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Discovery of the largest hoard of Roman lead slingshot in the world

September 28, 2016 10:01am

Derek McLennan
Derek McLennan

A distant view of Burnswark Hill Fort from the South with caption

Two thousand year old Roman slingshot recovered from surrounding forest & fields montage SMLImagine finding the largest lead slingshot hoard in the Roman Empire…well we did, and once again in Scotland!  Roman sling shot are made of lead and weigh approximately 50g. They also have very distinctive shapes and are mostly shaped like lemons or acorns. This might not sound like a deadly weapon to our modern ears, but in fact, expert slingers could sling these so fast, the projectile had the same velocity and impact as a .44 Magnum- very deadly indeed.

For the last two years, Sharon and I have been involved in this archaeological project actively promoting Archeo-Detecting and Metal Profiling within the UK, using Minelab metal detecting technology.  Our most recent internationally significant discovery was made in August 2016 as part of ‘The Burnswark Project,’ a community archaeology project looking at the prehistoric hillfort and the surrounding Roman camps, located in Scotland. The project is led by Dr. John Reid of the Trimontium Trust and Dumfries & Galloway County Archaeologist Andrew Nicholson.

Martin Brooks (Combat Stress Veteran) detecting on the Hill Fort Montage SMLOur company, Beyond The Beep, was selected to lead and conduct the metal detecting survey work. The site is first sectioned into manageable areas and metal within the ground is systematically marked and plotted using the GPS feature on our CTX 3030’s, showing clearly the spread of metal throughout the site. This information helps the archaeologists understand the metal deposits and to target their trenches with pinpoint accuracy.  With our second season underway we had already plotted over 3500 metal targets and covered approximately 500,000 square feet of terrain. 

As soon as the project started, the detecting team quickly pinpointed areas within the Roman camps that would facilitate some of the goals of the archaeologists for this year, such as the desired recovery of at least three Roman slingshots from each of the two Roman camps. The main reason for the recovery of slingshot, was to allow a controlled sample of the lead from these individual artefacts to test the isotopes and allow the confirmation of whether the two Roman camps were constructed at the same time, thus taking part in the same possible assault on the hill fort. This in turn will help provide more evidence for the theory that the Roman camps were constructed as part of a major ‘shock and awe’ assault on the hill fort, as part of the Roman invasion of Scotland under Emperor Antoninus Pius in 140AD. 

Derek & Sharon detecting the trenches montage SML

Detectorist Don Reid (Top Left) and Archaeologists in hoard trench - note flags placed through our detecting to mark the hoard in the trench Montage SMLDuring our initial work, the detecting team had checked this year’s trench locations proposed by the archaeologists in both Roman camps, and had produced results that helped them relocate the trenches to get the best metalwork results, in conjunction with their own important archaeology goals. We had pinpointed two locations where we were 100% certain there were potential hoards of the Roman slingshot, as the lead signals were providing the correct readings, showed a large spread, various depths and definitive individual signals interspersed within the larger spread signals. We utilised both the 11 and 17 inch coils for the CTX 3030, but could have probably done with the 5 inch coil to pick out even more individual targets from the mass of signals – however, we were sufficiently confident to place our flags in the ground, along with our reputations.

Soon the sling shot began to appear in all three trenches in significant numbers.  Before long the archaeology team had recovered around 49 beautiful slingshots from the areas marked with the flags by the detecting team. So, the first major detecting and project goal was reached. The attention then turned to trench 3, located in the Roman North Camp at the other side of the hill fort.

Two thousand year old Roman slingshot hoard images montage SMLThe archaeologists slowly and carefully recovered all the slingshot from the first exposed layer and then came down onto a layer of loose rock, possibly from a collapsed stone rampart. However, all the members of the detecting team knew there were undoubtedly more slingshots located deeper and we ran the CTX 3030’s over the trench just to be sure – the resounding signals confirmed our thoughts, as did the PRO-FIND 25 pinpointer when it was touched against the loose rock layer, it was sounding off like a fire bell during an emergency.

In fact, the PRO-FIND pinpointer has become an essential archaeological tool during these digs, and the archaeologists love using them. We introduced the tool to them last year, after metal targets that had been flagged, were inadvertently scraped up during the excavation and deposited in the spoil heap. It had been assumed by the archaeologists that the metal detectors had given false signals and the targets that had been clearly marked, were simply not there. This was until we detected the targets within the spoil heap and then showed the archaeologists and volunteers how to use the pinpointers.

Sharon holding two thousand year old Roman slingshot from the hoard montage SMLOver the next day or two the archaeologists removed the loose rock layer, utilising the pinpointers at all times to be sure of leaving the slingshot undisturbed, and were amazed at the scene that revealed itself to them – an absolutely massive hoard of Roman lead slingshot, larger than anything they had ever saw before and lying undisturbed for around two thousand years. The excitement and jubilation was bursting from the volunteers helping the archaeologists. At the end of the day everybody from the other trenches and, of course, the detecting team wandered around the hill to have a look at the spectacular site lying in the trench and at the end of the day, over six archaeological deposit bags had been filled with Roman slingshot, weighing over 33lbs and it took two men to carry them to the transport vehicle.

Very soon after the hoard was recovered we heard the news that the hoard of lead slingshot was confirmed as the largest ever found in the Roman Empire – A great day with happy detectorists and archaeologists, and all made possible through the use of precision Minelab detecting technology.

Derek & Sharon excavating the hoard Montage SML

If you want to find out more and to watch video on the project, follow the links here:

See you all next time for more detecting adventures from across the pond!




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