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A square with trees, modern apartment buildings, old brick buildings, and young people talking and sitting on benches

It is still summer in Rimini! Photo by Sean Manning, October 2018.

I had a post about people being Wrong on the Internet scheduled for this weekend, but last week was a big week in Canada, and it seems like time for something more mellow. So how about a post about another of those studies of early iron from the ancient Near East?

Western Iran is an extremely important area for the history of early ironworking, because in the 9th, 8th, and 7th centuries large amount of iron and bronze were deposited in graves. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s these have attracted wealthy collectors in rich countries, and almost immediately the locals organized to feed this market: digging up promising mounds, importing old iron to sell under a name foreigners recognized, and casting and forging their own “Luristan bronzes.” This left museums and collectors with drawers full of objects which are interesting as artwork, but hard to use as archaeology. Relatively few sites from this area have been scientifically excavated and published in a western language, and I don’t know of any metallurgical studies of iron from these excavations. In the 1960s Cyril Stanley Smith decided not to wait, bought half a dozen pieces of old iron from dealers in Tehran, and analysed them as best as he could (and while he was working at the dawn of historical metallurgy, that was very well indeed: yes, this is the Cyril Stanley Smith with the Manhattan Project, Theophilius, and Biringuccio on his CV). One of these objects was an akinakes. He guessed that it dated to the 7th century BCE, but I would take that with a pinch of salt.

Two rusty daggers with pommels shaped like a toy top, a rusty cross-hilted sword with a broken blade,and a rusty dagger with a two-lobed crossguard

Four of the objects in Smith’s study before cleaning. The top two are probably real grave-goods from Luristan around 800 BCE, the third is a European sword almost 2,000 years later, and the fourth is the akinakes.

The akinakes has an average composition of 0.57% C, 0.025% P, 0.007% N but no one spot has anything close to these percentages of all three elements. Vickers Hardness varies at random from 111 to 260. The akinakes was very badly corroded, and lost more material when it was cleaned with electrolytes to expose the surviving iron to the camera, so it is likely that the surface was work-hardened and possible that it was enriched with carbon after being shaped. However, there is no trace of the later technique in any of the artefacts studied.

A cross-sction, B&W photo of a two-edged blade with a lumpy structure

A cross-section of the blade of the akinakes after cleaning, cutting across, and polishing. Some destructive tests are really destructive!

Ironwork from Luristan often has shapes which are easy to cast but harder to forge. Early ironworkers had to please customers who were used to forms which were suited for bronze, and approached their art like traditional farmers not modern engineers: doing things like their parents and grandparents had done them, in accordance with the local spirits and the mysterious forces which governed the world, was a very good thing. It is likely that in many early societies the same workers worked iron and bronze, just as in many simple societies iron-workers are also iron-smelters and farmers, so the two trades could not teach two different communities of workers two different mentalités. Far from running wild with new possibilities, early ironworkers usually imitated older bronze objects and slowly and cautiously ventured into new uses and new forms where bronze was less appropriate.

The pommel of the akinakes after polishing to expose the steel under the oxidation and accretions. Note how the tang projects through a slot in the pommel!

Smith was convinced that these early smiths were not able to forge-weld the iron they were given. He noticed that many contained delicate mechanical joins with no trace of forge-welding, and the pommel was peened in place despite the grip and guard being elaborately shaped (he wondered if it was easier to leave the pommel off while working the handle into a H-shaped cross-section and then add it once that process was finished). On the other hand, the smiths were clearly very good with hammers and chisels and other tools. Whether or not he was right about forge-welding, this is another common lesson from studies: early smiths were constrained by the available metal. Early researchers often assumed that wrought iron came first and smiths slowly learned how to enrich it with carbon, but modern smelters usually find that the problem is getting the carbon content low enough that the bloom can be easily forged. It is much easier to make low-carbon and medium-carbon steel, or even cast iron, in a primitive furnace than smooth wrought iron. There was no real advance in theory from the smelter’s perspective between Aristotle and 1860. ‘Progress’ in the iron and steel industry seems to have been in learning to make more consistent iron and use the properties of the local ores and fuel, not in workmanship and tool design or creating some magical super-metal able to leap tall buildings in a single bounce, slice three machine-guns in half without a nick, and land in a pool of vinegar without a spot of rust.

Whether last week was a big one for them or just another grind, I hope that my gentle readers had a chance to relax.

Further Reading: Smith, Cyril Stanley (1971) “The Techniques of the Luristan Smith.” In R.H. Brill (ed.), Science and Archaeology. MIT Press: Cambridge MA, pp. 32-52

Prof. Em. Helmut Föll of Iron, Steel, and Swords is working on a study of early iron from the Near East … if you are a museum in the neighbourhood of Northern Germany and are willing to allow destructive testing of objects of uncertain origin, send him an email!