- Prometheus is often described as the
bringer of fire" for the benefit of mankind. But a study of Greek and Roman fire-making
techniques and myths suggests that this interpretation may be incorrect.
- Prometheus did not bring the flame
itself; he brought the secret of "catching" the sparks.
By chance perhaps man discovered that some everyday materials were
particularly good tinder for kindling fires and learned to select
those such as dried moss and fungus with enough protein matter for
conversion into nitrates through decomposition.
nitrates will help to ignite dry cellulose material more easily by
supplementing the oxygen in the air at the critical moment of igniting
the flame. Animal dung is another useful source of fuel
and we may assume that Neolithic farmers recognized its value.
Tinder has been found together with flints and pyrites dating from
about 700 BC in Yorkshire, England, suggesting that it was a primitive
method of fire-making.
|It was a great pity, so it was, This villainous
saltpetre should be digg'd Out of the bowels of the harmless earth, Which many a good tall
fellow had destroyed So cowardly; and but for these vile guns, He would himself have
been a soldier. -
Henry 1V part 1.
Besides selecting their raw materials carefully, the
ancients learned to improve on nature by saturating the tinder with blood and urine ,mixed
with potash-rich ashes. Later, this slow biological action was speeded up in 'nitre beds'
- the waste and plant ashes were heaped up together, exposed to the air and watered at
intervals. Eventually after the piles had been turned many times, this manure produced
Ephesus Public [Roman] drain
- SALTPETER MAKING
- Nitre, potassium nitrate KNO3, more commonly known
as saltpetre, is formed in warm climates by bacterial action during the decomposition of
excreta and vegetable refuse. Where people and animals live in close proximity, debris
accumulates in and around their homes. The contact between putrefying material, alkaline
soil, plant ashes, air and moisture allows 'nitrification' - that is the conversion of
nitrogen compounds from animal and plant decay into nitrates which penetrate the soil.
Dissolved in rainwater, the deposits evaporate on the surface to form crude saltpetre,
as a white flower like powder. This must be washed to remove earth and impurities;
then boiled and evaporated to refine it.
Typical Nitre beds [C] at a German works ca 1580 filled with decaying vegetable
matter mixed with sheep pen matter. A workman gathers efflorescing nitre to be leached out
in vats in hut [a] and then concentrated by boiling in hut [b]
Simultaneously, the inorganic anions -
the chlorides and sulphates - are rejected. So when plants are burnt and the organic acids
with them, the potassium ends up as potassium carbonate in the ash - that is, as potash -
and in the case of the rarer salt-loving plants, the sodium becomes soda ash. Rich
carbonate sources are found in natural alkaline lakes in many parts of the world; but even
there the salts result from natural action.
Climate influenced saltpetre manufacture and
determined its location. The temperate regions had forests and grasslands which provided
potash and good grazing for cattle but were poor in nitrates. In the arid zones, potash
from lakes, good irrigation and most of all warmth, to help quick fermentation, favoured
early and easier development of saltpetre..
- There is no information about artificial nitrate
impregnation of combustible matter in prehistoric times and the composition of tinder was
always a jealously kept secret. But in primitive practice 'good' tinder can be made better
by soaking the firing materials in a solution of saltpetre. Kindling wood is still used by
a central African tribe to make fire by friction with a quickly rotating stick. Tests have
shown that, extracted by hot water, these sticks proved to contain 0.65% saltpetre and
0.05% sodium carbonate. The K -ion being necessary to prevent the tinder from attracting
moisture from the air. Potassium nitrate is not deliquescent; but other nitrates such as
sodium for instance, are susceptible to external humidity.
- Saltpetre impregnated fungus - Polyphorus fomentarius - known all over
Europe as 'amadoo' - was widely used
as tinder from early times. It was collected from old trees and treated by boiling,
soaking in saltpetre, then dried and used in a tinder box. This contained flint, steel and
material - the tinder - to ignite easily and was an essential household article before the
invention of matches as well as a personal possession as the cigarette lighter is today.
Tobacco leaf was almost certainly used for impregnation to produce such
tinder and this would explain the pairing of these two monopolies.
- BIOLOGICAL MANUFACTURE
- Although common salt -NaCl - is certainly the most
important of the alkalis, the developing trade and industries of the post-glacial
civilisations also made extensive use of potassium, sodium carbonate and nitrate for
ceramics, soap, glass, medication and as
a fertiliser. It seems astonishing that until about the time of the French Revolution they were still
produced through the natural activity of living organisms where enzymes and membranes
serve to separate the alkalis from each other and from the inorganic ions accompanying
them. For instance, they allow potassium to combine with organic acids instead of with
The energy for
making these organic acids comes from the sun and the raw materials are carbon dioxide and
water - in other words photosynthesis.
from stablewalls and
Erdstall tunnel walls- built specially to collect seeping salt brines
below the stables and other potential Nitre beds - Saltpeter gathering as it was probably done in the Nabatean
and Byzantium towns since
the time of the Roman Conquest and the Middle Ages when incendiary and
gunpowders became critical to any regime.
