8 Terrifying—and Unconventional—Ancient Weapons

iStock.com/hudiemm
iStock.com/hudiemm

Ancient chemical weapons and weaponized animals (think flaming pigs) didn't have the devastating reach of our warheads and delivery systems today, but they were terrifying nonetheless. Some of these unconventional weapons, on a primal fear level at least, may have been even more terrifying than the weapons of today—when they worked.

1. SIEGE OF BALA HISAR, CHARSADDA, PAKISTAN, 327 BCE 

Much of the evidence for ancient weapons is in written sources of questionable accuracy, but in 1995 archaeologists found a small burned ball in a ditch outside the Bala Hisar (meaning High Fort) in Charsadda, Pakistan, from the 4th century BCE. The ditch was part of the defenses during the time of Alexander the Great's siege of the fort in 327 BCE.

Chemical analysis found the ball was a man-made object composed of the heavy mineral barite and flammable resins from various pine trees. Archaeologists believe it was lit on fire and thrown from the ramparts onto the besieging army, making it south Asia's earliest fireball.

2. THE LIMESTONE DUST TEAR GAS OF QUINTUS SERTORIUS, PORTUGAL, 80 BCE

Plutarch tells how Roman general and rebel Quintus Sertorius defeated the Characitani in modern-day Portugal by fashioning makeshift tear gas out of lime dust and earth. The Characitani were holed away with their booty in impregnable limestone caves laughing at Sertorius. While they were hooting, Sertorius was figuring out that the lime dust kicked up by his horse was being blown toward the caves by the cool north wind, so he had his soldiers collect a large quantity of the fine lime dust and mound it up underneath the faces of the caves.

The Characitani thought it was some pathetic, budget attempt to build a ramp to reach them and laughed it off, but the next morning when the wind began to blow, Sertorius's men stirred up the dust mound, breaking up the clumps, even trotting their horses through it to get the particles good and airborne. Huge clouds of the caustic lime dust were blown into the caves. With no source of fresh air other than the cave openings, the Characitani had to choke on lime dust, which irritates the eyes and lungs and causes alkaline burns to mucous membranes if not washed off immediately. After two days of such suffering, they surrendered to Sertorius on the morning of the third day.

3. THE NEW AND IMPROVED LIMESTONE DUST TEAR GAS OF CHINA, 178 CE

Emperor Ling of the Eastern Han Dynasty may have been a dissipated, corrupt, eunuch-dependent wastrel, but he had some great generals. With widespread famine and resentment at his failed leadership instigating regular peasant uprisings, the emperor really needed them, too. One of the peasant revolts in the Guiyang Commandery (modern-day Hunan province) in 178 CE was suppressed by lime dust, only the Han troops made it portable.

According to the court history of the period, the Hou Han Shu, one Yang Hsuan, governor of the Lingling prefecture, kitted out dozens of chariots with bellows and lime powder. The lime chariots advanced, blowing the corrosive dust "according to the wind" at the rebels encircling them. While the peasants were choking and blinded by the powder, Yang's men tied incendiary rags to the tails of horses, lit them on fire, and drove them into the enemy lines.

With the peasant army scattered and in chaos, Yang's bowmen picked them off easily and the rebellion was crushed.

4. THE BURNING PIGS OF MEGARA, 266 BCE

Turning a living animal into an incendiary device is a diabolical form of "biological" warfare, but an effective one, as seen in the Siege of Megara in 266 BCE. Polyaenus notes in Stratagems in War that it was flaming pigs that broke the siege. Antigonus II Gonatas, King of Macedon, brought two dozen Indian war elephants to besiege the city, but the Megarans:

daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions.

Antigonus learned his lesson, though. He instructed his Indian elephant trainers to raise them next to pigs so they wouldn't freak out at the sound of them in battle.

5. HANNIBAL'S SNAKE BOMBS, 186 BCE

The great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who is probably best remembered for his attempt to cross the Alps with his own war elephants, found himself in reduced means toward the end of his life. He'd gone into voluntary exile when the Romans got antsy over his excessive competence and wound up traveling around the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, trying to stay out of Roman hands and offering his military genius to various kinglets.

In 186 BCE, King Prusias I of Bithynia, then at war with King Eumenes II of Pergamon, put Hannibal in charge of his navy. It was a meager fleet, vastly outnumbered by the Pergamene ships, so Hannibal had to come up with a stratagem to ensure his side's victory. A key part of his cunning plan was putting large numbers of live venomous snakes in earthenware pots and distributing them to his ships. He directed the captains to focus on attacking King Eumenes's ship and let the snakes defend them.

