Join Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions! Subscribe Today!

Whistling Sling Rocks Were Weapons of Ancient Terrorists

Some things never change and terrorism is one of them. Archeologists digging in an ancient Roman battleground in Scotland discovered a new type of rock used when battles were fought by soldiers propelling them with slings. The rocks had mysterious holes drilled in them and new research has determined that these tiny weapons were not meant to kill but to terrorize the enemy.

The holes are too small, and there’s no guarantee that these are going to penetrate skin. And they are ballistically inferior: They don’t fly as far, don’t fly as fast and don’t have the same momentum [as larger sling bullets] — so why put poison holes in only the little ones?

Dig by the Trimontium Trust at Burnswark Hill

Dig by the Trimontium Trust at Burnswark Hill

Archeologist John Reid from the Trimontium Trust (a group dedicated to preserving historical sites in the area) describes the unusual small stones his team found recently among the more common lemon-sized and acorn-shaped sling ammunition at Burnswark Hill in southwestern Scotland . The area is both the site of a major Roman battle in the 2nd century AD and a large training ground for Roman soldiers.

Various sling stones found at the site

Various sling stones found at the site

According to Reid’s report in Current Archeology, sling stone with holes drilled into their sides had never been seen at Roman sites before. Some have been discovered at earlier battlegrounds in Greece and it was assumed the holes were to hold poison. Their small size was puzzling as was the fact that no holes were drilled in larger stones that were superior weapons in terms of distance and penetration ability.

A typical sling and stones

A typical sling and stones

While called “stones,” the projectiles are actually cast lead and that gave Reid’s brother the idea that the holes made them whistle in the air like the lead sinkers on a fisherman’s line. Sure enough, Reid’s tests proved that to be the case. As he put it, the flying stones made a buzzing sound like an “angry wasp” and could be flung up to four at a time to cover a larger area and terrorize more Scots.

And terror was the true purpose of these little projectiles, says Reid.

Remarkable as it sounds, the simplest explanation for this design modification is that it represents an early form of psychological warfare. To put it another way, the Roman attackers valued the terror that hearing the incoming bullets would instill in the defenders.

Burnswark Hill where the Roman terrorism stopped

Burnswark Hill where the Romans tried terrorism

A harmless yet angry-sounding buzz served as a warning to the Scots that a huge Roman army was coming to get them. Did this ancient form of terrorism really work? Some time after the battle at Burnswark Hill, the Romans gave up and retreated to behind Hadrian’s Wall.

Is this a lesson about the Romans or about the true effectiveness of terrorism?


Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
You can follow Paul on and