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Quality of Iron/Steel in Viking Age vs Later Middle Ages


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Doug- my feelings on the subject are that if one knows that packing a blade in bone ash and heating it up makes it heat treatable, or that refining material in a small hearth makes it spark differently, or that working it over and over in a charcoal forge makes it both spark differently and heat treatable, then you know about carbon. If you know that too many bright sparks from a bloom mean it doesn't forge well but that forge welding it a few times with low sparking material averages out the issue and now your material heat treats, then you know about carbon. You may not have a tinker-toy thingy that shows you how the molecules move, but you don't need to. I don't know how the electronics in my car work, but that doesn't mean I don't have a predictable understanding of what my car does when I drive it. So I therefore prefer to think that good smiths 1000 years ago knew about carbon, and had a name for it as an element with predictable consequences. It may have been "discovered," i.e. written down in modern scientific terms relatively recently, but it's an understanding of the principles of function that count, not the naming of the mechanism according to modern documentable history.

 

I think there's a huge tendency to pat ourselves on the back these days and underestimate ancient people- the irony being that they had to be much more clever, wise and patient to do what they did without all our modern convenience.

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Another thing that argues against smelters 1000 years ago knowing that they were adding carbon to the iron to make steel is that they thought that steel was the most refined form or iron, not an alloy. And I'm not patting modern man on the back because of our more complete knowledge of what is going on. The ancients did not know why handling the iron in a certain way make a harder product that made a better blade but they did know to do it. They may not have known why Swedish rock ore made better steel than bog iron from Britain they just knew from experience that it was better. They also that how the fire was managed in the furnace influenced the quality of the product. Also the blades back at the first millennium C.E. were not homogeneous in carbon content and I'm not talking about differences between the core and edges. There were differences all the way down the core and the edges. If they had known about carbon and it's effect on iron I would think that they would have tried mix it in some way to make a more consistent product. Yes, they did in some cases encase iron with what we would now call a carbon source but they could had just as easily have done it to extract impurities. All they knew is that it gave them the product that they wanted.

 

If anyone deserves a pat on the back it would be these ancient iron workers who were able to produce iron and steel without an idea of what was happening on the chemical level.

 

Doug

HELP...I'm a twenty year old trapped in the body of an old man!!!

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Just because there's a historical claim that "steel is the most refined form of iron," doesn't mean that it was accepted as Truth across the board. It's far more likely that the person writing down the information was getting it second, or even third hand, as is the case with Aristotle, who wrote things down 1000 years prior to the onset of the Viking Age, in Greece, and who is, if I recall correctly, the individual making that assertion. Theophilus, at the close of the Viking Age, describes a couple methods of turning "soft iron," into hardenable material by case hardening with carbon-laden materials. He also describes files made with "pure steel" on the outside and "soft iron," on the inside, and these two things together indicate that was is an understanding of the difference between iron and steel, and awareness of the kind of materials that contribute to effecting the difference... i.e. things high in carbon.

 

From the beginning I haven't posited that there was anything other than the same kind of wild variety of understandings and misunderstandings as we see today. I am, however, certain that some ancient smiths knew what was going on with regards to the effects of carbon and different ways to utilize this effect. Otherwise swords would never have progressed beyond the early iron Celtic variety, considered inferior to good bronze blades.

 

There are extant ancient blades that have been examined that demonstrate decent carbon levels and decent hardening & tempering, so someone, if even only a few someones... knew. And it's furthermore likely they kept that information close to heart and tongue. That's all I'm trying to say.

Edited by J.Arthur Loose
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If we broaden the scope to China they were able to cast and the decarb the exterior having then a cast iron core and steel exterior. I am aware of nothing like this in Europe at the time, but maybe we have not looked at everything...maybe Roman stuff had this? difficult to say with low sample bodies.

Chinese speak of male and female iron as well.....I would think there is a parallel in Europe, but my ignorance of the sagas or early medieval writings is a barrier.

 

 

Doug as to variations in carbon level in some blades...many of those blades have phosphorous in 0.1-0.4 percentiles...this slows down and can even block carbon migration...also hardens the metal and makes the iron/steel white. No doubt it was done intentionally to yield visual interest and good tools.

 

Ric

Richard Furrer

Door County Forgeworks

Sturgeon Bay, WI

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Another thing that argues against smelters 1000 years ago knowing that they were adding carbon to the iron to make steel is that they thought that steel was the most refined form or iron, not an alloy.

