1,800-year-old Bullets Tell Story of a Roman Attack on Scottish Fort

Photo source: The Burnswark Project
Photo source: The Burnswark Project

Pity the defenders of a hilltop fort in southwest Scotland, attacked by the Roman army 1,800 years ago. Various missile weapons were used based on excavated remains including a sizeable cache of lead sling bullets.

From the high number of sling bullets and additional Roman missiles found at Burnswark Hill site, archaeologists think the assault was intended to instill terror and act as a warning to other tribes.

The excavations in the Dumfries region of southwest Scotland at Burnswark Hill have revealed the largest supply of Roman lead sling bullets ever found — part of the huge cache of missile ammunition used by the attacking Romans to defeat the native defenders.

“It’s a small fort attacked by a sizable Roman force using a large volume of missile supplies,” said John Reid, an archaeologist with the Scottish historical society, Trimontium Trust.  “Exemplary violence is not new, and the Romans weren’t the only ones using the technique, but the Romans did it to a majestic degree.”

An estimated 5,000 Roman soldiers participated, based on the size of the two Roman army camps that existed to the south and north of the fort.

How many inhabitants were in the fort isn’t known, but judging the size of the attacking force there may have been between 1,000 and 2,000 armed defenders, Reid explained, in addition to non-combatants and families of the defenders who took refuge there.

Burnswark Hill is only a few miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, which traversed southern Scotland during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117 to 138).  For many years it was the Roman Empire’s northern border in England.

Reid said the attack on the hilltop fort may have been part of the Roman invasion of lowland Scotland and may have been the start.

Researchers are readying lead samples from the sling bullets for isotope analysis that hopefully will narrow down the date of the Roman attack.  They are also examining several acorn-shaped sling bullets from Burnswark Hill that appear identical to others found at different Roman sites in Scotland, but nowhere else in the former Roman world, Fox News reported.

A variety of sling bullets has been found in the excavation, including little small lead bullets drilled with holes. Researchers assume they were designed to emit a whistling sound in flight and terrify their targets.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE