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Attitudes Towards and Use of the Sling in Late Iron Age Britain

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David Swan[1], Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick

Abstract

This article considers the archaeological record and ancient literature regarding the use of and attitudes towards the sling (a leather strap used to hurl stones) by the pre-Roman people who inhabited modern-day Britain. A dedicated study of the use of the sling by these people has yet to be accomplished, which this article attempts to rectify. This article considers the roles the sling played in British Iron Age life and warfare, and also considers the attitudes of the Iron Age British people towards slings.

Keywords: British Iron Age, sling, ancient warfare, Celts, hillforts, multivallation.

Introduction

The sling was a weapon used by the indigenous British (along with the sword, spear and chariot) both before and during the Roman invasion. Although it seems to have been used frequently it has not yet been the subject of a full study, and this article aims to address this. This article considers the attitudes towards and the use of the sling among the people living in Britain from around 500 BC to 50 AD. This period is known as the Iron Age, based on iron being a common material used for the tools of this period.

Due to there being little evidence for the widespread use of the bow in Iron Age Britain, it seems that the sling was the predominant missile weapon. We have no surviving examples of a sling from this period, but slings found elsewhere in the ancient world are thought to be a 'single, pouchless strap of leather' (figure 1) (Echols, 1950: 227). Its use would involve placing a round object referred to as a slingshot in the end of the strap, and holding the other end. The slinger would then whirl the leather strap in a circle until sufficient speed was created, and then would abruptly stop, releasing the stone (Echols, 1950: 228). The damage these weapons inflicted could be potent: a colonel viewing an injury caused by a sling by tribesmen of New Caledonia in the nineteenth century compared it to a bullet wound (Vigors, 1988: 363). Thus these weapons could be extremely effective on the battlefield.

Figure 1: A sling found in the Marquesas Islands, eighteenth or nineteenth century AD

Figure 1: A sling found in the Marquesas Islands, eighteenth or nineteenth century AD. While no British example has been found, the picture shows the general shape and look of a sling. © Trustees of the British Museum

This article intends to focus on the use of the sling in Britain, but it is worth noting the wider context of the 'Celtic' world. The word 'Celts' is used to describe the pre-Roman people who lived in modern-day France (then known as Gaul), Spain, Belgium, Britain and Southern Germany from around 800 BC (Allen, 2007: 8; James, 1993: 9). The Celts had no shared identity (they would not have considered themselves Celtic), but they had similar customs and possibly a similar language, living in separate tribes in villages and small towns, but having no cities comparable to those of Greece and Rome (James, 1993: 9). The Iron Age Britons, despite never being referred to as Celts in ancient literature, are often included in studies of the Celts by modern scholars, based on the similarities in lifestyle and art between Britain and the Celts in continental Europe. While this article avoids considering the issue as to whether the British should be considered 'Celtic', it recognises that sources describing the people on the continent from 500 BC to 50 AD could be used, with care, to help us understand the situation in Britain, given the similarities between cultures.

The sources for this study are problematic, however. Evidence for the sling and ranged weapons in general is limited, with few references in the literature sources available to us. Similarly, neither artwork created by the British nor portrayals of Celts by Greeks and Romans depict slings, implying they were not considered important or visually impressive enough to be depicted.[2] Both literature and artwork seem to indicate that most British warriors would be armed with spears and shields (Rawlings, 2008: 168). The sling was common in Britain during the Iron Age, but there is little acknowledgement within their society. This article thus considers why the sling did not receive such recognition. Due to the disparity in geography and chronology of the sources we are considering, the exact uses and attitudes explained within this article are unlikely to apply for the whole British Iron Age. However, they provide a good general view of the use of the sling within this period.