 

This is taken from Lee's paper on Aristotle's Steel, which was taken from translated writings of Aristotle

 

 

Wrought iron indeed will melt and grow soft, and then solidify again. And this is the way in
which steel is made. For the dross sinks to the bottom and is removed from below, and by
repeated subjection to this treatment the metal is purified and steel produced. They do not repeat
the process often, however, because of the great wastage and loss of weight in the iron that is
purified. But the better the quality of the iron the smaller the amount of impurity.
(Lee 1952, 325)

 

In reading this again after making steel from bloomery (wrought) iron. It doesn't exactly mean that they thought steel was the pure form of iron, that's in how you read it. When remelting any slaggy material in a hearth, I've found that the slag definatly sits beneath the puck that's formed ("the metal is purified") and sometimes it picks up carbon ("steel is produced") Using a slaggy metal to start with will produce a lot of dross that sinks to the bottom, But the better the quality of the iron (that you start with) the smaller amount of impurity (is removed from the bottom)

 

You see it's a translation issue, probably by someone who hasn't done the process and understood it. Just because the two ("and by

repeated subjection to this treatment the metal is purified and steel produced") are mentioned in the same sentence doesn't mean that's what the original text was trying to convey. I would wager that most smith's back in the day probably weren't able to read and write, which left the recording of their doings to a writer, which I'd bet sure as hell wasn't a smith. I run into this quite often when trying to explain how a bloomery works, I understand it, but most folk I talk to think that I just "melt" iron in my furnace,,,, now try explaining that to someone who doesn't speak your language,, not only that but doesn't understand the mechanism behind it.
It's very hard to be able to tell what was known.
Zeb

 

 

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Zeb, I've puzzled about the words "wrought iron" and "steel" in that passage of Aristotle's Meteorologica. Without the Greek in front of me, I couldn't picture what the Greek work for "steel" was. In nearly 15 years of reading Greek, I've never, ever come across the word steel before (to be fair, I only studied Aristotle's metaphysics, ethics, and bit of his biology, apart from poetry and herodotus/thucydides). I tracked down the passage and the words for wrought iron mean "worked iron", not wrought iron qua material, but wrought in its original sense--hammered to shape. The word for steel is bizarre. I don't actually think it means steel. In fact, it doesn't. It means mouth, sortof--it's used in the sense of 'mouth of a river' once. The word used is στόμωμα--stómoma. It's comes from a verb στομόω-stomóo(the o's are pronounced separately, the first one short, the second long) which means to muzzle or gag, this verb comes from stoma "mouth." The way stoma seems (from my own research around the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and Liddel and Scott's Lexicon) which I'll confirm through a few friends this week) to have come to be connected to steel is that it refers to the 'stoma' of a spear--like the muzzle of a gun.

 

Therefore, it seems likely stomomata are lumps of iron (maybe literally "muzzlings"?) made suitable for the "mouths" of weapons. In light of that, I interpret the Meteorologica to be talking about an Evantstad-like process that doesn't really take carbon into account, just purification.

 

One other thing about Aristotle--he's shockingly reliable as a source of information. The second hand information argument works for authors like Pliny the Elder and his Natural History (Pliny described beehives as having columns and terraces), but by comparison Aristotle was a scientist. He's described in surprising detail the behaviour of fish species (Silurus aristotelis), and the anatomy of many species to detail that couldn't be matched until the invention of the microscope. He's a very reliable source of information--nearly a modern correspondent in ancient times. He's still got massive flaws, but second hand knowledge isn't often one.

 

I hope my contribution wasn't too off topic from Viking/Middle Age knowledge. Edited for typos and mistakes.

Edited by Tyler Miller
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The smelters, and smiths, of these periods for sure, didn't understand carbon effects. They just knew what worked.
If you were doing these things for a living, and other peoples, and likely your own, lives, depended on your products, you would always be working to make it better.
If you were lucky enough to live near good ore, it was likely easier. If your ore was full of P, you didn't know any more about P, then you did, C, but, you knew something in the product was making it brittle. A few guys come back with broken swords, and you melt them down in the hearth. Hey! The swords you made with the recycled material were much better, So, you start doing the same thing to most of your new bloom, that will be used for special tools.

 

Something like this, happened along the path. If the first iron makers to discover this kind of refinement kept it to themselves, their side would have a big advantage. However, things like that don't stay secret for long.


The guys with the good iron to begin with, start doing hearth refining, and wow! Look at the wonderful steel we have now.
The Frankish Kingdom had most of their iron works run by monasteries. It was under penalty of death to sell their products outside the kingdom. Why?


