2nd Experimental Archaeology Conference Abstract – Robert Smith

From the 2nd Experimental Archaeology Conference, Exeter, 2007.

“Up in smoke”: Re-discovering medieval gunpowder

Robert Smith

Leeds, England

In the 1990s the author was involved in a series of experiments to investigate the power, range and effectiveness of early cannon. Although accurate modern replicas of the barrels were made, the actual propellant was modern black powder and though some valuable lessons were learned and data acquired, the veracity of this work was very questionable.

Unfortunately medieval gunpowder is not available for study or analysis as, by its very nature, it has disappeared – in a puff of smoke – or been destroyed as being too dangerous to store. In order to understand more fully what the differences between modern and medieval gunpowder the Ho Group was formed in Denmark with the aim of replicating the process of making medieval black powder – from the manufacture of the ingredients to the mixing and manipulation of the final product. This work has taken us from Iceland to India, from the laboratory to the firework maker and from the contemporary literature – the so-called Feuerwerkbücher – to saltpetre makers still working in traditional ways in India today. Although we have not yet succeeded in making something which closely resembles medieval gunpowder we have come to understand the problems involved and to get a real understanding of the very complex material that gunpowder actually is.

Without the experimental work we would not have been able to gain such insights and knowledge enabling us, for example, to question modern and long-held theories of how the gunpowder and cannon developed in China before making their way to the West where they, like printing and the silicon chip, literally ‘changed the world’. This presentation will outline and summarise the work of the Ho Group to date and the ways that experimental archaeology has made vital and unprecedented contributions to our work.

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