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Recreating a ballista – the original weapon of mass destruction

Surely one of the most unusual projects that Carpenter Oak & Woodland has ever worked on was to recreate a full size working Roman war machine for a BBC TV documentary.

Two thousand years ago – before the tank, before the aeroplane and before the bomb – there was the ballista. This Roman war machine could hurl stone balls at high speed into enemy fortifications, bringing entire cities to their knees.

This video shows highlights of the building of the ballista – and its successful firing.

In 2002, working with a team of experts, Carpenter Oak and Woodland helped to build a fully working ballista – in just 10 days.

The project was not without its challenges. Although records exist of the ballista, there are no designs – only descriptions. In Roman texts, it was reputed to have thrown stone balls up to 400 yards – though it has since been found in Greek texts that the figure was more likely to be closer to 100 yards.

A CGI reconstruction of how a ballista would have looked (photo from BBC TV’s Building The Impossible)A CGI reconstruction of how a ballista would have looked (photo from BBC TV and the Discovery Channel’s Building The Impossible)

It’s tempting to think that, because the Romans did not have access to modern materials, the ballista could be improved upon. But the Roman’s choice of materials proved impossible to match – for instance, the throwing ropes were made of animal sinew. Modern ropes – even high-tech materials – proved to be far less effective – and of course the team rebuilding the ballista had to ‘make do’ with these newer ropes.

Constructing the ballista (photo from BBC TV’s Building The Impossible)Constructing the ballista (photo from BBC TV and the Discovery Channel’s Building The Impossible)

The Romans used to build their ballistas at the site of a siege, in around 10 days – and without power tools. Our team managed to match the 10-day build-time, but only by using power tools and a crane!

The ballista takes shape ? here we also see the a-frames used to lift heavy timbers into place (photo from BBC TV’s Building The Impossible)The ballista takes shape – here we also see the a-frames used to lift heavy timbers into place (photo from BBC TV and the Discovery Channel’s Building The Impossible)

When recreating the ballista, there were many puzzles to solve – much lost knowledge to try to recreate. It had taken the Romans hundreds of years to perfect the ballista (after taking the original design from the Greeks). And of course the Romans didn’t have to worry about health and safety legislation!

The finished ballista (photo from BBC TV’s Building The Impossible)The finished ballista (photo from BBC TV and the Discovery Channel’s Building The Impossible)

Although it was difficult, the end result was a ballista that fired – just twice. The power of the machine proved too much for its own timber frame, making more than two shots impossible. But it did succeed in firing a stone ball 127 yards – showing clearly that the design was viable.

The ballista is fired, throwing a stone ball 127 yards (photo from BBC TV’s Building The Impossible)The ballista is fired, throwing a stone ball 127 yards (photo from BBC TV and the Discovery Channel’s Building The Impossible)

Carpenter Oak & Woodland was able to participate in this project because of our industry-leading timber engineering skills and our extensive experience working with wood in ways that (despite the use of power tools) has remained unchanged for many hundreds of years.

And of course this isn’t the only war machine that we’ve made – our fully working trebuchet, on show at Warwick Castle, is fired every day.

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