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W1077aW1078Mysterious objects!

Pottery hollow cones c30cm in circumference and c11cm high. These items were Egypt Centre’s ‘Object of the Month’ in June 2008 when we invited people to guess what the items were. We were not sure ourselves. These items are made from hard fired pottery (presumably stoneware). They were found at Armant by the Egypt Exploration Society in their excavations of 1929-1931 and then became part of the Wellcome collection. An early Egypt Centre card catalogue identified them as grenades used in the ‘Nubian war’ of the 19th century. Various Egyptologists have since supplied additional information. These objects have been found on various excavations in Islamic Egypt. For example, Nora Shalaby states that several were found in Cairo. The most popular theories as to their purpose seem to be that they were either drinking flasks (possibly for wine as their shape is seen by many to resemble a bunch of grapes) or grenades!  

One Egyptologist was able to direct us to a publication on these items. The publication is: Miriam Avissar and Edina J. Stern, ‘Pottery of the Crusader, Ayyubid, and Mamluk Periods in Israel’ Israel Antiquities Authority Reports, 26, Jerusalem 2005, 119-121, pl. XXXIII. Here they are called “Sphero-conical vessels (‘grenades’)” and dated “from about the second half of the twelfth century to the end of the fourteenth century” (p. 119). The function of the ‘grenades’ was “far from clear”, and several suggestions are given such as containers for mercury, fire-blowers etc. This Egyptologist adds that since both Ayyubids and Mamluks were centred in Egypt, it is not surprising that such vessels are found not only in Israel, but also in Egypt. The Egyptologist recalls having seen one in a private collection in Germany, its provenance was reportedly the Assuan region. Liverpool Museums also have an example from Amarna which can be seen at: http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/record.aspx?id=3232.

Byzantian military manuals state that ‘Greek fire’ was sometimes deployed in pottery vessels (kytrai or tzykalia) were thrown by catapult (Pryor et al. 2006: 378–379, 609; 86-87;  Forbes1959: 70–90). However, vessels with a smooth outer surface, said to be have been used as grenades to contain Greek Fire in the 10th-12th centuries BC, are on display in the National Museum at Athens. These, and ours, are small enough to have been thrown by hand, indeed the rough surface of ours might suggest they were hand thrown. Alternatively, the surface may have been ‘rusticated’ so that the items broke up more easily on impact thus causing more damage.

The fact that these are found on fortified sites might suggest weaponry, but there could be other alternatives. It has also been suggested that these were not grenades but rather held substances which would have been used for fighting disease (Sharvit 2008). 

We are very grateful for all the information from colleagues and hope this will help others with these enigmatic objects.

Further Reading 

Ettinghausen, R. (1965), The uses of Sphero-Conical Vessels in the Muslim East. In Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 218-229.

Forbes, R. J. (1959), “Naphtha Goes To War”, More Studies in Early Petroleum History 1860–1880, Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Pryor, John H.; Jeffreys, Elizabeth M. (2006), The Age of the ΔΡΟΜΩΝ: The Byzantine Navy ca. 500–1204, Brill Academic Publishers.

Sharvit, J. (2008),  The Sphero-Conical Vessels, In: V. Tzaferis and S. Israeli (eds.) Paneas Vol II- Small finds and Other Studies (Israeli Antiqities Authorities Reports 38) Jerusalem: Israeli Antiquities Authority, 101-112. 

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