Was this ancient vessel a hand grenade? If so, it backs up a long-debated theory about weapons in the Crusades

Much is known about life in the Middle East at the time of the Crusades, but one type of vessel still presents something of a mystery.

These ceramic artefacts are called sphero-conical vessels – a term describing their shape – and hundreds have been unearthed across the region.

By studying the residue inside, archaeologists have established they were used to hold beer, medicine, oils and fragrances.

Some believe they were also used as ancient hand grenades.

Now, a team from Griffith University say their latest research provides proof of this theory.

A painting of Christian Crusaders invading an Egyptian fortress.
Crusader-era texts refer to Arab defenders using explosive devices against the invaders.(Getty Images: Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group)

Carney Matheson and his colleagues have been analyzing fragments from four sphero-conical vessels found in the 1960s.

They date back to the 11th century, and were unearthed at a site called Armenian Gardens in Jerusalem.

Residue from three of the vessels contain the presence of benign substances such as medicine and fragrances.

Professor Matheson says chemical analysis has revealed that the fourth contains explosive material.

“There’s a range of sphero-conicals, from thin-walled ceramics that could be used for drinking vessels, mercury containers, and all different sorts of stuff,” says Professor Matheson.

“But these ones are thick-walled ceramics that we call stoneware. Small containers, small content, withstanding high pressures.

Professor Matheson believes this fourth fragment, or sherd, is from a hand grenade used during the Christian Crusades – the religious wars initiated by Christians intent on reclaiming the Holy Land from Islamic rule.

Carney Matheson stands in a museum, wearing a lab coat and smiling
Carney Matheson believes his team’s research sheds light on the evolution of medieval Arab weaponry. (Supplied)

The evolution of hand grenades and incendiary devices

The earliest weapons resembling incendiary devices date back to the 7th century Byzantine Empire.

In naval warfare the Byzantines famously used flame throwers to project a fluid known as “Greek fire”, the precise ingredients of which were kept a military secret and remain a mystery to this day.

This secret technology helped the Byzantines defend Constantinople from the Arab sieges of 674 and 717.

The Griffith University research suggests the Arabs may have adapted Byzantine incendiary knowledge to develop explosive devices for warfare during the Crusades.

Professor Matheson says the findings support both Arab and Crusader texts from the time which refers to Arab defenders using explosive devices.

“It is complicated, but one thing I think is certain is that the compositions that have been reported in Arabic texts are consistent with a subset of the composite that we found in our vessel.”

Why this theory is still up for debate

It’s not the first time researchers have speculated about the use of grenades in the Middle East during the Crusades.

A 1937 study examined sherds found in 1168 in Cairo, then known as Fustat.

Those researchers also found evidence of explosive ingredients but were unable to prove it conclusively.

“That’s when you had the Crusaders defending their fortress in Fustat, and the Arabs were throwing thousands of these weapons against them in the fortress,” says Professor Matheson.

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