From the research I have been doing, there were hearths, in combination, with stack smelters at many period sites. Maybe even most.
Many early researchers, thought these to be reheating hearths for working the bloom. However, the slag analysis shows, that something else was going on. While I'm sure they were used for reheating bloom, for many reasons, I am convinced that these hearths were being used to refine bloom.
What better place, then at the source, while still hot from the stack. It only makes it easier.


I'm sure, over a thousand or more years, these refining practices came and went, with the loss, and then regaining of the knowledge.
Life was cheap, in ancient, and dark ages, years. Whole tribes, along with their industrial knowledge were wiped out. However, it was likely the guys with the better weapons that were doing the wiping.

The more experiments in hearth refining I do, and the more iron I make, only convinces me more every day, that hearth refining was the source of much of the best steel, and iron in these times. There is just too much evidence, if you can just see it.

 

Like Zeb said, " now try explaining that to someone who doesn't speak your language"
If you have made iron/steel from dirt, and refined it into a better product in one, or two steps, what on earth would ever make you think that the guys doing it for a living, and to LIVE, didn't figure that out VERY long ago.

Mark

Mark Green

 

I have a way? Is that better then a plan?

(cptn. Mal)

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Mark, I'd argue that "understanding what works," is in fact, understanding the effects of carbon.

 

I'm not saying anyone knew about carbon on the molecular level we all do, but if Theophilus, C.1100, describes case hardening and the qualities of good steel vs iron, and the processes of quenching & hardening, then he understands the effects of carbon. There's something in the leather & pig fat that when heated changes the iron into steel... and we in the modern age call it carbon. Let's not forget that Theophilus is something of an artistic jack of all trades, and not an iron specialist. As a matter of course I would expect that professional bladesmiths & tool makers would have known more than even Theophilus documents.

 

In the Icelandic sagas there is an account of a sword that was so good that it could be bent around to the hilt and return to true. No one accidentally makes a sword with a spring temper like that, and even if you accept it as hyperbole, it demonstrates a common cultural understanding of a good quality in a sword that is only achieved by understanding the effects of carbon, which is to say, a good smith making a good sword knew about carbon on a functional level.

 

How hard is it for smiths to observe the quality of spark on a grinding wheel and the resultant effect on forgeablility & hardening on quenching? It's as basic as it gets... and understanding this, and that you can impart this quality into iron via case hardening, or soaking in bone ash or charcoal, or further, that hearth refining a sparky bloom chunk so that it is less sparky, is in my book, knowing about carbon.

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and remember also that what we 'know' about carbon, about iron, about steel, isn't actually 'true' either - it's an approximation, a narrative, a story we tell ourselves to make sense of the physical world. yes our understanding is a more accurate approximation than that of Aristotle or Theophilus, but we are still looking at shadows cast on the wall of Plato's cave: shadows cast by clearer light, maybe, but shadows none the less...

 

it's what we do with the level of understanding that we have obtained that counts.

Edited by jake cleland

Jake Cleland - Skye Knives

www.knifemaker.co.uk

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe."

 

Albert Einstein

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Jol (sp?)

I remember Aristotle saying somewhere that correct conclusions from incorrect reasoning does not make the reasoning correct. Perhaps I can explain how the ancients were both able to be right about things and very very wrong. A professor of mine in grad school (Dr. John Thorpe, if you want to look him up, his bibliography is good reading), worked on teasing out the robustness of ancient theories so that we could understand how and why ancient philosophers came to their conclusions. First, we have to break free of our post-newtonian understanding of physics. This was one of Dr. Thorpe's thought experiments to do so:

 

The world for Aristotle was a plenum--no atoms, no empty space. There were ancients who believed in atoms and void, but it wasn't universally accepted and Aristotle definitely worked to refute the idea. So no empty space at all between matter. Imagine a beaker half full of cream. Whip it full of air until it is double it's volume. Now use an air-tight plunger to compress the cream to its volume. Where did the air go if there are no empty spaces?

 

Ptolemaic astronomy provides probably the best example of how you can make correct predictions with incorrect reasoning. Ptolemy's astronomical theories make approximate predictions of the positions of celestial bodies possible, but have they absolutely no basis in the way they actually move--just how they appear to move in the sky as seen from Earth. It's pretty brilliant, in fact, it's probably one of the most inspired ideas ever, but it's still dead dead wrong.

