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How to ...
Make a Late Roman Plumbata

By Robert Vermaat


This page is about making a basic item, the Late Roman throwing dart or plumbata. Plumbatae were the basic throwing weapons of the Late Roman infantryman, from the 4th century until at least the 7th. Each soldier may have caried up to five of them in his shield, and more in a quiver. This is a guide how to make them.

Tools
  • Ball peen hammer
  • Chisel
  • Drill with spare bits
  • Hacksaw
  • Hammer
  • Knife (sharp)
  • Metal shears
  • Old plastic bottle
  • Old frying pan
  • Paintbrushes
  • Pencil
  • Saw (jigsaw)
  • Screwdrivers
  • Scissors
  • Tape measure
  • Wrench
  • Materials
  • Glue
  • Gypsum
  • Lead
  • Leather strips or feathers for fletches
  • Steel arrowhead
  • String (or sinew)
  • Wooden shaft (10-15mm x 50 cm)
  • What you need to make a plaster cast for your plumbatae.What you need to make the lead weight.
    What you need to make a plaster cast and what you need to make the lead weight.

    Old plumbata and new ones.The Parts
    A plumbata is made of a barbed steel head with a flat, round or twisted shaft. Next a wooden shaft, measuring between 30 and 60 cm, or what you like best. The flights are best made of leather. Last is the lead ball that connects head and shaft, which gives this weapon its name (plumbum = lead).

    The Plumbata
    Best start off with making a few 'raw' missiles, i.e. adding the head to the shaft. Saw off the length of shaft you choose (I use 50 cm myself) and hammer in the barbed head. To prevent your shaft from splitting, you may use a bit of thread (I use a piece of brass wire) to strengthen the top of the shaft. See picture.

    The parts of a plumbata: head, lead ball, feathered shaft.
    The parts of a plumbata: head, lead ball, feathered shaft.
    A plumbata head compared to a spearhead.
    A plumbata head compared to a spearhead.
    What you need to make a plaster cast for your plumbatae.
    What you need to make a plaster cast for your plumbatae.
    The cast is drying..
    The cast is drying..

    The Cast
    To make a plumbata, you need a plaster cast to pour the lead in. Such a cast can be used for several plumbata. The material can be bought in any DIY shop. To make a mould for the cast, you might cut the bottom from a plastic bottle. the 'original' for your new lead ball can either be an existing one (which is what I used), but also a 'positive' made from wood or clay. As long as it looks like what you want to end up with in lead. If you use an original, best protect it with tape from the plaster, which will get into every crevice.
    Now, pour the plaster into your mould, and when begins to harder a lttle, put in the plumbata or the 'positive'. Now wait until the cast is hard enough to remove the mould.
    When that time comes, the first tricky bit arives: cutting the cast in two without breaking it. This being my first one, I sawed a groove into each side first before cleaving it in two with a chisel. If it works out like it should, you'll end up with two neat halves with a 'negative' imprint for your plumbata.
    Next thing is chiseling out the pouring channels for the lead and the hole at the front where the head comes.

    The images below will give you an idea:

    When the cast is dry, carefully split it in two parts (without breaking it!).
    When the cast is dry, carefully split it in two parts (without breaking it!).
    Take out the original form and smooth the inside a bit.
    Take out the original form and smooth the inside a bit.
    That's what the cast is supposed to look like.
    That's what the cast is supposed to look like.
    Gauging the channels for the pouring of the lead.
    Gauging the channels for the pouring of the lead.

    Gently chisel the plaster away to make two channels, but be careful to do each half in the same spot, otherwise when you put both halves together the channel is not properly placed.

    Making the channels symmetrical is a bit tricky.
    Making the channels symmetrical is a bit tricky.
    This is how the plumbata is placed in the cast - the wood a bit more to the front.
    This is how the plumbata is placed in the cast - the wood a bit more to the front.
    The front of the cast should only have room for the iron.
    The front of the cast should only have room for the iron.
    The backside, showing the hole for the wooden shaft and two channels.
    The backside, showing the hole for the wooden shaft and two channels.