The coordinated attack almost worked—Eumenes wasn't captured or killed, but he did have to flee—and when the rest of the Pergamene navy bore down on the Bithynian ships, the Bithynians started lobbing snake pots at them. Suddenly finding themselves ankle-deep in extremely pissed-off and bitey snakes, the Pergamenes beat a hasty retreat.

6. THE BURNING CHICKEN FEATHERS OF AMBRACIA, 189 BCE

When the troops of Roman consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior besieged the Greek town of Ambracia in 189 BC, the defenders proved remarkably effective against the Roman battering rams, so the general decided to go under the wall instead. The Ambracians soon realized, despite Marcus's efforts at concealment, that tunnels were being dug, and they started digging their own tunnels, until the twain met under the city. At first the confrontation was conventional—they tossed spears at each other—but when shields and wattle screens deflected the weapons, the defenders got crafty.

In Histories 21.28 Polybius describes how the Greeks took a jar as wide as the tunnel, bored a hole in the bottom and inserted an iron funnel into it. They then filled the jar with chicken feathers, lit a fire next to the mouth of the jar, and topped it with an iron lid peppered with holes. When they got to the enemy's position, they placed the jar in the tunnel and filled in the empty space around it, creating a block with only two holes on each side just wide enough for spears to be thrust through to keep the Romans from messing with the jar.

They then took a pair of bellows such as blacksmiths use, and, having attached them to the orifice of the funnel, they vigorously blew up the fire placed on the feathers near the mouth of the jar, continually withdrawing the funnel in proportion as the feathers became ignited lower down. The plan was successfully executed; the volume of smoke created was very great, and, from the peculiar nature of feathers, exceedingly pungent, and was all carried into the faces of the enemy.

Burning feathers don't just smell painfully acrid. Combustion of the cysteine in feathers releases toxic sulfur compounds. This was the first known use of poison gas against a Roman siege tunnel and while it worked like a charm in the moment, it wasn't enough to defeat the Roman army. Shortly after the weaponized burning feather incident, a group of envoys from Athens and Rhodes convinced the city to surrender to Marcus Fulvius.

7. THE SULFUR GAS OF DURA-EUROPOS, 256 AD

The outcome was very different when the shoe was on the other foot about 445 years later. This time it was the Romans defending the city of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria, and their besiegers, the Persian Sasanian Empire, digging tunnels under the city's massively thick walls. Roman troops dug a counter tunnel, apparently hoping to intercept them from above, but the Persians heard them coming and hatched a cunning plan.

When the Romans broke through into the Persian tunnel under Tower 19 of the city's western wall, the Sasanians lit a fire and threw sulfur and bitumen on it. They may have used a bellows like the Greeks did to direct the fumes, or they may have taken advantage of the chimney created when the Romans dug down to intercept them. Whatever they did, it worked. The Romans were gassed to death, the sulfur dioxide turning into sulfurous acid in their lungs. The skeletal remains of 19 Romans and one Persian (perhaps the man who lit the fire got a little too close?) were discovered stacked in the Persian tunnel during archaeological excavations in the 1930s. A jar coated with pitch residue and yellow sulfur crystals was found near the bodies.

8. THE (FAILED) SULFUR GAS OF PLATAEA, 429 BCE 

King Archidamus II of Sparta tried to deploy the deadly gassing power of sulfur, pitch, and fire against the city of Plataea in 429 BCE during the Peloponnesian War, but conditions were not as propitious for him. There was no tunnel, for one thing, so this was going to have to be an open-air gassing, dependent on the whims of the wind. If it stood any chance of working, it was also going to have to be far bigger than a little jar fire.

As Thucydides tells it in his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans spent 70 days building a massive earthwork framed in timber. Initially the plan was to breach the city walls, but the Plataeans weren't just going to wait that out. They added to the wall in front of the mound, matching its height as it grew, while stealthily digging the earth out of the bottom of the mound.

Archidamus saw the futility of this exercise and changed gears. He had his troops throw bundles of brushwood into the gap between the mound and city walls. When that was full they started throwing the wood into the city itself. Then they set the whole thing ablaze complete with sulfur and pitch additives. Thucydides says "the consequence was a fire greater than any one had ever yet seen produced by human agency," comparable to a forest fire.

The weather did not cooperate, however. The wind didn't blow the deadly gas into town and soon a thunderstorm put out the great bonfire.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.