 

So it is with iron and carbon. They could no doubt identify excellent blades when made,and could reproduce them, but their means of explaining what was going on is certainly deficient.

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I think Jake and Tyler hit my point of contention on the head.

 

I certainly don't need to know that molecules are rearranging in various cubey shapes to observe de / recalescence. And you can bet that was observed throughout history.

 

It's the narrative I'm speaking to, and I bemusedly disagree that "their means of explaining what was going on," was "deficient".

 

I'm sure that for the deep-minded ancient smith it was quite adequate, and likely prettier to boot. ;)

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I think Jake and Tyler hit my point of contention on the head.

 

I certainly don't need to know that molecules are rearranging in various cubey shapes to observe de / recalescence. And you can bet that was observed throughout history.

 

It's the narrative I'm speaking to, and I bemusedly disagree that "their means of explaining what was going on," was "deficient".

 

I'm sure that for the deep-minded ancient smith it was quite adequate, and likely prettier to boot. ;)

 

I can't disagree with you. Deficient is the wrong word, betraying my bias toward the scientific. "Limited" might have been a better choice.

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Aw shucks man. I figured it was all semantics. I just had an mythopoetic bug up my arse.

 

Probably a scarab or something. :blink:

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Blake- there is a lot of information here, though from the standpoint of a semester/year project most of it will at best inform your understanding of some of the arguments you might see in the material you read. The following isn't meant to condescend, but rather is wisdom passed from one historian to another- sometimes grad students forget about the tools at their disposal, and often undergrads aren't aware of everything that is available.

Become good friends with your college/university's research/reference librarian. If you have access to JSTOR and Ebsco (the letters are correct, the case may be wrong though) use every iteration of your keywords that you can think of, and search using the terms you're finding in the articles that seem to be of value. Read a few of the articles that don't seem like they fully address your question, they may yield tangents that lead you to good nuggets of info. Inter-Library Loan may help with your access to some of these rarer books- though you will likely only have access to them for a few days, so plan your schedule so you can maximize your research. The camera on your phone is a portable photocopier. If there is an archive on campus or within driving distance, get to know the catalog (hopefully online) as they may have some material that is of use. Befriend the gatekeeper at the front desk. Ask about the archive's policies regarding photographing and copying material. Most of my archive time was spent harvesting information that I then read through in my apartment or during office hours.

Good hunting!

Kristopher Skelton, M.A.

"There was never a good knife made from bad steel"

A quiet person will perish ~ Basotho Proverb

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Kristopher, you didn't come across as condescending at all. I appreciate your advice. I'm actually going to request some materials at mu University's library through inter-library loan next week. Unfortunately, I've already browsed through the only archival collection on campus. There was nothing on metallurgy, smithing, or anything else. I'm an intern at the library (and museum!) on campus, so I've had the privilege of handling some wonderful materials that most people only get to view photocopies or pictures of (mostly things related to Mammoth Cave). Alas, in my searches during free time, I found nothing related to metalwork. Still, inter-library loan is an excellent tool to make use of.

Again, thank you for your sound advice.

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I fancy the "Warren Buffet" or "J. Paul Getty" Materials Museum Lab.......dedicated to understanding Mans's interaction with stuff.

A sort of "How its made" ancient and medieval edition.

 

Ric

 

Now THAT would be Awesome!!!

Ric, you have an incredible talent for getting me sidetracked into daydreaming yet again...

Not that that is hard to do, but still, your talent for it is impressive.

 

 

For everyone contributing to this thread, Thanks! Wonderful information and perspectives, I'm loving it!

James

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave. ~Mark Twain

SageBrush BladeWorks (New website is in limbo...)

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  • 2 weeks later...

So, I've managed to get my hands on a copy of the Tylecote and Gilmour book (inter-library loan is such a great resource when you're starving for new material). I'm amazed at how early heat-treating was used just from the relatively small sample size given in the book, from one country no less. It's fascinating. The book also makes it easier for me to understand the different phases or structures of iron and steel (ferrite, pearlite, etc.).

 

What I find most interesting, and of course this is only a small sample of the finds in Britain, is that, while there are differences in the creation of blades between different eras, it seems the differences are not particularly huge. It almost seems like what you would expect from any product today. The majority of the items available commercially today are serviceable. Only a handful of producers make great versions of those items. I think, but I do not know, that the same was true back then. Simplicity, quantity vs quality, availability of resources, and knowledge may all be factors, for example, in both creating a sword and building a couch.

