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Whistling Death

Updated: 3 days ago

Burnswark Hill Approaching across the gentle surrounding Dumfriesshire countryside it is hard to miss the brooding eminence of Burnswark Hill. Rising to nearly 305 m (1,000 ft) it is one of the most prominent landmarks of the Solway basin (see below).

Crowning the table-top summit are the remains of the ramparts protecting a 17-acre hillfort. This hillfort is, in turn, flanked to the North and South by two Roman camps, both of which are unusual in design. The northern camp has an elongated form atypical of the standard Roman army practice, while the south camp, more conventional in shape, was furnished with three wide gateways facing up the hill. Each of these is protected by a large tumulus-like earthwork collectively known as the "Three Brethren". After extensive excavations in 2016, Dr John Reid of the Trimontium Trust commented: "This configuration of Roman camps straddling a hillfort is unique in Britain, and attempts to understand its significance have provoked considerable controversy for over half a century" [1].

Practice camp or siege work? For the best part of two hundred years the Roman earthworks were identified as siege camps. In the 1960s a new theory proposed that the camps were "practice" works and thus provided tangible evidence for the Roman army’s famous training regime. As Reid points out: "It is not difficult to see how this practice theory arose. Many archaeologists in the 1950s and 1960s were ex-military men with a grounding in the Classics and close associations with the training activities of the British Army" [1].

To provide one famous tangential example. not necessarily invested in the Burnswark story, consider that iconic British archaeologist of the twentieth century, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Recognised as one of our most important archaeologists, he had specialised in the Romano-British period before being commissioned into the Royal Artillery for the duration of World War One and later World War Two. During the inter-war years, however, Wheeler turned his attention to the late Iron Age hill-fort of Maiden Castle near to Dorchester in Dorset, where he excavated for four seasons from 1934 to 1937. The interpretation of the site was clearly heavily influenced by his military background and, being adept at generating publicity, his views remained the dominant ones for many years. In time, however, many of Wheeler's specific interpretations of Maiden Castle and of other archaeological sites were discredited or reinterpreted. Yet, Wheeler's championing of archaeology, encouraging public interest in it through the medium of television and radio, makes it easy to see how the training camp interpretation of Burnswark proposed by similar ex-military men became fact in both popular and academic literature.

Sling-shot bullets Over the years the arguments in favour of both training and actual warfare have steadily multiplied but, as is so often the case, many observations have proven susceptible to conflicting readings [1]. Leaving aside such arguments, it is significant for present purposes that numerous lead sling-bullets, stone ballista-balls, and other elements of corroded Roman military hardware had been recovered in earlier excavations at the site [2]. Prior to the 2015 Burnswark Project, of the 130 lead sling-bullets previously recovered, only two main types were recognised: Type I, essentially a lemon shape (above, middle row), and Type II resembling an acorn (above, top row) - a symbol the Romans considered lucky. These two types are common finds at Roman army battle sites in Europe. The Type I's are typically the largest weighing up to 60 grams (2 ounces) [3].

Of these, the rarer acorn-shaped bullets were almost exclusive to a 50-mile radius around Burnswark Hill [1]. These beautifully cast bullets weighed an average of 50 grams. They were predominantly recovered from the East and central South facing hillfort gateways, with a handful also found in the southern Roman camp [1]. In 2017, National Geographic [4] reported on the excavations at Burnswark and that "recent experiments conducted in Germany showed that a 50 gram Roman bullet hurled by a trained slinger has only slightly less stopping power than a .44 magnum bullet fired from a handgun." Other tests have shown that, in the hands of an expert, a heavy bullet or stone hurled from a sling could reach speeds of up to 100 mph (160 kph) [3] and "revealed that a trained slinger could hit a target smaller than a human being from 130 yards [120 metres] away" [4].

Whistling death As impressive as these statistics are, the Burnswark Project had identified a remarkable third, previously unrecognised, slingshot subgroup. Weighing about 30 g (1 oz), each of the bullets had been drilled with a hole, approximately 5mm (0.2") in diameter and about 5mm deep. Theories on what the hole was for abounded until the field-testing of replica slingshot produced another, equally remarkable, explanation for these cavities.

Two extraordinary facts concerning these small bullets with holes (now dubbed Burnswark Type III's) also emerged. First, being smaller they could be successfully slung in groups of three or four to create a form of grapeshot. [3] The current thinking is that Type III's were used in this manner in close-quarter skirmishing with an enemy (Reid 2016). More intriguingly, the mysterious holes proved to confer an aerophonic quality producing a "whistling" sound in flight. To be slightly more accurate, the replica lead shot made a mechanical buzzing sound eerily reminiscent of an agitated wasp. The simplest explanation for this design modification is that it represents an early form of psychological warfare. As Reid said: "To put it another way, the Roman attackers valued the terror that hearing the incoming bullets would instil in the defenders." Subjected to a hail of these sling-shot bullets, defenders on the hillfort's ramparts would be encouraged to take cover or else risk severe injury or death. With the enemy pinned down physically and psychologically, then the Roman troops could assault and storm Burnswark Hill.

Replicas Inspired by the find we commissioned Dan Towse of Bespoke Pewter to replicate the Burnswark Type III bullet from the interim report on the Burnswark Project published in 2019. From this the average weight and overall dimensions were deduced. Two versions were made, one in lead and a second in lead-free pewter. Each resulting bullet was approximately 23 to 24 mm long but differed in weight. The lead shot are ca. 26 g (0.9 oz) each, while the lead-free pewter are ca. 17 g (0.6 oz).

Unfortunately we are not experienced slingers and will need time to develop the skills needed to repeatedly hurl projectiles in a consistently safe manner and direction. So, as yet we have not been able to experiment with the replicas so do not know whether the "buzzing" effect can be reproduced. In time, and with much practice, we will update this post with what we find out.


1. Reid, J.H., (2016), "Bullets, ballistas and Burnswark", Current Archaeology 316.

2. The first was conducted in 1898 on behalf of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and involved surveying the earthworks and "turning over" the site. The second major exploration came in the 1960s, and was directed by the much-respected archaeologist George Jobey. In the 1978 publication of his work, Jobey came down firmly on the side of a practice work.

3. . Metcalfe, T. (2016), "Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops' Secret 'Terror Weapon'", Live Science, retrieved December 12th, 2020.

4. Pringle, H. (2017), "Ancient Slingshot was as Deadly as a .44 Magnum", National Geographic, retrieved December 12th, 2020.

5. Reid, J.H. & Nicholson, A., (2019), "Burnswark Hill: the opening shot of the Antonine reconquest of Scotland?", in the Journal of Roman Archaeology 32, pp. 459-477.

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