    Now try and seal both halves again with the plumbata you made earlier inside it. At this time you can still adjust it, or seal the sides with clay if you've been overenthusiastic with your chisel! Especially the hole in front should leave only room for the metal head, otherwise the lead will run through it. The cast is now ready.
    Insert the plumbata into the cast. Since the wooden shaft is the weaker part, I would place the wood a bit more to the front (see picture). Place the other half of the cats on the first and make sure that it is secured properly. Either tie rope around it, tape it or secure it with wire (remember, if molten lead runs over the sides it will burn through most materials). Now it's time to prepare the lead.

    The Lead

    This is something to be really careful about. Lead is a vicious metal, brutal when hot, toxic even when solid, and there's always a danger of toxic fumes when it's heated. So, no matter what you do, when you heat lead to melt it, always do it outside or in a well-ventilated environment. Never let your kids get within 5 meters of the melting spot. You should have a bucket of water nearby should you need cooling or extinguishing something. And, always use a wrench to hold the pan or whatever you use for melting the lead in.

    What you need to make the lead weight.
    What you need to make the lead weight.
    Melting the lead. Always use a ventilated place (!), thick gloves and a wrench.
    Melting the lead. Always use a ventilated place (!), thick gloves and a wrench.
    Nearly finished. The lead parts are melting into a silvery fluid.
    Nearly finished. The lead parts are melting into a silvery fluid.
    This is from a second melting attempt, with a bigger (more stable) aluminium pan.
    This is from a second melting attempt, with a bigger (more stable) aluminium pan.

    The best lead for the job is new lead, to be bought in your DIY shop; old lead will give off those toxic fumes, new lead probably won't (it didn't in my case). The amount of lead you need depends on the size of your weight. I use 250-300 grams of lead, but that includes the overflow and excess lead (see below). My plumbatae are probably at bit on the heavy side when compared to the originals, so using less would probably be better. Cut the lead into small pieces into the pan you're going to use. I use a pan of my daughter's old kid's cooking set - nice and small, and from aluminium which heats up well. Now heat the lot and watch it all the time until it starts melting. You may stir a bit but take care! After some time the lead flakes will turn into a silvery fluid (which looks a bit like mercury). If you re-use older lead, some stuff won't melt, but float on top of the fluid mass. It won't be poored, best throw it away and clean the pan after each pooring.

    This is my 'oven', where I pour the lead into the cast.
    This is my 'oven', where I pour the lead into the cast.
    Yes, just a big plant pot, upturned.
    Yes, just a big plant pot, upturned.
    When cooled off, open the cast to see this shape.
    When cooled off, open the cast to see this shape.
    This is how the plumabata looks like when you take it out of the cast.
    This is how the plumabata looks like when you take it out of the cast.

    When all flakes are gone, it's time to pour. So where do you do that? The cast should be very stable, and you'd best have something underneath to catch any of the spilt lead. I use a big piece of smooth hardboard, where all spilt lead is easily (and cleanly) recovered for future attempts. I place the cast on top of a big, upturned, plant pot, with a stone underneath to support the plumbata should it move inside the cast.

    Now pour the molten lead quickly into the cast. If all goes well and you've prepared the cast right, when you pour into one hole there should be lead coming out of the second when the cast is filled up. Now let the lead harden, which will happen very quickly (about 20 seconds). It may however be very hot for a few minutes!
    Then open the cast, which will (hopefully) reveal a proper plumbata, but with two lead 'tails' (see picture). Remove the plumbata without damaging the cast (you can re-use it) and remove the excess lead from the plumbata. Polish and/or hammer the lead weight; your plumbata is ready but for the fletching of the tail.

    The Tail

    The only thing needed now is flights for the tail. Without these, the plumbata is not stable and won't be thrown the distances that should be possible. Therefore, we need stabilisers. Although bits of wood can be used, the most durable solution would probably be leather.

    Nearly finished. Plane the lead weight (no need to polish it) until it's smooth.
    Nearly finished. Plane the lead weight (no need to polish it) until it's smooth.
    A finished plumbata, with the flights added. This one was made by Aitor Iriarte.
    Finished plumbatae with the heads planed and smooth.
    What you need for cutting and adding the flights.
    What you need for cutting and adding the fletches.
    Jeroen (5) looking on while I'm cutting the fletches.
    Jeroen (5) looking on while I'm cutting the fletches.

