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A gate tower six modern stories high with the gate passing through the ground floor

One of the western gates of the city of Bologna, September 2018. Note the put-log holes in the brickwork. Photo by Sean Manning.

Around 1853, gangs of workers under French supervision were excavating Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad, the ancient Dūr-Šarrukin (Fort Sargon). One of the great courts had some long storerooms along one side, and in one which they numbered 86 (or 84), they found marvelous things: “un vèritable mur métallique, occupant tout un côte de la chamber.” The orderly piles of ironware filled a space 5.80 metres wide, 2.60 metres deep and 1.40 metres high: hammers, pick-axes, grappling irons, chains, ploughshares, and fish-shaped iron ingots with a hole through them. The hoard must have weighed more than a hundred tons,* and was so plentiful that it was handed over to local blacksmiths to make sickles, wagon fittings, and other necessary objects. One of them remarked that aside from the famous Persian iron (wootz?) he had never yet worked better metal. Other objects like ploughshares were put back into use by the local farmers and served their purpose. This was all for the best, since most of the artefacts from Khorsabad were sunk by brigands near the Shatt al Arab at Kurnah in 1855 as they were being shipped to Europe. This was the period when the excavators at Susa built themselves a castle to protect themselves and their goods from robbers.

Finds like that were not uncommon in the early days of Assyrian archaeology. At Nimrud, the north end of chamber SW7 contained a mass of rusted scale armour piled 35 cm thick in spots. Groups of rusted-together scales can still be found in museums. Later the graves of three queens rich in ivory, gold, crystal and silver were uncovered at that site: probably Yaba, Banitu, and Atalia who lived in the eighth century BCE and were laid to rest with appropriately gruesome curses upon anyone who violated their chambers. These finds give us another perspective on early iron after looking at the lancehead from Deve Hüyük and the akinakes from the dealer in Iran. By the seventh century BCE, the Assyrians were incredibly rich in iron, and this presupposes a massive industry of charcoal burners and miners and smelters and forgers. So far, the only trace of this is the objects they produced.

Anywhere else before the 20th century, a hundred tons of iron would not be left buried under a thin layer of mud brick. In most places, archaeologists only find tens or hundreds of kilos (not tons!) of iron when they were deliberately buried or sunk, and there are signs that even gifts to the gods were liable to be plundered as soon as no-one was looking (the sagas of the Icelanders, for example, have stories about characters who broke open old burial mounds and removed iron, some of the dead at Pompeii were buried alive in tunnels as they tried to excavate the old ruins for loot, and the Terracotta Army was disarmed during the wars after the First Emperor’s death because live soldiers serving live emperors needed weapons). Iron was recycled as many times as possible, and by the time that was impossible it was in small pieces which rust easily. This is even true in imperial Rome, another society with a very sophisticated iron industry.

People often have a romantic vision of preindustrial societies where everything was made in the home or by a village smith who worked everything from horseshoes to helmets. In fact, in societies where people had more than a few kilos of iron or copper, most trades were highly specialized and dominated by a few centres with especially good access to the raw materials or where workers could find enough customers to get really good at their job. Small deposits of iron ore are everywhere, but to make significant amounts of good iron smelters sought out areas with the right combination of ore to dig, timber to smelt it, and water to carry it to market or drive the machinery, and in societies with a lot of iron most of it comes from one of those fortunate locations. Most workers could make a wide range of goods, but it was much easier to earn a living if they focused on a few and made them by the score or the gross or the hundredweight.

Roman silver mining left traces in Greenland ice cores, while the Roman pottery industry lets us track the rise and fall of shipping with heaps of amphorae on the seabed (the exposed parts of the ships’ hulls have long rotted away, but the amphorae are easier to detect and sometimes shelter the ships’ timbers under a protective blanket of broken pots). When we think about iron and bronze in the Near East in the first millennium BCE, we should think about something similar: not Fulliautomatix in his little shop, but industries which filled the sky with smoke and lit the night with furnaces and deafened the ears with endless hammering. Things made this way are not always beautiful: objects from the Roman empire are often in bad taste, and Iron Age metalwork from Mesopotamia usually strikes us as functional but not pretty. They often depended on forced labour, whether Roman slavery or Assyrian conscription and deportation. But they were necessary to have a material culture where losing an axe or a broach was not a disaster.

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Further Reading: John Curtis, An Examination of Late Assyrian Metalwork, pp. 16ff, Mallowan, Nimrud and its Remains, vol. 2 pp. 409-411, 426

* Back of the envelope calculation: 580 cm x 260 cm x 140 cm (volume of pile) x 7.874 g/cm3 (density of iron) = 166,235,888 g, 166 t metric. Just how densely packed the iron was is hard to say, Gauss’ formula for close-packing of equal spheres (density π/3sqrt2) would suggest an actual weight of 123 metric tons before the iron was corroded. Back to top.