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.
Certainly 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. - 

Shakespeare. 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 saltpetre.Roman loo [public] 

                                                   Ephesus Public [Roman] drain

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.salpeter02.jpg (124599 bytes)

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]


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.
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 chlorine. salpeter01.jpg (71922 bytes)The energy for making these organic acids comes from the sun and the raw materials are carbon dioxide and water - in other words photosynthesis.

Removing efflorescence 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.

  • 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..

  • "Experts Baffled by Mysterious Underground Chambers". der Spiegel.,1518,775348,00.html. Retrieved 2011-07-22.
  • 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 Efflorescence.

    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




    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.”

    Excerpt from


    The Secret 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"




    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 PETRA  Al-Khazna (the Treasury). 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 marl.

    Avdat, Petra, 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 army.

    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 precipitated salt

    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


    Family Letters and Papers.

    FILE - Letter from Edward Wood to John Pack. - ref.  ACC/0262/043/007   - date: 1663
          |_ [from Scope and Content3) 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 HistoryIn 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 Industrial Revolution.

    For detailed references of statements made here, or Bibliography- Please mail:

    Related Links | Activities | Email List

    COPYRIGHT NOTICE AND DISCLAIMER © Copyright David Bloch, 1996. All rights reserved. Copying of this document in any material form is prohibited other than as necessary for the purpose of viewing on this Web site. The contents of this document is for general information only. Nothing in this document constitutes legal advice.  This web page and those derived from this page, gives collected information derived from other sources believed to be accurate at the time of storage on available Internet disk space.. These web pages are non commercial, and academic in purpose, and are stored as personnel information for the page owner's own use. No warranty of accuracy, reliability or completeness is given and (except in so far as liability under any statute can be excluded) no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions or in negligence is accepted by the author and page owner, David Bloch MRBLOCH SALT ARCHIVE, in the event that others access these pages