Scholars of Celtic society commonly cite as sources of evidence the medieval Irish and Welsh tales. These tales, such as the Táin Bớ Cúalnge and The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, were recorded in the early medieval period, possibly between the ninth and thirteenth centuries AD, and they describe heroes from Irish myth, such as Cú Chulainn and Queen Medb, and the various conflicts associated with them. While they were written during the medieval period, Jackson in his Window to the Iron Age suggested that they may in fact be based on oral tales passed down through word of mouth throughout the centuries, originally being first told during the time of the Celts (Jackson, 1964: 4). However, recent scholarship opposes this view, believing that these tales are more likely to be based on oral tales from Ireland created in the fourth century AD, after the Celts existed, with remnants of attitudes and ideas from the time of their creation still existing within the stories (Mallory, 1992: 152-53). Therefore this article expresses caution regarding the use of these Irish tales, not using them as direct evidence regarding the use of the sling. However the tales, as they are originally based on a society with a similar level of technological innovation to the Iron Age British, provide the closest example we have in literature to an Iron Age British mindset. Thus we have a fictional viewpoint of what life may have been like in a community in the British Isles who had several similarities with the Iron Age British, something an alien Greek or Roman source cannot give. As a result, we will use these texts to explain or elaborate points to explain how the sling might have been used.

Archaeological evidence of the use of the sling

Although the slings themselves, being made of degradable materials, have not survived archaeologically, slingshots (also known as sling stones) have been found in many British hillforts, such as Maiden Castle, Glastonbury, All Cannings Cross, Gussage All Saints, Yambury Castle, Castell Henllys and Ham Hill (Ritchie, 1985: 50; Cunliffe, 1984: 398, Johnson, 2014). British slingshots were made using either clay or stone, with no apparent use of metal slingshots, unlike the lead slingshots of the Greeks and Romans (Greep, 1987: 184, 193). However, the shape of the shot can vary greatly, as can be seen in figure 2. Both are slingshots from Britain, but each has a different shape and material.

Figure 2: Slingshots from Britain

Figure 2: Slingshots from Britain. Left: Stone slingshot of Iron Age/Romano-British origin found at Hod Hill. Right: Clay slingshot of Iron Age origin found in North Dalton, dimensions 45mm by 28mm. © Trustees of the British Museum

The differences in the design of the slingshots are not the result of geography, as excavations at Danebury have shown. Two types of slingshot were excavated from the site of the hillfort (Cunliffe, 1984: 398): the first was of a large, ovoid shape, 2.7-3.1cm in diameter, while the second was more spherical, 3.95-4.24cm in diameter. Differences in the size of slingshots also occur in Irish archaeology, where the slingshots range from the size of an orange to the size of plum, with some being artificially made whereas others are natural stones collected to serve as slingshots (Vigors, 1888: 361). The varying sizes could be explained by a different slingshot-making tradition, a carver preferring one style to another perhaps. However, it is more likely the variation between shots was created so that each could suit a different purpose. It is possible the larger slingshots at Danebury were for warfare, and the smaller ones for hunting small game such as birds (Cunliffe, 1984: 398). This idea suggests that the Iron Age people at Danebury used the sling for both purposes, making it a multi-functional tool, and they adapted the slingshots to better suit their target.

British hillforts may provide us with some clue as to how slings were used in battle. Hillforts were defended enclosures built on hilltops, and were very common in the British Iron Age, yet their purpose remains a source of much debate. While it is tempting to view them purely as having a defensive purpose, other arguments have been put forth suggesting they had a more social purpose, being used to host religious, political and economic activities (Sullivan and Downey, 2013: 23). This article considers that both arguments have merit, and that certain hillforts may have had either one or both such functions. However, we shall be concentrating on the military implications of the hillfort given that our study focuses on the sling.

