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11 January 2009


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Adrienne Mayor

James' paper is said to be "new findings" of the earliest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare.
According to the account in Science News of his paper,"Remains of pitch and sulfur crystals were found near the bodies, which had not been observed in earlier research, James reports."
Yet these "new findings" were discussed by J. R. Partington in "A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder" (1960, 1999), p 171 and n 154, citing the French publications of "Excavations at Dura-Europos" of 1935, p 188-205 and plate XVIII (also cited in A. Mayor, "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs" (2003), p 224-25. In 1935, the French archaeologists published the same findings of burnt residue of pitch and yellow sulphur crystals.
What is new about James' findings?
Moreover, the earliest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare was published here: Taj Ali et al, "Southern Asia's Oldest Incendiary Missile?" Arcaeometry 48 (2006):641-55, chemical analysis of a fireball hurled at Alexander's army by defenders of a fort in Pakistan in 327 BC. The fire ball contained burnt residue of flammable plant fiber, resin, charcoal, zinc, and red arsenic and lead powder (cited in Mayor, Greek Fire, p 232-33.


I was vaguely dubious that this was the earliest, but hadn't appreciated that the "new details" had been discussed in so much detail previously. Thanks for the clarification.

judith weingarten

I am somewhat puzzled by the whole scenario, but that might be due to my lack of experience in siege-warfare.

Why would the Romans have dug the tunnel (which might have risked collapsing the wall above)? If they wanted to sally out, they had gates and postern gates to go through. I always assumed that the Persians dug the tunnel -- a pretty standard move for besiegers -- to get under the wall and into the city. Isn't that what, in fact, seems to have happened?

I'm not quite sure what evidence there was to show the Roman bodies stacked up in the way suggested. It's been many years since I read the excavation reports, but would the excavators have missed such an unusual feature?

Carl Sommer

Judith, My guess is that the Persians were attempting to dig a tunnel under the wall. it was one of the oldest techniques in siege warfare. You dig a tunnel directly under the wall, propped up with timbers. Then you set the timbers on fire, after, of course, getting your own people out of the tunnel. When the timbers burnt down, the unsupported wall would collapse, leaving a gap in the enemy's defense. The Romans probably dug a tunnel of their owm, in order to destroy the Persians before they could carry out their plan. The fact that the Persians had pitch and suphur readily available supports this theory.

BTW, Adrian, this is my first visit. Excellent site!

Carl Sommer

Adrienne Mayor

Reading James' report again, I think his breakthrough is that he may be proposing more details of the scenario.
Perhaps the French excavators had not realized that the fire using sulphur and pitch created toxic fumes, therefore constituting chemical warfare.
I expect to have further comments on this story on the Discovery channel.

Adrienne Mayor

The tunnels (mines and countermines common in siegecraft) were dug by the Persian defenders and the Roman attackers--they intersected and as often occurred, a battle was fought underground.

In reading over the report, I think James' does make new contributions to the earlier reports:
he suggests the bodies were stacked deliberately by the Persians
he suggests the fire was deliberately enhanced with chemicals to create toxic fumes
he identifies the skeleton of the Persian who set the fire, but succumbed to the smoke before he could escape
he presents what may be the earliest archaeological evidence for a deliberate chemical weapon, although there is another possible contender.
I hope to make further comments on the Discover Channel website


Thanks for the comments. A fascinating discussion.

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