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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Cryptic Vessels

Sphero-conical vessels from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection [public domain]

In the late 1980's I directed an archaeological excavation at a small crusader fortress in the Jordan Valley town of Bait She'an. When dismantling the concrete floor of an old shop built against the castle, we came across a buried rifle. It was so badly corroded that at first it was hard even to identify what it had been. Its barrel was bent entirely back so that there could have been no possibility that it might ever be restored to use. Nonetheless, we were required by law to hand it in to the local police department, which one of our team indeed did - and it must have been a rather comical scene. I mused at the time, that according to the logic of this requirement, we had better hand in some of the other lethal weapons we had discovered during the excavation, such as ceramic grenades of thirteenth century date that might have been quite effective weapons in their day and were perhaps, in their present condition, rather more dangerous than this rusted and mangled object.

Small ceramic receptacles are common finds in many medieval sites throughout the Middle East and beyond. They are thick walled, with a conical or rounded base, a spherical body, short neck, thick rounded rim, and have very small openings. They are mostly of hard-fired, dense earthenware and are frequently decorated with plastic decoration; pine-cone like designs, heraldic imagery or occasional Arabic inscriptions; and on rare occasions are glazed. The pointed or rounded bases cause the small openings to incline upward even when they are lying on their sides, which supports the idea that they contained liquid. But the possible function of these objects has remained a mystery since, nearly a nearly a century and a half ago 60 of these vessels from Tripoli in Lebanon were first published by the French Orientalist, numismatist, and archaeologist, Louis Félicien de Saulcy,* initiating much debate and many theories.

Among the proposals of what function they may have served in storing, dispensing, or transporting liquids, was that they had held alcoholic beverages, or mercury for use in alchemy, or served as water-pipes (hookahs) for smoking hashish prior to introduction of tobacco. The latter idea fell as no traces of cannabinoids or opiates have been found in them. It has been suggested that they served as containers for perfume or body oils for the bathhouse. Another proposal was that they had been used as aeolipiles - objects half-filled with water and placed in a fire so that the water they contain, when boiled blows a spray of air onto the fire and rekindles the flames.

Theories rise and fall, but we seem to be inevitably led back to the idea that they may indeed have been used as weapons, hence the still frequently applied term "grenades", although as medieval Molotov cocktails rather than explosive grenades. The belief of those who support this idea is that they were containers of Greek Fire, a highly incendiary liquid the main component of which is crude oil or naphtha, and which were thrown by hand or by a mangonel. The chief difficulty with this theory is their hardness, which is so considerable that even if they are thrown against a wall they often do not break. Another is that these vessels show no evidence of fire - no burn marks, and their openings are so small that if they remained intact the ignited liquid would hardly escape. Another source of opposition is that they are frequently decorated. Why should weapons that cannot be reused have elaborate moulded decoration or glaze?

Nonetheless, there does seem to be a case for military use. Ioannes Kameniata, bearer of the crosier to the archbishop of Thessalonica, wrote an eye-witness account of the capture of Thessalonica by the Arabs in A. D. 904, in which he mentioned the use by the Arabs of ceramic vessels filled with pitch, quicklime and other ingredients.** On the way to Acre during the Third Crusade, Richard I captured a Muslim ship which included among the weapons aboard, Greek Fire in phials.*** The Arab historian and biographer, Ibn al-Athir referred to the Muslims at the siege of Acre in 1190-1191 throwing pots filled with not-ignited naphtha and other things at one of the towers, and when the deceived Christians climbed onto it they threw well-burning pots which set the whole tower ablaze.**** In Arabic medieval manuscripts there are illuminations of ships with stacks of bottles or pots of naphtha and there are also illustrations of what appear to be sphero-conical vessels being thrown by mangonels or by hand.

The debate over the use of these vessels continues and the doubts regarding their use as weapons has led, indeed from early on in their research, to the application of a name less-committed to their function than "grenade" - sphero-conical vessels. But, even if ceramic vessels were not intended to serve as weapons, that doesn't mean that they could not have been used as such. The Syrian writer, Usama Ibn Munqidh, gives proof of this in a passage titled "A Frankish Woman Fights Back". He writes that, on once encountering an Egyptian emir who had two scars on his face he inquired as to how they were received. This is the answer he was given by the emir:

"When I was young, I used to go out on raids from Ascalon on foot. One day, I was on a raid on the road to Jerusalem hoping maybe to knock off some Frankish pilgrims. We came across a group of them. I encountered one of them, a man carrying a spear, with his woman behind him holding a small rough-ware jar with water in it. The man gave me this first spear-wound, at which point I hit him and killed him. Then his wife advanced on me and struck me with that rough-ware jar in my face and made this other scar. Both of them left their mark on my face."*****

* Félicien de Saulcy, “Note sur des projectiles à main, creux et en terre cuite, de fabrication arabe.” Mémoires de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France 5, F. 1874. pp. 18–34.

**J.R. Partington, A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, Cambridge, 1960, pp. 14-15.

*** Helen J. Nicholson, trans., The Chronicle of the Third Crusade. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Aldershot and Burlington, 1997, p. 197.

****Ibn al-Athir, Historiens des Croisades, Historiens Orientaux, Paris, 1876, II, ii, p. 19.

***** Usama Ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation, London, New York, Toronto, 2008, p. 141.

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