Hillforts were often protected by at least one line of defence, usually involving a fortified bank and ditch, but a third of British hillforts have additional lines of defence, incorporating additional ditches, and this is known as multivallation (Dyer, 1992: 6). It has been argued that multivallation was developed because of the introduction of the sling, due to its apparent effectiveness as a defensive weapon (Wheeler, 1943: 48-51). The implication here is that the more defences an attacker had to cross, the more time a defender armed with a sling would have had in which to fire upon the attackers and hopefully to drive them off. Recent arguments against the introduction of the sling triggering these changes in defences have been based on the fact that slingshot hoards have been found in hillforts with a single line of defence, implying that slings did not render these less fortified hillforts obsolete (Greep, 1987: 193). Therefore perhaps multivallation occurred from the development of the sling's use rather than its introduction (Greep, 1987: 193).

Both views provide interesting points, the first being that slings seemed to be an effective defensive measure. A good example of defensive fortification associated with this is Maiden Castle in Dorset, the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Dyer suggests that there was a 'command post' of sorts at the entrance of the hillfort, which made it 'possible to supervise two gates, the outer hornworks and much of the fort ditches, all within […] easy range of a competent slinger' (Dyer, 1992: 31). Thus perhaps the hillfort was designed with the use of the sling in mind, with good slingers being vital for the defence of the site. While this is only a theory, as it is difficult to judge the strategy of attackers and defenders based solely on archaeological remains, the many slingshot hoards found within many hillforts imply the British did indeed consider the sling an important weapon in defence. Greep's argument suggests another interesting point, that it was the development of tactics involving the sling that made it so effective. This is significant: perhaps the British had certain strategies that were primarily designed for the use of the sling, implying a certain level of respect for it. This point will be elaborated later, with regard to accounts of the sling in literature.

Textual evidence of the use of the sling

References to the use of the sling by the ancient Britons are incredibly rare, in contrast to the apparent widespread use of the sling as indicated by the number of slingshot hoards. The Roman writers who described various conflicts in Britain, such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio, rarely gave enough specific details of the battles and were writing decades (or centuries in the case of Dio) after the conflicts. Therefore even if they were to mention of the use of slings, they would be unreliable at best. Julius Caesar, on the other hand, invaded Britain twice, in 55 BC and 54 BC, and fought a campaign against the continental Celts between 58-52 BC, and thus his account provides perhaps the only surviving first-hand view of Iron Age British wars. This is an issue: the evidence only covers a period of less than a decade, and gives us no understanding of conflicts before Caesar, or even the famous Claudian invasion of 43 AD. Thus any strategies discussed may only have been in use in the first century BC, and perhaps not before. Nonetheless, there are problems that must be contended with, given the limitations of our written evidence of this period.

Caesar fails to make any mention of the sling in Britain. There are vague references to the use of 'weapons' being thrown by ambushing Britons and the use of the testudo (in which Roman soldiers lock their shields over their heads to protect against missiles) by Roman soldiers in order to assault a fortified camp, implying the defenders were using some sort of ranged weapon, but there is no direct mention of the sling (Caesar, Gallic Wars, 4.32, 5.9). Therefore, the part of Caesar's account on his invasion of Britain provides limited information. However, Caesar's description of his wars in Gaul show certain tactics involving the sling that may have been used in Britain.

Caesar gives a detailed description of the siege tactics used by the people in northern Gaul during the late Iron Age:

The Belgae have the same method of attacking a fortress as the rest of the Gauls. They begin by surrounding the whole circuit of the wall with a large number of men and showering stones at it from all sides; when they have cleared it of defenders, they lock their shields over their heads, advance close up and undermine it [… ] with such a large force hurling stones and javelins, no one could possibly stay on the wall.
(Caesar, Gallic Wars: 2.6)

