Exceptionally large numbers of sphero-conical vessels have been found throughout the Middle East during the medieval period. Due to their diverse distribution, manufacture, and decoration a single use for these vessels has remained elusive. Early researchers have proposed that these vessels have been used as smoking pipes, aeolipiles, grenades, fire starters, drinking vessels or small containers for medicines, oils, mercury, or perfume. However, my recent research has supported the categorisation of these ceramic vessels into different types based on their manufacture and decoration. Archaeological residue analysis and archaeological chemistry has been applied to a set of four sphero-conical vessel fragments from the 11th century, Jerusalem. The results from this research indicate that each vessel fragment tested contained different materials. One contained medicine, another oil, the third contained scented oil or perfume and the fourth contained a chemical concoction that could be medicinal but can also be explained as an explosive. This fourth vessel is quite unique compared with the others and constitute the only highly fired stoneware ceramics produced in the Middle East. The stoneware vessels within this category are small, with a diameter of around 100mm. They have very thick walls of at least 10mm and a small neck and aperture. These vessels are usually undecorated but may exhibit a simple pinecone decorative style. Based on the properties of these sphero-conical vessels and some early chemical tests, early researchers have suggested an explosive function and described these as grenades that were manufactured and used against the invading Europeans during the Crusades. Historical documents have detailed weapons of this nature being used against the Crusader fortifications all throughout the Middle East. However, there is no evidence for gunpowder in the Middle East at this time. A simple form of gunpowder was known to the Chinese and that technology was eventually brought to the Middle East via the silk road trading network possibly by the 13th or 14th century. However, most of these vessels predate this arrival of gunpowder. In the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean, there are many incendiary devices that are well-known throughout history. One of the most intriguing is the weapon known by many names but recognised by many as Greek fire. But the unusual nature of this category of ceramics found between the 9th to 12th century indicate a dedicated function that only existed in this period. This research proposes typological categories with the sphero-conical vessels in the Middle East and that there were different uses for each category. Some contained mercury, medicine, oils, perfume and there is a possibility that one of the categories is an explosive device.

About the Presenter:

Carney Matheson studied archaeology, anthropology, ancient history and classics, chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Queensland. He has worked and volunteered at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, the Queensland Museum and on archaeological sites in Queensland and around the world. His Honours equivalent research was ancient DNA on human remains from Neolithic Turkey. His PhD was on the Mayan archaeological site of Copan in Honduras conducting excavations and analysing ceramic residues and ancient DNA. This was followed by postdoctoral research at the Kuvin Centre for Tropical and Infectious Disease at the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital and Medical School in the area of molecular paleopathology and evolutionary medicine. Dr Matheson then spent 17 years at Lakehead University in Canada conducting archaeological and forensic research and casework around the world and assisting in the set-up of the Paleo-DNA laboratory, an ancient DNA laboratory and an accredited forensic DNA laboratory within the university. In 2018, Dr Matheson returned to Australia as the Program Director and Head of Discipline for Forensic Science at Griffith University in the School of Environment and Science and is a member of the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution. Dr Matheson’s applied research is in five main areas, biomolecular taphonomy, molecular paleopathology, biomedical science, archaeological science and forensic science. The themes of his archaeological research are ancient technology, ancient disease and multiomic approaches to human, plant and animal identification.


About Archaeology Working Papers

The Working Papers in Archaeology seminar series provides a forum for dissemination of archaeological research and ideas amongst UQ archaeology students and staff. All students are invited to attend the series and postgraduate students, from honours upwards, are invited to present their research. The aim is to provide opportunities for students, staff and those from outside UQ, to present and discuss their work in an informal environment. It is hoped that anyone interested in current archaeological directions, both within and outside the School and University, will be able to attend and contribute to the series.


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