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Roger Weller, geology instructor

throwing rocks
by Michael Thornsberry
Physical Geology
Fall 2011




    It has been said by many great warriors of both past and present – that warfare is and shall always be at the cutting edge of technology.  There is little doubt that warfare has changed history many times in our journey as a species.  We will and have used the natural world to attack and to defend against potential enemies since homo-sapiens first stood on their hind legs – and most likely our ancestors before us did these things as well.


    Let us examine some pivotal moments in history where man has used the common everyday rock as a weapon of war.  To understand history is to understand our journey from primitive to modern times.  But what is most important is to understand that even though we have been around for tens of thousands of years – we still rely on the same elements that our first ancestors used.


    The first weapon used for hunting was most likely a rock.  As simple as it seems, a rock thrown with force behind it can achieve better results in hunting or combat than any sharpened stick could ever achieve when it comes to shear power and force.  Many prehistoric graves that have been discovered have taught us that men were buried with grave goods – one of these being his trusty stone axe or perhaps his spear made from chipped obsidian.



Enter – Early Man


     Since the dawn of mankind and most likely even before this – our ancestors used rocks to kill animals for food and even – each other.  He used rocks to defend his tribe against rival tribes and eventually this would lead to organized war.



Balearic Slinger

Image by Johnny Shumate (


    The Balearic Slinger was an essential form of early artillery during battle.  Think of yourself on a field of battle – as the enemy advances towards you.  Arrows would be the first thing launched by both sides but the Balearic Slingers were not used for long distance, but for short distance combat.  Meaning, that after your side was pummeled by arrows and you are but yards from locking shields with your enemy – you are suddenly pummeled by thousands of stones!






    This is a Balearic Slinger Ball found somewhere near Mosul, Iraq.  Believed to have been used during the Battle of Gaugamela between Alexander the Great  and King Darius of Persia.  This battle was fought in 331 BCE.  This one is hand carved and made from sand stone. 


Note:  The two grooves that were hand carved into this example, this allowed a Balearic Slinger better control over his sling giving him a more aimed shot.  In the right hands, this hand carved slinger ball could kill a horse.



The Roman Ballista



     From the Armies of Alexander the Great, Hannibal of Carthage, Julius Caesar to Constantine the Great – the Ballista was used like a modern day mortar system.  In the Roman Armies – a ‘Heavy’ Legion was often used to mow down barbarian hordes with 50 – 100 pound hand carved stones – usually made from limestone, sandstone, and in a pinch – even marble.  In the later years – the stones were replaced by concrete balls.



The Medieval Catapult



    A catapult is a device used to throw or hurl a projectile a great distance without the aid of explosive devices—particularly various types of ancient and medieval siege engines.  Although the catapult has been used since ancient times, it has proven to be one of the most effective mechanisms during warfare.  The word ‘Catapult’ comes from the two Greek words ‘kata’ (downward) and ‘pultos’ (a small circular battle shield).  Katapultos was then taken to mean ‘shield piercer’. Catapults were invented by the ancient Greeks.



Ancient ‘Ammo’



    If we look at these round stones that were carved by the hands of warriors of ancient times – we see a whole lot of weight and how did they carve them so precisely?  The stones were usually quarried on site – have you ever wondered why it always seems that ancient houses and walls that are newly discovered always seem to be just foundations or walls that were only a few inches high?  Or – have you ever wondered where all of the early Christian cemeteries went?


    A retaining wall made from sandstone and in range of the city walls of an enemy was usually where a catapult was set up.  If there was not a wall or aqueduct nearby to tear down and use as ammo – a cemetery would do.  Moh’s Scale of Hardness was not something that was invented yet and most defensive walls were made from the same type of stone that the ammunition was.  Hit a rock wall with a rock that is traveling several hundred feet per second made from a harder material or not – it’s going to leave a mark.


