Anthropologists have excavated sphero-conical vessels throughout the Middle East and Central Asia for decades. Yet the purposes of these containers, which often feature cone-shaped bases and tiny openings to prevent spills, are still unclear; hypotheses range from beer canteens to smoking pipes.
A recent analysis of four such vessels – found in Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1960s and dating back to the 11th or 12th century – points to a different theory. According to a team of researchers led by molecular anthropologist Carney Matheson, three of these ceramic pots likely contained oils, perfumes and medicines, consistent with earlier expectations of these vessels. But the fourth, they say, may have been used as a medieval hand grenade during the Crusades.
Inside its ultra-thick and completely undecorated walls, anthropologists have found residues of sulfur as well as mercury and magnesium (compatible with explosives). Their findings were Posted in PLOS ONE earlier this year.
Matheson, now an associate professor at Griffith University in Australia, says the hand grenade theory is supported by Arabic and Crusader texts. Specifically, he and his colleagues note historical accounts of the siege of Jerusalem in 1187 AD, which mention flashes of light and big bangs that could be consistent with flash grenades.
“Further research into these vessels and their explosive contents will allow us to understand ancient explosive technology from the medieval period and the history of explosive weapons in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Matheson said in a statement. Press release.
Scientists and historians have long sought to understand how warfare was fought thousands of years ago. The first known incendiary weapons date back to the 7th century. From this time the Byzantine Greeks used a fluid known as “greek fireto engage in combat on the high seas.
The exact components behind the Greek Fire were a closely guarded military secret and remain a mystery to this day, but oil was probably the main ingredient. Other potential elements include sulfur or pitch, saltpeter (namely potassium nitrate, a salt that forms on the surface of rocks) and turpentine, which is an oily extract obtained from conifers.
How the flammable mixture was ignited is another mystery, although it’s possible that Byzantine fighters used a compound called quicklime or calcium oxide. They threw the flammable mixture into pots or ejected it from tubes mounted on the bow of a boat and reminiscent of medieval flamethrowers. Supposedly, Greek fire could not be extinguished by water – only with sand or vinegar, which made it particularly devastating in naval warfare.
It has been cited as one of the main reasons for the long reign of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted a few thousand years after the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire. Certainly, technology helped the Byzantines defend Constantinople against Arab sieges in AD 673 and 717, and again against Russian forces in the 10th century.
In the East, the Chinese monks discover “black powder», the precursor to modern gunpowder, in the 9th century during their quest for the elixir of immortality. Its key ingredient, saltpeter, had been used there for centuries in medicine; but somewhat surprisingly, it turned into an incendiary weapon when mixed with sulfur and charcoal.
At the time of its creation, the monks believed that the most effective chemical formula was one part sulphur, three parts charcoal and nine parts saltpeter. In the 18th century, however, scholars concocted an even more effective ratio (10:15:75), which many gunpowder makers continue to use to this day.
During the Song dynasty, the Chinese used gunpowder extremely effectively in siege warfare, especially against the Mongols. This led to the development of rudiments rockets, bombs, guns and mines. Most scholars agree that another result of these international conflicts was the introduction of gunpowder to the Middle East in the 13th century – although others argue that the technology arrived in the region still earlier and was simply kept a military secret.
Adding their two cents to the ongoing debate, Matheson and his team say their latest study of sphero-conical vessels from medieval Jerusalem – one of which contained sulfur but not saltpeter – definitively proves that the pot did not contain black powder. Instead, the alleged explosive was likely developed by locals in the immediate area. It remains to be seen if other ships of this type will tell the same story.