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  • Great Balls of Floury Fire November 21, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Food is dangerous at the best of times. But a thoughtful note by J van Leuven in an archaeological journal (Antiquity) from 1979 should prove of interest to all bizarrists as it suggests that food, more particularly grain, had the potential to bring powerful Mycenaean city states, including Knossos, to their knees.

    Now if this was just a question of the lack of food or even a surplus of bad food there would be nothing to say and Beachcombing would walk away to leave this to his normalist brothers and sisters. But Pylos and Knossos and Zarkos seem all to have been destroyed by conflagrations in the very early centuries BC and these conflagrations may have had their origin in the local grain supply.

    Of course, fires are always difficult to interpret in archaeology: there are so many possible culprits including saboteurs, warriors, lightning storms, a drunk servant, a lava stream…

    If there is no other evidence the best archaeologists can do is talk about ashes and look for signs of rebuilding.

    However, van Leuven noted that some evidence from Mycenaean sites could be interpreted as a sign not just of fire but also of explosions with material being scattered over a wide area.

    Now here Beachcombing is tempted to take his ever patient readers back over recent strange Indian and Chinese [Beachcombing wants to put a link in but wordpress’ linking system seems to be on the blink] weapons that were allegedly able to destroy fortresses and cities.

    Van Leuven, instead, suggested back in 1979 the closest thing that the ancient world had to a gas dump: grain elevators.

    Ancient grain elevators were likely kept at high points in palaces. They were large affairs because they had to supply a palace through a bad season or two: think ‘Pharaoh’ and the seven lean years… Indeed, surviving Linear B fragments describe these grain bins and those who worked there.

    Modern experience with grain storage has shown that grain can become instable, when too much is kept for too long in a confined space. 1978 – significantly the year before van Leuven’s article – saw a number of major explosions in North America. While from 1997-2007 there were 129 explosions at grain elevators across the US.

    The science of this is obscure to Beachcombing – or rather Science is obscure to Beachcombing… – but he is reliably informed that explosions involve two features: excessive dryness; and excessive  flour dust in the air, often from over-grinding.

    In a modern grain elevator everything is done to avoid sparks and naked flames. In an ancient grain elevator this would not have been the case – in part because of Beachcombing-like levels of scientific ignorance; and in part because of the lack of ready alternatives to oil lamps.

    As van Leuven points out these explosions are frightening enough in the modern world. But in the ancient world an explosion at the very heart of a people’s civilisation might easily have been read as disapproval from the gods. And this impression would have deepened if a very dry season caused several explosions across a region.

    Perhaps such explosions explain the completeness of abandonment at a number of Mycenaean settlements?

    It might also be at the bottom of one detail of Greek myth, namely, that Semele (Dionysius’s mother) was killed by a flash of lightning.

    Semele means ‘earth’, a name that brings us to grain.

    Beachcombing is fascinated by van Leuven’s long-forgotten theory and wonders if any ancient sites do contain the proof of a grain bin explosion.

    He suspects though that van Leuven would have a more difficult time convincing Mycenaean scholars today: the catastrophist interpretation of the end of several Mycenaean cities has been blunted by modern archaeologists’ love of ‘continuity’ at all costs.

    However, Beachcombing has been struck by how even a crude palace complex had points of remarkable vulnerability, something that he had not really thought about before his recent Indian and Chinese posts alluded to above.

    A smashed oil lamp in a  library, a grain elevator or in an area of fodder would have created extraordinary damage and could have wiped out a settlement, especially if its food supply disappeared in the flames.

    Beachcombing would love to hear any other, particularly scientific opinions on grain storage and explosions – were there conditions that the ancients employed that would have lessened or worsened the odds of a blast? Nothing from the periodical table thanks… drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    21 Mar 2014: Dr Gus writes in ‘Your post Great Balls of Floury Fire piqued my interested. I know from living in rural Africa that fires and explosions in small village grain storage facilities do occur. The basis of these storage systems are creation of a stable anaerobic environment when the outer layer of grain germinates and ferments and there is a build-up of gas in the sealed storage container, be it a hole in the ground, a mud-walled building or woven container. This causes the bulk of the grain to persist in a dormant state and the anaerobic conditions suppress bacterial and fungal growth, and can even kill rats and other vermin that get into the store. Grain can remain stable for many years when stored in these conditions, provided it remains dry.
    Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary gas responsible for this, but among the other gases produced are methane (CH4), hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4).http://www.wvu.edu/~agexten/ageng/resource/binsafe.htm.

    Methane and hydrogen sulphide are both flammable, explosive and heavier than air. Nitrogen tetroxide is also heavier than air and described as ” … one of the most important rocket propellants ever developed …” .

    Given the sealed, stable and undisturbed nature of this storage I don’t think there is any “dry flour” or grain dust element to these fires and explosions in contrast with the silo explosions seen in the US and other large storage systems. The risk in these Western systems arises due to large scale, mechanical movement of the grain.

    Leakage of water into the traditional storage systems can lead to secondary germination and fermentation which can cause rapid rises in temperature and even spontaneous combustion, as is seen in compost heaps, muck heaps and silage systems here in the UK.

    I suspect that these ancient grain storage explosions are much more likely to be caused by accumulation of mixtures of flammable explosive and explosive heavier-than-air gases, triggered by spontaneous combustion from heat generated by secondary germination, rather than dust or flour related explosions.

    Thanks Dr Gus!