    Most likely the stones were carved during a siege by the Roman Legionnaires themselves and they probably used a template – such as a round wooden bowl to make them round and true.  Most importantly, this technique kept their Ballista Balls round for precise shooting and kept each of these balls of destruction the same weight as well. 


    Unlike modern day warriors of today where their ammunition is manufactured for them – ancient warriors were also engineers and could build forts, bridges, and even repair their ballista using the local forest material around them to keep them in business.  These Ballista Machines were most likely transported to the battlefield using carts and oxen – but the ammo had to be made on site.



The Trebuchet



    The trebuchet (French trébuchet) is a siege engine that was employed in the Middle Ages.  It is sometimes called a ‘counterweight trebuchet’ or ‘counterpoise trebuchet’ in order to distinguish it from an earlier weapon that has come to be called the ‘traction trebuchet’, the original version with pulling men instead of a counterweight.  Man-powered trebuchets appeared in the Greek world and China in about the 4th century BCE.



    The trebuchet did not become obsolete until the 15th century, well after the introduction of gunpowder, which appeared in Europe in the second half of the 13th century.  The trebuchet was used by the Muslim Armies of Salidin to breach the walls of Jerusalem during the Crusades in 1187 CE and was used as ‘anti-personnel’ weapons by firing several hundred fist sized rocks at large formations of enemy.  Armor – no matter how thick or well-made, could not save a man’s life from a direct hit from one of these.



Trebuchet Ammo



    It could fling projectiles of up to three hundred and fifty pounds (140 kg) at high speeds into enemy fortifications.  These were thought to be as good as it gets when it comes to rock launching death and destruction technology.  When Moh’s Scale of Hardness was realized, often through trial and error – the ammo changed from sandstone, limestone, or marble – to concrete, granite river stone, and eventually iron!  But wait – there was something more destructive than the trebuchet just right around the corner!



The Dardanelles Gun

Photograph courtesy of:



    The Dardanelles Gun was one of the first enormous cannons made by the Turks to breach the walls of Constantinople in 1453 CE.  It was made out of solid bronze and it fired stone granite cannon balls.  Remember – Moh’s Scale of Hardness wasn’t realized back in antiquity but by this time period as far as warfare is concerned it was known and it was used.  The Walls of Constantinople stood for 1500 years and were home to the Byzantine Empire.  Not even the infamous Attila the Hun wanted anything to do with these walls and he conquered 1,450,000 square miles of territory in his day.



      Battle of Constantinople 1453CE        The Dardanelles Gun Ready for Action




    Even though this was technically a cannon – it was developed using a rock as the projectile.  When one looks at a cannon ball – they are looking at tens of thousands of years of warfare evolution.  And it all started with a rock that was picked up off the ground.  After this battle in 1453 CE – the way that wars were waged changed forever.  Constantinople was taken in the siege by the Ottoman Empire that lasted a little more than a month – the city was later renamed Istanbul, and sits in current day Turkey.


    Along with a number of other huge cannons, the Dardanelles Gun was still present for duty more than 300 years later in 1807, when a Royal Navy force appeared and commenced the Dardanelles Operation. Turkish forces loaded the ancient relics with propellant and projectiles, then fired them at the British ships. The British squadron suffered 28 dead through this bombardment.



“Victory is always possible for the person who refuses to stop fighting.”




    From the days of the cave dwellers – to today, a simple rock and the desire in one’s heart can change history in the blink of an eye.  There is nothing on this earth that wasn’t naturally there when the first primitive humanoid stood in the high grass of Africa – 3.6 million years ago.  Warfare has and always will continue to improve, but no matter how sophisticated we become in this art – a true warrior knows that when all else fails him – motivation and a rock can go a long way!




Works Cited

Human Evolution,

Balearic Slingers,

Roman Ballista,

Alexander the Great,

Hannibal of Carthage,

Gaius Julius Caesar,

Constantine the Great,

Medieval Catapults,

Trebuchet Ammo,


Dardanelles Gun,

Fall of Constantinople,

Siege of Jerusalem,

Attila the Hun,