An Explosive New Medieval Find… Literally.
Updated: Jan 20
An 11th-century vessel found in Jerusalem may have been used by the Arabs to confuse and scare the Crusaders, centuries before gunpowder was introduced to the region.
In the 1960s, archaeologists found four 11th-century ceramic vessels in Jerusalem’s Armenian Gardens. Since that time, the vessels have remained on display in a Canadian museum until recently, when a team of Canadian and Australian researchers decided to use modern technology to determine what each of the vessels once held.
What they found surprised even them. Three of the vessels held medicine, perfume, and food.
But in the thick, undecorated ceramic vessel called Sherd 737 was found traces of fatty acids, mercury, sulfur, aluminum, potassium, magnesium, nitrates, and phosphorous.
These chemicals, in the right concentration and mix, could have been used as a hand-thrown explosive.
In fact, first-hand accounts from the time mention the use of handheld devices that exploded with loud bangs and flashes of light. Previously, researchers assumed that such devices would have contained Chinese gunpowder, but this substance did not arrive in the Middle East until centuries later.
Archaeologists have even found Arabic medieval recipes for making a grenade, but
no one has yet been able to make a workable explosive device from these recipes. In fact, some of the recipes even called for (exceedingly rare) dolphin fat, which could have been a way to make the recipe sound more difficult than it really was.
Instead, the traces of explosive materials found on sherd 737 could have been made by mixing Dead Sea salts and urine with plant and animal fats. Then by firing the ceramic at high temperatures (2,400ºF) and sealing it with resin, the vessel would have been strong enough to contain a substance, even when it built up pressure over time. When thrown and broken open, it would have exploded into tiny fragments, like a modern-day grenade.
Researchers now believe that the ceramic “grenades” may have been thrown by Saladin’s troops during their siege of Jerusalem in 1187 AD, to sow chaos and panic among the European Crusaders.