As some readers are probably aware I’ve recently been putting together a list of Roman objects that students in Classics can use to write what are known as ‘object biographies’ as part of their studies at the University of Manchester. I needed an additional object to complete the list and thought of the round piece of stone – potentially a piece of ammunition from a ballista or stone thrower – on a shelf in the store. Sadly this does not have an accession number but it is labelled: ‘Professor Robert Newstead of Chester Roman ballista ball’. Its diameter is 10.5cm and it weighs 1.1 kg. You can see distinct chisel marks on the stone where it has been shaped. The label written on the surface of the stone reads: ‘W.SIDE SOUTH EAST ANGLE TOWER OCT 1937 R.N.’ which appears to be an impeccable Roman provenance. The association with a tower that is part of the Roman defences of Chester (Deva) is very interesting because many towns added defences during the unsettled times of the late 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Towers appear to have been added to the defences in order to accommodate artillery, ballisteria or stone-throwers.
The Romans adopted artillery from the ancient Greeks. The energy needed to throw stones, arrows and other missiles came from twisted pieces or bundles of cord or rope made from sinew or hair. This was sufficiently elastic to store latent energy. The arms of the stone-throwers were embedded in the bundles of sinew and once the tension was released the arm sprang forward giving propellant force to the missile.
Robert Newstead was the first curator of the Grosvenor Museum and held the post for 19 years from 1886. Newstead became increasingly involved with the archaeologyof Chester. He was also a lecturer in Entymology and Parasitology at the Liverpool University School of Tropical Medicine. In particular he excavated the South East Angle Tower in Chester during the 1930s (the label written on the stone ball above reads October 1937). I am grateful to Elizabeth Royles and the Grosvenor Museum for permission to quote from Elizabeth’s wonderfully illustrated presentation about Newstead (© Cheshire West Museums). Some of Newstead’s discoveries shown in her presentation are ballista balls. A plan seems to show most of the tower being excavated in 1930 and a residual piece being excavated in 1938. The site can still be seen at Chester today. Courses of sandstone blocks stillsurvive. The tower would have been about 16-20 ft high.
Professor Newstead died in 1947 aged of 87, further proof if any were needed of the longevity bestowed by antiquarian pursuits! Professor Newstead had given nearly 60,000 natural history specimens and more than 4000 archaeological objects to the collections of the Grosvenor Museum.
Professor Newstead was made an FSA for his work on the Tse Tse fly. The Numismatic collection at Manchester Museum includes a trial piece for this medal. Must be the first time ever Roman stone throwers have shared a blog post with the tse tse fly! Conjures up images of an over-the-top approach to the suppression of insects by the Roman authorities.