    The easiest and cheapest solution would be feathers though. These would be found anywhere and therefore the best solution (for this was probably a mass-produced weapon), although feathers are not as durable as leather. For this you need some large feathers such as from a goose or maybe a swan (sturdy ones), a sharp knife and some string or sinew if you can get it. Cut 3 to 4 fletches per plumbata and cut them to equal length. Then trim about an inch from the front and back of the quill to leave space for the string. For a good result also taper down and thin the front end of the quill.

    Three fletches of equal lenght. Trim the front and end.
    Three fletches of equal lenght. Trim the front and end.
    The string goes around once, then tie it twice around the fletch.
    The string goes around once, then tie it twice around the fletch.
    Repeat with the second one, but keep the final position in mind.
    Repeat with the second one, but keep the final position in mind.
    Look down the shaft to see if the fletches are in the correct position.
    Look down the shaft to see if the fletches are in the correct position.

    Start with the shortest fletch (you'll trim them later). Remember to to leave about 5-10 cm of shaft behind the fletches, since this is needed to hold the plumbata when throwing it underhand. Wrap the string around the shaft once, then lay the front end of the fletch on top of it and tie the string twice around it. Make sure that the feathers are sticking right up, 90 degrees from the shaft. Then take the second fletch, place it about 120 degrees from the first (or 90 if you use four fletches). Look down the butt end of the shaft to see if you do it right, but you'll be able to move them later - eyeball it until it looks good. Repeat with the third (and fourth) and wrap the remainder of the string around them.

    A finished one (right) with the fletching trimmed down, left one unfinished.
    A finished one (right) with the fletching trimmed down, left one unfinished.
    A finished plumbata, with the fletches added and painted.
    A finished plumbata, with the fletches added and painted.

    If you want to glue the quill down (I did), this is probably the best time. Repeat the process with the back end of the fletches. Check while drying and if necessary pull the tail end to stretch the quill so it will lay flat on the shaft. If it still won't stay flat, you can (temporarily) tie it down in the middle. When the fletches are secured, trim them down with a sharp pair of large scissors. Don't make them too short or you'll add speed but loose stability. When this is ready, the plumbata is functional.

    Paint

    You may of course leave the plumbata as it is. After all, this was probably a mass-produced weapon, and nothing fancy. But there is a drawing in an anonymous source about 4th-century military inventions (De Rebus Bellicis), in fact it's the only contemporary picture that exists of plumbatae! This drawing (right: Plumbatae in De Rebus Bellicis) shows a white-red-blue color scheme that may be accurate (or maybe the blue represents metal). Remember that this is a version from a Medieval copyist who did no longer understand the details. Plumbatae in De Rebus Bellicis.

    The plumbata is now finished. Have fun with it. It will break soon enough when thrown often.

    Bibliography

    • Barker, P. (1979): The plumbatae from Wroxeter, in: Hassall and Ireland 1979, De Rebus Bellicis, BAR Int. Ser., vol. 63, Oxford, pp. 97-9.
    • De Rebus Bellicis (anon.), text edited by Robert Ireland, in: BAR International Series 63, part 2.
    • Eagle, J. (1989): Testing plumbatae, in: van Driel-Murray 1989a, Roman Military Equipment: the Sources of Evidence. Proceedings of the Fifth Roman Military Equipment Conference, BAR Int. Ser., vol. 476, Oxford, pp. 247-53.
    • Griffiths, W.B. (1995): Experiments with plumbatae, in: Arbeia Journal, vol. 4, pp. 1-11.
    • Sherlock, D. (1979): Plumbatae - a note on the methods of manufacture, in: Hassall and Ireland 1979, De Rebus Bellicis, BAR Int. Ser., vol. 63, Oxford, pp. 101-2.
    • Sim, David (1995a): Experiments to examine the manufacturing techniques used to make plumbatae, in: Arbeia Journal, vol. 4, pp. 13-19.

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