facing the hill are an order of magnitude larger than on the other sides, which again suggests a reaction to a real threat.

Roman shells

Burnswark has the most diverse collection of Roman shells found anywhere else in Britain. You need to go to the Middle East to find another site rich in a similar number of finds. Prior to the current project, 130 lead slingshot shells, nine iron arrowheads, and 11 carved sandstone ballistic balls were identified. From them, it was revealed that lead projectiles for slings belong to two main types. Stephen Grip, who published the first review of Roman slingshot projectiles from Britain, described them as Type I, essentially lemon-shaped, and Type II, which resembles an acorn. The rarer acorn-shaped projectiles were almost exclusively found within a 50-mile radius around Burnswark Hill. With an average weight of 50 g, these beautifully cast shells were mostly found on the eastern and central southern gates of the settlement, as well as in the southern camp. It is difficult to assess whether these accumulations were caused by targets in the former gates of the ancient settlement, as Joby believed, since these were practically the only sites of the ancient settlement that he excavated. We hoped that our study of the distribution of projectiles would provide a more accurate picture of their distribution.

Before moving on to the field, a detailed study of the Burnswark shells, which are held at the National Museum of Scotland and Dumfries Museum, was carried out. This gave a number of ideas about the events that played out on the hilltop. The size and shape of the carved stone ballista shells were particularly interesting. These red sandstone projectiles, weighing an average of 600 grams, were virtually all grapefruit-shaped and had at least one slightly flattened side. Alan Wilkins, an expert on Roman artillery, confirmed that the flat area will lie in the" slot " of the torsion catapult slider and will help stabilize the ball before firing. He also noticed that stone shots were in a light class of siege weapons compared to some of their larger brethren lost in Judea. This suggests that they were chosen not for their wall-breaking qualities, but for their anti-personnel qualities.

Three different morphologies of lead projectiles - type I (lemon), Type II (acorn) and Type III (small, with a mysterious hole)

During Joby's investigation, a number of tricolor iron arrowheads were found on the rampart of the southern hillfort, despite severe corrosion caused by very acidic soils. They were widespread during the 1st and 2nd century and were often associated with Arab or Syrian archers serving in the Roman army.

Some lemon-shaped Type I projectiles were significantly smaller than others, many of them weighing less than 20 g. We identified a third, previously unrecognized subgroup of projectile weapons. Even more interesting was the fact that this small shot contained a single round hole, about 5 mm in diameter and about 5 mm deep. What can it be used for? Was it an opening for attaching to the device, injecting poison, or even a very symmetrical air bubble? Field trials of the sling soon offered another, equally remarkable, explanation for these cavities.

Experiments with a sling

We have undertaken a ballistic evaluation of lead sling shells previously found at the site to assess the effectiveness of these munitions. Several exact replicas were cast from lead and high-density clay, and one of our volunteers, an experienced slinger, learned how to weave slings from various materials. We found that larger 50-gram projectiles can be thrown at least 200 meters, depending on whether a straight (more accurate) or longer (or longer) type of sling was used. Other experimenters in the field have noted that a 50-gram Roman projectile propelled by a sling has only slightly less kinetic energy than a .44-caliber Magnum shot!

On our rugby field shooting course, a number of results quickly became apparent. Even though the Day-Glo bullets were colored orange, detecting spent lead projectiles was impossible in most cases, as they buried themselves in the grass, confirming that the Romans would not have been able to recover from the action. When our slinger is in fast-firing mode, it has found a tendency to drop about 5-10% of sling projectiles when loaded. This phenomenon of "dropped" ammunition has been noted by archaeologists on battlefields for a number of time periods and theaters of war. This is almost certainly a product of stress, and it means that the scattering of shells in the southern camp at Burnswark may have revealed where the slingers were stationed at the start of the action. Two unusual facts concerning small projectiles with holes (now called Type III) also emerged. First, they could be successfully broken up into small groups of three or four people to create a circle shape. This was independently confirmed by T. Richardson in his work on Roman projectiles in the Royal Armories. Even more intriguing is that the mysterious holes give an aerophonic quality: during flight, this lead shot whistled, or more precisely, made a mechanical buzzing sound, eerily reminiscent of an agitated wasp. Surprisingly, the simplest explanation for this design modification is that it represents an early form of psychological warfare. In other words, Roman attackers liked to create terror among the defenders when they heard the shells hitting their comrades