Caesar's comment that 'no one could possibly stay on the wall' demonstrates that the attack was potent. It also shows a certain level of sophistication in the Belgae ranged tactics, as these ranged weapons are essentially providing covering fire for the other attackers. Caesar implies that these tactics were fairly common, as he remarks that the Belgae were using a tactic that the rest of Gaul used, suggesting that it was the norm. While he does not mention whether or not it was used in Britain, it is not an unlikely prospect. As described earlier, multivallation was most likely used to increase the distance an attacker had to go to reach the hillfort. However, it is also possible that such fortifications were designed to protect against attacking slingers as well. The more lines of defence a hillfort had, the further an attacking sling had to throw, and thus the less accurate any bombardment would be. Some Iron Age hillforts like Danebury had gates – the most vulnerable part of the defence – set inward, possibly to create a narrow corridor to fire down upon, and also to keep it out of range of enemy slingers (Avery, 1986: 223). Thus such a defence seems to be designed to protect against the Belgae strategy: the defending slingers would be better protected against attacking slingers, who would be attempting to clear the wall of defenders to allow other attackers to reach the gate unmolested (Avery, 1986: 225). Also, the Belgae, being in northern Gaul, would be close to Britain, so it seems likely that their strategy would have been seen by the Britons and thus utilised by them.

Caesar also reports that during a siege in 54 BC in which the Gauls were the attackers, the Gauls started 'slinging moulded bullets of red-hot clay', an excellent way of setting fire to wooden structures (Caesar, Gallic Wars: 5.43). We have seen that the British had a variety of different types of slingshots, which possibly had different purposes, including those made of clay. Therefore, it is possible that this may have been a tactic employed in Britain. However, slingshots made of clay alone are not enough to prove such a tactic was used in Britain, and further evidence will be needed to support such an idea.

The tactic Caesar describes seems to suggest that a large-scale barrage of slingshots and javelins was required, so perhaps individual skill and aim were not overly important. However, it is a mistake to disregard the skill one can show with a sling. Experimental archaeologists at the Ham Hill site described how their attempts to use their replication of a Celtic sling accurately had failed. Thus it took great practice to be proficient with a sling, and perhaps skilled users would be valuable.

The Irish tales, despite their drawbacks as sources, also indicate that the sling required a high level of expertise. They refer to what are known as feats, which are essentially displays of skill. There is no single definition of a feat, though it was more a display of sport rather than one meant for military purposes, being used as a method to earn prestige (Sayers, 1983: 64, 68). Many feats with various weapons are described in the oral tales, and one involves the use of the sling. The Táin Bớ Cúalnge, the most famous of the Irish tales telling a story of a war between two Irish nations, describes the hero Cú Chulainn performing the 'ricochet-stun-shot', using a single slingshot to take down twelve swans (Táin Bớ Cúalnge: 4). While such a feat is impossible, it indicates the Irish considered that the sling was not a basic weapon for an unskilled warrior, but that slinging was a complex skill, and one that could show off prowess. Likewise, Cú Chulainn kills a stoat on the antagonist Queen Medb's shoulder (Táin Bớ Cúalnge: 5). Much like William Tell's famous shooting of the apple on the head of his son, this event is designed to show off the wielder's, in this case Cú Chulainn's, accuracy: the stoat was a small target. Thus the sling was not a weapon for the unskilled, but a weapon which required a lot of practice to perfect its use. Being an effective slinger, then, could indicate a warrior's dedication to the arts of war, marking him out as an impressive fighter, and someone worth praising. However, as previously mentioned, in a full-scale conflict in which a large number of slingers was required in order for a substantial impact to be made, it is hard for an individual to show his skill with a sling, for it would be difficult to judge who had brought down an enemy if several slingers were firing at once. Thus in war perhaps it was tricky to show how accomplished a warrior one was, explaining perhaps why slingers received little attention in contemporary literature.

Literary sources also suggest other uses of the British sling. The oral tales give multiple references to the use of slings in hunting, particularly of birds, such as Conare in The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel (Early Irish Myths and Sagas). Archaeological evidence supports such a use, as clay slingshots have been found in civilian contexts in late Roman Britain, which suggest perhaps the use of the sling for hunting may have been a tradition which still occurred even throughout Roman rule (Greep, 1987: 198). As the only long-range weapon a Briton would likely have access to, the sling would probably be their main method of hunting.

