Researchers discover ancient hand grenades from almost 1,000 years ago

The vessels were located in Jerusalem.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The photo credit line may appear like thisMatheson et al./PLOS ONE

A new analysis led by Griffith University’s Associate Professor Carney Matheson into the residue found inside ancient vessels from the 11th-12th centuries in Jerusalem has revealed that they may have been used as hand grenades almost 1,000 years ago, according to a statement released by the organization on Tuesday.

“This research has shown the diverse use of these unique ceramic vessels which include ancient explosive devices,” Matheson said in the press release. 

Locally developed ancient explosives

Previous research into the containers had indicated that they were used for a variety of purposes such as for beer drinking, mercury and oil containers, and medicine bowls. This latest research confirmed this fact but also further revealed some of the vessels contained a flammable and probably explosive material that indicated they may have been used as ancient hand grenades in what may have been the very first cases of locally developed ancient explosives.

“These vessels have been reported during the time of the Crusades as grenades thrown against Crusader strongholds producing loud noises and bright flashes of light," added Matheson.

Black powder grenades

“Some researchers had proposed the vessels were used as grenades and held black powder, an explosive invented in ancient China and known to have been introduced into the Middle East and Europe by the 13th century. It has been proposed that black powder may have been introduced to the Middle East earlier, as early as these vessels from the 9th-11th century," continued Matheson.

“However, this research has shown that it is not black powder and likely a locally invented explosive material.” 

Matheson also added that his work revealed that some of these vessels had been sealed using resin. Now, he says more study needs to be conducted on the vessels to truly understand the explosive technology behind them. 

“More research on these vessels and their explosive content will allow us to understand ancient explosive technology of the medieval period, and the history of explosive weapons in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said. 

The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Study abstract: 

The residues from the internal surface of four archaeological ceramic sherds, excavated from the Armenian Gardens, Jerusalem were analysed to characterise the contents of the original vessel. The sherds derive from four small, thick-walled, sphero-conical vessels recovered from a destruction layer, dating between the 11th and 12th century, Jerusalem. The residue has been analysed using light microscopy, biochemical characterisation, gas chromatography mass spectroscopy, inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy and cold vapour atomic fluorescence spectrometry. This analysis established the presence of various compounds including fatty acids and notable levels of mercury, sulphur, aluminium, potassium, magnesium, nitrates and phosphorous. The contents and probable functions of the four vessels were characterised from the residues on these sherds as different from each other, reflecting their different decoration, manufacture and ceramic typologies. One of these vessels contains residue that indicate the vessel held oils. The residue of the second vessel is consistent with either scented materials or medicinal contents, while a third probably contained medicinal material. The unique fourth sherd is from a stoneware sphero-conical vessel with very thick walls, no decoration and the residue supports the possibility it was used for the storage of chemicals or may have held the chemical ingredients for an explosive device, consistent with a medieval grenade. This residue analysis of Mamluk sphero-conical vessels provides insight into luxury items, medicines, technology and trade in medieval Jerusalem.

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