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Testing Late Roman Plumbatae 1 - Veerse Dam

By Robert Vermaat

Test 1 – Veerse Dam, Zeeland, Saturday 20th October, 2007.A picture of the testing site.
A picture of the testing site.

Plumbatae types:
Fectio I/II, Len Morgan I/II, Deepeeka I/II.
All plumbatae are of the ‘Burgh Castle-Catterick’ tanged type and have barbed heads.

1-Fectio II
2-Len Morgan I
3-Len Morgan II
4-Deepeeka I
5-Deepeeka II

Plumbata types 1 to 3

FI came apart at the first throw and has been left out of the test.
1 - F II:
Length: 63 cm (tip-tail), 51 cm (shaft), 10 cm (shaft behind stabilisers).
Weight: 240 g, 3 feather stabilisers of 7.5x1.5 cm.

LM I and II are nearly identical. For commercial purposes, the iron head continues into the wooden shaft, making the missile more shock-resistant, but thereby also affecting the overall balance.
2 - LM I:
Length: 67 cm (tip-tail), 52 cm (shaft), 12 cm (shaft behind stabilisers).
Weight: 220 g, 4 leather stabilisers of 7x2 cm.
3 - LM II:
Length: 67 cm (tip-tail), 53 cm (shaft), 12 cm (shaft behind stabilisers).
Weight: 226 g, 4 leather stabilisers of 7x2 cm.

For commercial purposes the iron head continues far into the wooden shaft, thereby making the missile more shock-resistant, but severely affecting the overall balance. DP I has broad stabilisers, DP II has adapted smaller stabilisers to improve the overall distance.
4 - DP I:
Length: 52 cm (tip-tail), 35 cm (shaft), 9 cm (shaft behind stabilisers).
Weight: 274 g, 4 leather stabilisers of 7x4 cm.
5 - DP II:
Length: 52 cm (tip-tail), 35 cm (shaft), 9 cm (shaft behind stabilisers).
Weight: 268 g, 4 leather stabilisers of 7x2.5 cm.

(I have an original plumbatae (no shaft) that weighs 146 g, other recorded finds weigh between 40 and 180g).

The main aim of the test was to see how far the Fectio plumbatae could be thrown against the Len Morgan and Deepeeka plumbatae, and also to see how the Deepeeka plumbatae behaved.
While the other pairs were identical, the Deepeeka plumbatae had different tails. I cut down the leather stabilisers of DP II to half the size of the original product, since these looked overly large.
No attempts were made to aim the plumbatae at a specific target; the tests were purely aimed at distance.
Tests were conducted on a flat beach with almost no wind.
Throwing was done in modern clothing and from a stationary position.
The testing range
The testing range

Test results:

Plumbata F II may have landed straight here.
F II may have landed straight here.
plumbata LM I
plumbata LM II at a nice angle.
LM II at a nice angle.
plumbata DP I
The modified tail of plumbata DP II.
The modified tail of DP II.

Test 1.1 – underarm

1 (15) (25) 30 (25) (25)
2 32.5 32.5 29.2 28.2 32.5
3 39.5 (26) 29.0 (11) 27.5
4 37.5 34.1 33.6 31.7 32.2
5 40.8 39.9 38.1 33.2 37.1
6 43.5 40.1 40.2 30.1 36.7
7 44.6 40.3 40.2 30.5 34.8
8 42.6 40.1 40.1 31.5 35.0
9 39.5 40.0 40.7 32.4 32.3
10 38.9 41.1 37.0 32.3 31.1
11 34.6 41.7 42.8 32.4 33.8
avg. 39.4 38.8 36.4 31.4 33.3

Test 1.2 – overarm

12 34.4 29.7 29.8 30.4 30.2
13 35.2 35.5 35.4 29.0 32.3
14 35.0 31.3 29.1 27.5 32.3
15 34.5 36.9 34.5 29.7 32.4
16 33.0 31.1 32.7 31.8 33.2
avg. 34.4 32.9 32.3 29.7 32.0

After the initial throws that clearly reflect the thrower (me) having to get used to throwing the darts, they began reaching distances that would eventually prove to be their maximum range of the day. Throwing them 16 times each took more than an hour, after which fatigue of the throwing arm set in. I felt that maybe the range could be stretched a bit, up to 50m with some tail wind. This test will be repeated at some future date.
Although I prepared a range of 80m, it soon became clear that this distance had been highly optimistic. The maximum range (Fectio I) turned out to be just over 44m. Reading back about the distances achieved by John Eagle in 1989 with almost identical plumbatae, the distances turned out to be comparable.

Overarm throwing resulted in shorter distances, which was no surprise to me – the trajectory seems to be more flat, and the initial swing when the missile is thrown may well cost some velocity. That the distances reached lay a 10% below the distances achieved underarm proved the theory. Although I have the feeling that here, too, better distances can be reached.

I tried a running throw but that proved so unsuccessful that I discontinued that attempt.

I even attempted a throw while holding the point, but this did not lead to any comparable distance, so I discontinued that technique soon.

Landing was another surprise – I had expected the missiles to land almost vertical, at least the Fectio and Len Morgan ones. However, the actual angles were much, much shallower than expected. When reading back the tests done by John Eagle however, I learned that his plumbatae had landed at angles between 30 and 76 degrees, which compared to my results.

One part of the test was behaviour, something invisible to me as I conducted the tests alone. A few days later my wife shot some video footage of each plumbata (one throw), which revealed that especially the Deepeeka plumbatae turned over more than once while in flight.

I think the weather was exceptional for plumbatae testing.
I think the weather was exceptional for plumbatae testing.

1 – Surprisingly, the distances of 60-80m that I had in mind were by no means reached. The reason for that may well be that the shafts of these plumbatae are too long and/or that the weight is too small. Or that I can’t throw properly.
2 – As expected, throwing underarm gets far better results than throwing overarm, the extra distances vary between 5 and 9 m.
3 – As expected, the Deepeeka plumbatae came of less than the other models, probably due to their weight and/or the balance due to construction.
4 – The modified Deepeeka stabilisers did better (distance-wise) than the original one. Both however behaved erratically in flight.
5 – Unexpectedly, most plumbatae did not land at a high angle.
6 – Besides shaft length, weight may be an issue. Heavier missiles may fly a greater distance, however, original plumbatae (head plus weight) seem to weigh less than modern reconstructions.


1 - In future I will use shorter shafts and both more and less weight for the next generation Fectio plumbatae.
2 - I will modify the Deepeeka plumbatae further, experimenting with weight as well.
3 – I want to try the cestosphendron.

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