The Sling Test

Projectile distribution

In Burnswark, a team of detectives took seven days to inspect the site. The identified metal targets were profiled and characterized by a master detector to ensure the accuracy of the results. GPS positions were recorded and mapped by Andy Nicholson. More than 2,000 new targets were identified, of which about 700 had the characteristics of lead shells. We have positioned our two 10x2 m trenches so that the maximum number of potential sling bullets is located in the dug area to test the accuracy of our metal detector survey. The trenches were excavated over a three-week period by our volunteers, who were supervised by professional archaeologists David Devereux, Diana and Claire from Rathmell. Trench 1, located within the settlement, was filled with the shells described above. Trench 2 was deliberately located on the southern rampart of the settlement, to the west of the western gate. This not only confirmed the presence of lead projectiles, but also contributed to the discovery of two beautifully hewn projectiles for the ballista and a rough-hewn stone projectile for the sling.

Since some previous commentators had suggested that no real action could have been carried out without the presence of legionary troops, the discovery of one of the branded iron-tipped ballistic bolts was also a source of some satisfaction. Our excavations confirmed George Joby's conclusion that the bombardment occurred after the destruction of the main stone rampart that surrounded the top of the hill. In areas where the shaft and guns coincided along the trajectory, the shells lay immediately on top or inside the crater. In general, the coefficient of coincidence of identified shells without extraction with actually found shells in our excavated trenches was 94%. This provides a significant margin of confidence in our projectile propagation forecast.

Storming of Burnswark Hill

So can Burnswark Hill be considered a training camp? The evidence against this theory is becoming increasingly compelling. A close examination of the two Roman camps suggests that their location represents a real tactical response to the terrain and threat level. Their shape and location corresponded to their intended purpose, which made it possible to carry out a blockade, cover a frontal attack and exclude a reverse blockade. The type of ammunition also appears to be significant. Instead of firing projectiles made of stone or clay, which might be expected from "consumable" training ammunition, the use of carefully cast lead projectile supports military sentiment. The presence of aerophonic projectiles also suggests a desire to break the nerves of defenders, and their variety indicates the presence of a mixed force of auxiliaries and legionnaires. As Freeman and Pollard noted, " the distribution of finds clearly demonstrates the nature of military operations." In this regard, the project confirmed that there was a heavy artillery attack in Burnswark. This was not limited to just the gate, but extended along half a kilometer of the rampart. The simplest explanation for this distribution is that the hilltop defenders were overwhelmed by a hail of slingshot projectiles with an accurate 120m range and the braking power of a modern pistol, as well as ballistic balls, ballistic bolts, and arrows. Presumably, this covered an attacking force that was sweeping out of three huge gates and storming the hilltop. This combination of artillery and conventional infantry troops would probably be extremely effective.

What now?

We believe that the results of the Burnswark project allow us to go beyond theory. Perhaps now we can turn our attention to when and why these catastrophic events occurred. Could Roman action have been a show of force in response to the attack on Hadrian's newly built wall in the mid and late 120s? Or was it the bloodshed of troops in the early stages of Antoninus ' assault on Caledonia in the late 130's? Sparse dating data makes both scenarios possible. Keeping these thoughts in mind, we plan further research in the camps and the ancient settlement to solve a few more mysteries of this place.

Related topics

The Slinger, Throwing Machines


Lucia Marchini Bullets, ballistas, and Burnswark / Lucia Marchini // Current Archaeology.- № 316.-2016