CA 403 Letters – September

Your thoughts on issues raised by CA.

Battle at Burnswark?

Many thanks for another fascinating issue with CA 402. Lots of special interest to me. I am a member of the Lancashire Parish Registers Society. My school song was from  The Pirates of Penzance, and I attended my first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at the age of six in 1951 – I still have the programme! And two articles on Hadrian’s Wall. I should, however, like to raise a concern about the assertion that Burnswark was the location of ‘a fierce Roman assault on an Iron Age stronghold’. The excavations of George Jobey in the 1960s demonstrated that the Iron Age defences had been abandoned before the arrival of the Romans. The recent excavations have certainly found very many lead sling bullets, and of six different types. This strengthens my view that Burnswark was the scene of practice exercises, and this is underpinned by the discovery of only a single example of the iron catapult bolt head, the usual item of siege warfare, as Alan Wilkins, our international expert on Roman artillery, has pointed out. In short, there is no evidence for a Roman assault on an occupied stronghold.

David Breeze, Edinburgh

Reply to David Breeze

I am grateful to David for keeping the Burnswark debate active, reflecting the power of the training camp theory – one first introduced by Kenneth Steer in the 1960s and followed by George Jobey in the 1970s. The post-war zeitgeist and the desire to identify Roman practice works proved a potent driving force in maintaining the hypothesis that Roman troops had set up targets at the old fort gateways at Burnswark Hill. However, as our investigations at the hillfort and Roman siege camps have highlighted (CA 316), the blizzard of Roman missiles of all types – stone ballista balls and lead slingshot – indiscriminately directed at over half a kilometre of south-facing hillfort rampart, suggest an altogether more violent scenario. The fact that the older, tumbled stone walls had been superseded by a secondary turf rampart (BELOW) surrounding the still occupied hillfort has not been sufficiently recognised by those portraying the hilltop as denuded at the time of the Roman assault.

With respect to the prevalence of different types of projectiles, our surveys used techniques that selectively identified Roman lead sling bullets, since these missiles offer the best results for ballistic mapping (see also our work at Ambleside Roman fort, CA 393). Consequently, the serendipitous finding of a single iron bolt head in a trench specifically delineated for lead signals, is likely to grossly under­estimate the number of iron projectiles that may be present over the totality of the site. Finally, studies of other theatres of Roman conflict have shown that the presence or absence of iron bolt heads is not a defining feature of siege warfare. The archaeological records of several confirmed Roman siege sites show widely varying proportions of different types of weaponry – for example, excavations at Masada, that most iconic of siege sites, revealed no iron ballista bolts at all.

John Reid

Trimontium Trust: Archaeology of Anglesey?

My husband and I have recently had a holiday on Anglesey, where we were surprised by the wealth of archaeological remains – chamber tombs and standing stones seem to litter the island – and were excited to come across the large group of Iron Age round houses at South Stack.

It occurred to me that I do not remember reading anything about archaeology on Anglesey.

I have subscribed to Current Archaeology since Dec 2018, and trawling though my back issues, found a short article in Bryn Celli Bach in March 2020.

I wonder whether you might find any previous mention of Anglesey?

Brenda Morton, Evesham, Worcestershire

The editor responds

Hi Brenda, thanks for getting in touch. You’re right that we have rather neglected Anglesey in recent issues (though do turn to p.10 for news from the island!). If you would like to read more about Anglesey’s archaeology, there are rich pickings in our back catalogue. For Neolithic sites, you can find articles on Barclodiad y Gawres in CA 211, Bryn Celli Ddu in CA 310 (above) and 318, and Llanfaethlu in CA 332. The multi-period finds (including an important assemblage of 19 Bronze Age collared urns) from Capel Eithin feature in CA 75; you can read about the amazing Iron Age metalwork found in the waters of Llyn Cerrig Bach in CA 273; and there are Viking discoveries from Llanbedrgoch in CA 184 (with a more recent update in the News section of CA 276).

If you or any of our other readers want to search for a specific topic in the future, you can access our entire archive online via Exact Editions. A digital subscription to CA costs £12 a year as an add-on for existing subscribers; £54.99 as a standalone option (see for more details), but you can also use the website as a search engine for free. If you go to and type your key words into the search box, this will bring up thumbnails of relevant pages. You will need to subscribe to read the articles in full, but it is a handy tool to help track down an elusive article in your existing collection, or to decide which back issues you would like to order from our Subs team.

Carly Hilts, CA Editor

Edible Archaeology

My (now) wife proposed to me on top of Newcastle Castle, as we both grew up in the area and both have a love of wandering around castles. When it came to planning our wedding, we both wanted something fun for the cake, so approached Sticky Sponge, a local company who had previously made the Hadrian’s Wall cake for the 1,900th anniversary celebrations last year. Naturally, the base with all the soil and archaeology was chocolate, but we also had other layers within the tower, including toffee and lemon.

Daniel Cockling, Newcastle

CA Online: What you have shared with us this month

Dr Joe Flatman  @joeflatman

Fab bit of #archaeofashion spotted in @CurrentArchaeo 125 (July 1991): #KathleenKenyon (far right), #GrahamWebster (centre right) and two unnamed excavators (wondering if  @trowelblazers recognise them?) at #Wroxeter in  1952-53 when Kenyon led  a training school there.

Humble History  @humblehist

Great to see the  Cornish Buildings Group  @CbgCornwall and its latest publications featuring in  the August issue of  @CurrentArchaeo

Cornish Buildings Group CbgCornwall

Ten whole pages!  Thanks @CurrentArchaeo! And name checks for  @NellytheWillow and  @samfaith and others to boot!

Write to us at: CA Letters, Current Publishing, Office 120, 295 Chiswick High Road, London, W4 4HH, or by email to: For publication: 300 words max; letters may be edited.