 

I know I might be dreaming, but I would love to see a similar book published with larger sample sizes (and perhaps focused on one particular kind of tool or weapon). I'd like to see some better preserved pieces as well. It seems like a sizeable majority were poorly preserved which might obscure some of the details better preserved ones could provide. Of course, I'm talking without knowing too much about archaeometallurgy, so I'm obviously ignorant about a lot of the specifics. But again, I can dream.

 

Also, if its okay, I have a little nitpick about the language I see used so often in books, articles, websites, etc. referring to blade materials other than high carbon steel as inferior or worse. Properly heat treated carbon steel can make for some fine blades. But, I think other metals (iron, low carbon/mild steel, bronze) can also be made into quality blades with the right skill. My favorite kitchen knife to use is an old knife my great uncle gave to my mom. It's just wrought iron (maybe mild steel). None of the modern steel kitchen knives I've bought cut up a potato half as well. Unless that knife is a rare exception, I would think the same could be said of other blades. I feel like we get caught up in our modern, post-industrial, and romantic mindsets about what makes quality metal. I apologize if this kind of tangent is something frowned upon on this forum. It's just something that's been nagging at me. Feel free to tear my post to shreds if you think my newbie ignorance warrants it.

 

I should also be getting another book from ILL soon (Knives and Scabbards, recommended by Alan). I look forward to reading it and seeing what else I can learn about iron and steel in the Middle Ages.

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Blake,

I doubt your old kitchen knife is wrought iron....most likely shear steel. If your lucky it has not been sharpened so much that the stamp is removed.

I have quite a collection of such "old" blades (from the early 1800's and some as late as 1940 or so marked "best crucible steel")

The cutting ability in those is the material, but also the shape...I bet yours if very thin. Thin cuts when dull cause its thin....which is what sharp is...thin.

 

As to your couch and sword comment

"Simplicity, quantity vs quality, availability of resources, and knowledge may all be factors, for example, in both creating a sword and building a couch."

Such was mentioned in a Greek legal transcript where a son was trying to get his father's wealth after his death and the furniture making shop was earning more money than the blacksmith shop.

 

I share your desire to have a large sample body of better blades. I suggest we all befriend the wealthy and have them buy such pieces and donate them to metallographic study. Such a database will only come from the private sector as Museums will never allow such a study to take place...both due to costs of the metallographic work and the "destruction" of one of a few incalculable number of examples of said items.

 

Ric

Richard Furrer

Door County Forgeworks

Sturgeon Bay, WI

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Blake, you pretty much nailed it, and defined one step along the way that leads to a fiery beard. Welcome to the next level! B)

 

I'm surprised Ric didn't use his quote about humans being sufficiently soft and squishy that since a pointy stick is enough to take us out, who needs Crucible S90V at Rc 65? :lol: The worst cuts I've ever gotten were from unhardened low carbon steel. A two inch long, 1/4" deep gash across a knee from roofing tin, and a half-severed finger from 1/4" mild plate. There was a sledge invoved with that one though, so it may not count... ;)

 

He's also right about the testing. There are literally thousands of old blades in collections, but very few institutions are willing to allow even the gnarliest, rusty, broken bit of blade to be cut, polished, etched, tested for hardness, and given destructive spectrometry to determine the exact elemental makeup. And it's not only because of the cost, even though that is substantial. It's the "Preserve Everything" mindset, which I must admit I used to share until I got this far in my own quest. Ultimately, we need to have enough people who think it's sufficiently important to find the answers to these questions that the preservation of an ancient blade is no longer worth more than the knowledge it could provide. Radiography and XRF spectrometry are better than nothing, but there is still no way short of destructive testing to find out what we want to know. Is it worth it? To some. Just not the right ones. :lol:

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Thank you for your responses, gentlemen.

 

Ric, I've always assumed the knife was something low carbon, as instead of being springy as I've always expected tempered steel to be, it bends ever so slightly when pushed too far to the side and then must be straightened. I'd do a spark test, but I'm sure my mom would slap me silly. It is quite thin, though. So you're probably correct. It also has what I suppose would be called a half tang. No discernable marks, though (we've never sharpened it, but my great uncle might have). I'd like to find out more about it.

 

I hope my 'sword and couch' analogy wasn't too far off base. It's a little silly. But I just wanted to use something modern in contrast with something older.

 

Alan, I've got a very long way to go for that coveted fiery beard (I don't even have an anvil yet XD). I appreciate the encouragement, though. Good to know I'm at least on the right track with the way I think about these things.

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