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Burnswark’s bloody Roman history becomes clearer

There’s growing evidence that a landmark flat-topped hill in Dumfriesshire was the site of the first major battle of the Roman invasion of Scotland.

By Willie Johnston, 26 August 2016.

Archaeologists have been trying for 300 years to assess the role of Burnswark in the Roman occupation.New excavations suggest the truth is more bloody than had been thought up to now. Burnswark rises a thousand feet from the Solway plain and is clearly visible from miles around.On its summit the remains of a native hill fort. On the north and south slopes, two huge Roman camps capable of housing 6,000 soldiers or more. But what went on here?

One theory is that the Romans used the abandoned fort to train their men in weaponry - an early firing range. Another suggests that the fort was still occupied by local tribes people and came under prolonged siege to starve them out.

But new evidence points to a third - much bloodier - version of events. Lead archaeologist Andrew Nicholson believes it was the first assault in the Roman invasion of Scotland around 140 AD. "What this probably is, is the start of the Antonine push from Hadrian’s Wall, conquering all of southern Scotland,“ he said. "After the emperor Hadrian has died the new emperor Antoninus Pius needs a victory as the incoming emperor. 

"Southern Scotland is beyond the wall, beyond the borders, it is barbarian and Burnswark and the rest of Annandale and everywhere south of the Forth-Clyde line is its intended target." A two-week dig last summer is being following by another now. “I would suspect that probably nobody survived this and the Roman army moved on into the rest of Scotland.” - John Reid, Trimontium Trust.

Using metal detectors it has been found that massive amounts of lead-shot were fired at the fort - and not in a way indicating target practice. More evidence is the known presence of a general Lollius Urbicus brought here from the Middle East to do the emperor’s dirty work. John Reid of the Roman Heritage group the Trimontium Trust says Urbicus had "previous”. "He made his name in the Jewish war which had taken place in Israel in the previous four years where they had literally gone through the whole of Judea taking hill forts one after the other,“ he said.

"He was given the job of taking Scotland, we know that from Roman literary sources. "So he was here and this is where they blood their troops." It seems very clear they meant business. Many of the lead bullets found at Burnswark have identical 4mm holes in them which, initially, was a mystery. John Reid went to Germany to consult an expert in sling shot ballistics, Joerg Sprave.

And the effect of the hole became obvious when replicas were made and fired.

"You’d hear this screeching noise that you’ve never heard before or experienced before in your life,” explained Mr Nicholson. "What sort of unearthly spirits are these dreadful Romans conjuring up to assail you with amongst all their missiles? "I hear this keening sound through the air and the chap with the spear next to me drops dead and I wonder what on earth is doing it. I’d be utterly terrified.“

So, the personnel involved and the quantity and type of slingshot used suggests complete overkill against a weaker, poorly-armed enemy. "The Romans were well recognised for what is called exemplary violence,” said Mr Reid. "These people literally did suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

“This literally is a site where people suffered an attrition to the very end and I would suspect that probably nobody survived this and the Roman army moved on into the rest of Scotland." More work will be required to prove this new theory definitively and that’s planned in the years ahead. But those involved here are confident that - in police slang - they’ve got the Romans bang to rights.

Roman sling bullet cache unearthed at Burnswark dig

A cache of more than 180 Roman lead sling bullets - thought to be the largest ever found in Britain - has been unearthed in southern Scotland.

They were discovered during an archaeological dig at Burnswark in Dumfries and Galloway.

Investigations have been ongoing at the flat-topped hill near Lockerbie over the past fortnight.

Dark organic soil was also found nearby which could be the remains of a bag or sack for the bullets.

Archaeologists have been trying for centuries to assess the role of Burnswark in the Roman occupation

One theory is that it may have seen the first battle in the Roman invasion of Scotland around 140 AD. Read more.

Parian marble. Roman copy of the 2nd cent. CE after a bronze Greek original by Myron of the mid-5th cent. BCE.

Inv. No. 56039.

Rome, Roman National Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

Origin: From Castelporziano, the ancient Porcigliano, Villa Reale; found in the ruins of a villa of the beginning of the Imperial period in 1906.


Fragmentary Discobolus.

From Castelporziano, the ancient Porcigliano, Villa Reale; found in the ruins of a villa of the beginning of the Imperial period.

The statue, headless and missing its lower legs, right arm and the fingers of the left hand, is composed of fourteen fragments and shows the traces of an old restoration in plaster in several places (on the left thigh, the palm-trunk support and the base).

Parian marble.

Ht. 148 cm (with the base); inv. 56039.

“As with the Lancellotti Discobolus, this statue depicts the culminating moment of action just before the throw. The athlete, whose body is thrown forward in a movement of violent rotation, concentrates his weight onto his right leg; of the missing pieces, the corresponding arm, which carried the discus, was stretched out behind, and the left arm inscribed a deep arc grazing the right knee. There are several divergences from the Lancellotti Discobolus, which allow one to speak of a “version,” rather than a faithful replica, of the original generally attributed to Myron. The left shoulder is closer to the ground and the torso more strongly twisted towards the spectator, elements which confer a greater three-dimensionality compared to the Lancellotti Discobolus and which have been interpreted by Fuchs as modifications posterior to the age of Myron and reprised in the Augustan period, when the statue was executed. This proposed date is consistent with its provenance; the statue in fact comes from a villa built in the Augustan period and reconstructed circa AD 140. On the other hand, D. Candilio, following previous studies, maintains the date in the Hadrianic period. In the Baths of Vedius in Ephesus, a complex of the mid-second century AD, a copy of the Discobolus was fortuitously found which formed part of a larger sculptural group alluding to the imperial cult; this discovery has prompted Manderscheid to formulate the suggestive hypothesis that the placement of statues inside Roman thermae (usually in the palestrae) represented an element of the Hellenic paideia in a structure which for the Romans represented the ideal continuation of the Greek gymnasium.”  Brunella Germini

Literature: W. Fuchs, Die Skulptur der Griechen, München, 1969, p. 176 ff., no. 2269;  Museo Nazionale Romano, Le sculture, A. Giuliano ed., I, 1 (Roma, 1979), p. 180, no. 117 (D. Candilio);  H. Manderscheid, Die Sculpturenausstattung der kaiserzeitlichen Thermenanlagen, Berlin, 1981, p. 43 ff.

Credits: © 2006. Photo: S. Sosnovskiy. ancientrome.com.  Text: museum inscription to the sculpture.  © 2005 г. Description: Museo Nazionale Romano. PALAZZO MASSIMO ALLE TERME. English Edition. Edited by Adriano La Regina. ELECTA, 2005 (First Edition 1998), p. 132.