"Experts Baffled by Mysterious Underground Chambers". der Spiegel.
Erdstall tunnels were mainly
hewn below the ground areas where seeping decomposing animal dung
liquids could cause efflorescence
Primary efflorescence on a brick wall in Germany
Erdstall tunnels were sealed to
prevent any dangerous amount of Oxygen to penetrate the area. They were the
ammunition raw materials and the secret weapon for many groups and orders
for example the Knights
Templars who it seems developed them in preparation for such adventures
as the Crusades.
This always involved very
sophisticated water supplies and the subterranean means to collect
According to Hugh Kennedy, in his book Crusader
Castles, “there does not seem to be a single recorded example of a
Crusader castle falling through lack of water
PETRA - JORDAN [SAL PETRA ?]
Systems of strategically placed rock-cut gutters lined
with watertight plaster, combined with terracotta pipelines, followed the
natural landscape to feed nearly 200 cistern tanks, many reservoirs and a
nymphaeum, or public fountain house. Water was also diverted for
agricultural use to support crops and herds, and the Nabataeans developed
rules for water allocation to govern its consumption. According to a recent
calculation, Petra’s aqueduct system carried about 40 million liters (12
million gallons) of fresh spring water per day—enough to sustain a
modern-day American population of more than 100,000.”
of Petra - The aqueducts of Petra provided the dung heaps of thousands of
caravan camels with the conditions for nitrogenous sewage 'nitrebeds' which in turn
produced a highly valuable and secret product "SALTPETRE"
SALTPETER FACTORIES AT THE DEAD SEA
One of the most ancient potash sources, the
Dead Sea, provided the salts for a saltpetre operation near Ein Bokek, or as it is
sometimes called, Um Barak, on the western shore. This is a spring lying a hundred metres
above a ruined castle about two hundred metres north of Wadi Ein Bokek. Originally, the
castle was one of a chain of fortresses surrounding the Dead Sea, built about the second
century AD, to protect the salt trade. Sometime during its history, within the old walls ,
a saltpetre factory produced several tons a year. The nearby spring supplied fresh water
for the cattle grazing on the lush green grass converting it into valuable nitrogenous
sewage which trickled down into the castle courtyard. There, mixed with limestone marl from the deposits at
Lissan on the opposite shore, it was left to accumulate and decompose. The resulting
nitrates came in contact with wood ash and the Dead Sea salts - sodium and potassium - and
, it seems, were refined in the castle itself, forming saltpetre which can still be
scraped up. A similar 'officina' or factory complex existed on the south side of the Wadi
conveniently near the sea shore where potassium chloride was made by solar evaporation and
where flotsam and jetsam could be gathered for fuel. Some of the compost may have come
from the grazing grounds, but probably the officina had its own supply on the shore line
slopes where a canal diverted the Ein Bokek stream to irrigate more pasture for animals.
From there the sewage was conducted into cisterns - still visible - to be nitrified with
Beth Jibrine and the Carmel near Haifa have all been identified by the deposits on the
cave walls and floors as 'barud' or gunpowder factories where successive generations of
Byzantine, Mamlukes and Turks worked to produce the most important constituent needed for
gunpowder. Petra in particular with its highly sophisticated
hydraulic engineering systems the Nabateans developed including water
conservation systems and dams, point to the manufacture of salpetre on a huge scale
taking advantage of the traffic passing through from the Mount Sdom to Medina. A
caravan train of 1000 camels overnight at Petra would have left enough raw material for an
|One of the most important rock sources of
Potassium Chloride and NaCl salt was Mount Sdom [JEBEL USDUM] by the Dead Sea which is almost solid
Mount Sdom - view
towards the Dead Sea- from the direction of Herod's hill fort Masada, which probably
protected the salt traffic from the mountain, up to Jerusalem
THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
Family Letters and Papers.
FILE - Letter from
Edward Wood to John Pack. - ref. ACC/0262/043/007
- date: 1663
|_ [from Scope and Content] 3) Remarks on the dear price of the saltpetre. He
never paid more than 2/6d. the bushell before.
East India Company Factory Records
Factory Records: Balasore
|_ [from Administrative
History] In 1633 some factors from Masulipatam secured permission to
settle at Balasore, a town in Orissa situated about seven miles inland on the Burubalang
river. A factory was established in 1642; the main items purchased were silk and saltpetre. In 1657 the factory was made subordinate to the factory at
Hugli although it maintained close contact with Fort St George. In around 1700, the mouth
of the river began to fill up and the coastline gradually advanced, leaving Balasore
inaccessible to ships. The town's commerce was eventually transferred to Calcutta.
FILE - "Trull Anno.
Dom. 1635. A Tithing Rate of ob. the pownd for carriage of saltpeeter
made the 28 of September Anno predicto for the raysing of 1 li. & 8s." (arranged
under Tithings). - ref. D\P\tru/23/18 - date:
28 Sep. 1635
MRBLOCH ARCHIVE, is
researching the significance, of SALT [NaCl] through the period 1000 BC . up to the
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