Interpreting the evidence

The sling was certainly a common weapon of the British Iron Age, seeming to enjoy widespread use particularly in military contexts, although civilian uses are evident as well. Despite its apparent simplicity, the sling appears to have been a complex weapon in terms of how it could be used, with slingshots designed for specific purposes, such as taking down a man in war, hunting and perhaps even to set flammable structures alight.

Similarly, Iron Age slingers in war seem to have had varying roles on the battlefield. Archaeological evidence associates slings with the defence of a stronghold, where slingers used the large number of lines of defence to fend off attackers, whereas in assaulting strongholds Caesar indicates that they were used to provide covering fire so that other warriors could attack the walls safe from the fire of the defenders. While we have evidence for the both offensive and defensive capabilities of the sling in siege warfare, we have no evidence related to its use on the open battlefield. Caesar's discussion of the invasion of Britain describes how in open warfare it was often the British cavalry and charioteers who made the most significant impacts (Caesar, Gallic Wars: 4.32, 5.16 being good examples). Thus while the sling was indeed an effective weapon during a siege, both for attackers and defenders, it is unclear how it was used in other aspects of warfare.

The evidence from the Tain also indicates individual skill could be celebrated, but outside of a combat situation. By giving the weapon its own feat, the Irish tales indicate that the sling required enough skill for a warrior to be praised for it. While it is unlikely that skill could be individually demonstrated during a time of war, where too many slingers would be involved to identify who brought down the target, the use of the sling during peacetime – perhaps through hunting – could be a way of proving skill. Competitions may also have helped to demonstrate this: the people of Claddage in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century still competed with the sling, saying that to be a good shot one had to 'strike a shilling as far away as it could be seen' (Echols, 1950: 228). While the origins of this tradition may never be known, it does show that the sling could be used in a competitive environment, and it is perfectly possible that this occurred in Iron Age Britain. Thus skill with the sling could well have been a great way to impress.

However, despite the effectiveness of the sling, it was never recognised in art. The British depictions of their warriors tend to portray other weapons, such as the sword or spear, or the musical instrument used in war known as the carnyx (figure 3). Likewise, the Roman sources make little mention of the sling, and as previously mentioned rarely recall them being used in open engagements.

Figure 3: Gold Stater of Tasciovanus depicting a horseman carrying a carnyx on the reverse

Figure 3: Gold Stater of Tasciovanus depicting a horseman carrying a carnyx on the reverse. This is a good example of how the Iron Age British presented their warriors.
Tasciovanus, Gold stater, VA 1730, 5.2g, 20 BC – 10 AD, British Museum, 1977,0434.2.
Obv: Crossed wreaths, pellets within crescents, two curves back-to-back in centre, four pellet in ring motifs near centre, outline crescents at edge, two hidden faces.
Rev: TASC, Celtic warrior on horse, right, warrior brandishing carnyx, four-spoked wheel above and behind horse.
© Trustees of the British Museum

One possible reason for the lack of depictions of the sling in art is that it was not aesthetically pleasing. It is difficult to make a leather strap look impressive compared to a sword or spear.

It is likely that the sling enjoyed widespread use due to its limited cost: leather is a cheap material and slingshots of clay or stone could be readily obtained, so slings could potentially be used by anyone, rich or poor. For a noble keen to show his wealth and influence horses, chariots and swords served as better displays: these required great expense both in terms of materials and maintenance. Thus perhaps the sling was seen as a weapon for the lower classes, or at least not something a noble could be proud of, explaining its lack of depiction in art or internment in burials associated with the wealthy.

