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Archaeology

Was Monty Python’s ‘Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch’ fact? Crusader-era explosive found

Analysis of 11th-12th century vessel shards excavated in Jerusalem’s Old City give support to Crusader-era accounts of exploding projectiles — such as depicted in ‘The Holy Grail’

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Remains of 12th century Medieval vessels discovered in Jerusalem's Old City, including (far right) a fragment of the sphero-conical vessel that was identified as containing an explosive material from Jerusalem, Israel. (Robert Mason, Royal Ontario Museum)
Remains of 12th century Medieval vessels discovered in Jerusalem's Old City, including (far right) a fragment of the sphero-conical vessel that was identified as containing an explosive material from Jerusalem, Israel. (Robert Mason, Royal Ontario Museum)

In a curious case of art unintentionally imitating life, a team of Canadian and Australian researchers have identified what they claim is evidence of Crusader-era hand grenades in Jerusalem. Readers whose ears perked up at the mention of such medieval explosives may remember the “Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch” that was deftly parodied in the famous 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Now, led by Griffith University’s Associate Professor Carney Matheson, a team of researchers analyzed residue discovered inside four spherical ceramic vessels dating to the 11th–12th century that were excavated between 1961-67 in the Jerusalem Old City’s Armenian Gardens. The vessels are consistent with Mamluk pottery and were found at the site of a Crusader royal palace. They were left untouched in the Royal Ontario Museum collections, merely lightly brushed for dirt.

The scientists’ explosive new findings indicate that while three of the containers were used to contain oils for foods, medicines and perfumes, one of the examined vessels was likely used for “the storage of chemicals or may have held the chemical ingredients for an explosive device, consistent with a medieval grenade.”

Not only “Monty Python” documented medieval grenades: “The historical accounts, like the siege of Jerusalem in AD 1187, report weapons consistent with grenades thrown against the city by the forces of Saladin,” note the authors. So when the facts lined up on one of the four vessels, all signs pointed to an explosive.

In a study published in the prestigious open-source PLOS One journal, “Composition of trace residues from the contents of 11th–12th-century sphero-conical vessels from Jerusalem,” the researchers detail the study’s methodology.

The vessels’ residue underwent several rounds of hi-tech testing, including analyses using light microscopy, biochemical characterization, gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy and cold vapor atomic fluorescence spectrometry.

Matheson explained in a statement that the contemporary Crusader-era documentation of similar vessels being used as grenades that were thrown against fortifications produced “loud noises and bright flashes of light.”

A fragment of the sphero-conical vessel that was identified as containing an explosive material from Jerusalem, Israel. (Robert Mason, Royal Ontario Museum)

He said in part that the study was conducted to understand whether a form of black gunpowder known in China and the Middle East in the 13th century had made its way to the Holy Land much earlier than documented.

This new residue research, however, has shown that the vessel did not contain the Chinese black powder, rather more likely a locally invented explosive material, Matheson said.

In the study, the authors write that a previously identified sphero-conical vessel grenade was analyzed in 1937. Found in Fustat (Old Cairo), the researchers then hypothesized it was used by the Arabs against the Crusaders in 1168 CE. They discerned potassium nitrate and sulfur, which the authors said is “typical of explosive material, consistent with the proposed use as incendiary or explosive weapons.” But the full chemical make-up of the explosive material was not detailed at that point.

Sherd 744, a fragment of an 11th-12th century sphero-conical vessel from Jerusalem, Israel. (Robert Mason, Royal Ontario Museum)

In an interview with IFLScience, Matheson said there are Crusader-era Arabic texts that could be secret recipes for the explosives, but they are difficult to decipher.

“These were secret weapons and they didn’t necessarily want to tell everyone exactly how to make them,” he said, adding that they included plant and animal fats.

During the recent analysis of a spherical ceramic vessel labeled shard 737, researchers found fatty acids and relatively high levels of mercury, sulfur, aluminum, potassium, magnesium, nitrates, and phosphorous.

This list of ingredients led Matheson to hypothesize that a local ingredient was likely also used: “If you mixed Dead Sea salts and urine [with plant and animal fats] you’d get something like what we found,” Matheson told IFLScience.

Sherd 741, a fragment of an 11th-12th century sphero-conical vessel from Jerusalem, Israel. (Robert Mason, Royal Ontario Museum)

Also supporting the grenade hypothesis, the researchers said the vessel is the “approximate weight and shape optimal for a grenade” and “the thick walls of this vessel would provide the containment and strength to withstand the build-up of pressure prior to detonation.”

According to The National World War I Museum website’s entry on grenades, this 11th-12th century grenade is early, but perhaps not the earliest such projectile.

In a visceral image, the website states that “legend has it that the first grenade was a small box of live vipers (snakes) which ancient warriors threw into the enemy’s camp.”

Who knows? Perhaps future excavations will uncover this Python-esque snakes-in-a-box projectile, too.

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