This article also speculates that the sling did not enjoy as much recognition as other pieces of military equipment due to British styles of fighting. Horsemen, particularly charioteers, seemed to be the fighting elite in the British army. Caesar records that his British rival:

Cassivellaunus […] disbanding the greater part of his troops retained only some 4000 charioteers.
(Caesar, Gallic Wars: 5.19)

The implication here is that the charioteers were the strongest part of his army, as that is the most likely justification for disbanding the rest of his forces in favour of these few. Creighton equates the rise of horse riding with the rise of an aristocratic class, for maintaining a horse is very expensive, and thus using horses in battle would only be possible for the rich (Creighton 2009: 16). Iron Age burials in Wetwang and Kirkburn had chariots buried with the individual, and objects of great wealth, such as swords and chainmail, thus the use of the chariot and the horse can be associated with the wealthy (James 1997: 67). Therefore, perhaps the sling did not receive recognition due to the greater prestige of horses in warfare, as the sling was difficult to use on horseback or chariot. This explains why these weapons do not appear in Celtic art: many such art-pieces would only have been affordable by the nobility, so they would choose art styles that they could associate with their way of life, and if the nobility rarely used slings, they were unlikely to want their artwork depicting them.

If charioteers and cavalry were the mainstay of the British armies, then this would explain why slingers failed to appear in the records of pitched battles by Roman authors. An individual using a sling would not have his hands free to use any other weapon such as a spear or sword. Therefore, if charioteers used the speed of their horses to catch up with opposing slingers, they would be defenceless. If internal British conflicts were decided by charioteers then it is doubtful that slingers would be much use, explaining why they were not mentioned with any great frequency. Naturally, a greater understanding of Iron Age conflict would be needed before this view could be fully supported, but I believe this idea to be plausible.

A final idea is the Celtic culture of head hunting. The Greek historian Diodorus reports of the Gallic Celts: 'When their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses'(Diodorus, 29). Much of Celtic art is associated with the human head or faces, leading scholars to believe in the existence of 'the Cult of the Head', a belief that the head was the centre of the soul and a source of power, and that this cult was also active in Britain (Ross 1974: 95).[3] If we consider this view, then long-range combat with a sling would make it difficult for a warrior to reach his dead opponent, and thus claim his head. Therefore, perhaps close combat with a sword or spear was of greater benefit for a Briton, allowing him to honour his faith by claiming the head of his opponent, accounting for ranged weapons being less prominent.

Conclusion

The sling appears to have played an important role in British Iron Age life and warfare. Utilised in siege warfare, the sling could also be used to hunt and perhaps even to show off the user's skill. However, the reliance of the British on their charioteers could explain why the sling never appears to be prominent in literary accounts or their artwork. Nevertheless, it was an impressive weapon with multi-functional capability.


List of figures

Figure 1: A sling found in the Marquesas Islands. Photo reproduced from the British Museum Image Service, available at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=489801&partId=1&searchText=Sling&page=1
© Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 2: Slingshots from Britain. Photo reproduced from the British Museum Image Service, available at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1377982&partId=1&searchText=Sling+Britain&page=1& http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1550289&partId=1&searchText=Sling+Britain&page=1
© Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 3: Gold Stater of Tasciovanus depicting a horseman carrying a carnyx on the reverse. Photo reproduced from British Museum Image Service, available at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1637651&partId=1&searchText=Tasciovanus+coin&images=true&page=1
© Trustees of the British Museum

Notes

[1] David Swan is in his final year of his BA in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Warwick. He is now writing his dissertation on Cunobeline's coinage, an Iron Age ruler from South East Britain, continuing his interest in Pre-Roman Britain. He is also assisting Warwickshire Museum Service in digitalising their coin archive.

[2] For a discussion of the Celtic portrayal in Greek art, see Hannestad (1993), Marszal (2000) and Mitchell (2003).

[3] For a greater discussion of the Celtic Cult of the Head, see Ross (1974).

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To cite this paper please use the following details: Swan, D (2014), 'Attitudes Towards and Use of the Sling in Late Iron Age Britain', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 7, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/issues/volume7issue2/swan Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.