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What To Read on Blade Properties/Early Iron Swords

Sean Manning

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In my academic work I come across information about western ferrous swords in the middle of the first millennium BCE.  There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about these in the English-speaking world, partly because they are located in places like Greece, Iraq, and Iran not Sweden and Wales, partially because they are just so old and so badly corroded, partially because they didn't leave us the stories that went with the swords.  (So far the metallurgy is not so exciting but we don't have our Pleiner yet: akinakes and lancehead with Gärbenkonstruktion).


But I have seen swords from this period more than a metre long in the same graves, rivers, and temple deposits as the normal-sized swords!  If anything the ones around 700 BCE tend to be bigger than the ones around 400!  And there are swords with square cross-sections in the forte to go alongside the lenticular and flattened diamond shapes with fullers or medial ridges which you would expect.  So they were thinking of something when they made most of their swords relatively short, and they are not all wide flexible cutting blades.  But I am not a bladesmith or a blade grinder or primitive smelter, just a historian who fences a bit.


What should I be reading so I can see more when I stare at the photos and archaeological drawings and hopefully later the actual artefacts in museums?


- there are the 'connoisseur'/collector kind of books by people like Oakeshott that sometimes let things slip like 'this shape of blade is a bit flexible on the thrust'

- Patrick Kelly's "Understanding Blade Properties" http://myarmoury.com/feature_properties.html

- Peter Johnsson's talk "Paradoxes of Sword Design" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyAc5HbUuqw

- Vincent le Chevalier's site (which is a bit oriented to people who already have the sword or a replica in hand)

- and of course handling and sketching as many old swords as you can is always good! (and trying to reproduce them if that is your thing)



Sword and knife people on the Internet throw around terms like appleseed and hatchet point and secondary bevel which I am sure make sense to them when they can pass the blade across the table and show what they mean but that I never learned.


Is there any information that you always wish archaeologists would write up when they publish blades?  (Again, keeping in mind that these are twice as old as "Viking swords" and mostly more  oxide than iron and there are not a lot of nice muddy lakes in Greece or Iran- slapping one end of the blade and watching the vibrations is not in the cards).  I don't see the same things that a blacksmith or an archaeometallurgist sees, but I would like to get some information on these swords out where sword people can appreciate it.

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As an archaeologist who dabbles in archaeometallurgy myself, I wish more of us had smithing experience!  Almost everything you read in archaeological reports (note I am not including most archaeometallurgy reports! Some of those as well, though...) concerning how iron objects were made is ludicrously wrong.  I would like to see them ask knowledgeable smiths about things before they publish.  Things are getting better on the smelting front, now that Lee Sauder is being recognized for his first-hand knowledge of how iron ore is smelted.  But that only happened after he went to a conference of archaeometallurgists trying to smelt and he was the only one of the lot who succeeded.  


To answer your questions, though, for more information on early iron age swords in the Near East you're pretty much stuck with the reports, and the knowledge that the authors thereof usually have no idea how iron works.  This is one reason I took up blacksmithing, in fact.  I wasn't satisfied with the available information on 17th and 18th century AD ironwork in North America, so I took some classes, read some stuff, and set out to reproduce it myself.  


So: The reason most of these are short is that iron is weak and bendy.  Steel is not, but these early swords were not steel.  Some of them do have a higher carbon content than others, but, and apologies for not having information on the Near Eastern swords, the idea of steel versus iron and quench-hardening of steel in the west seems to have happened slowly and rather haphazardly between the first century BC and the fourth century AD, and steel was not universal in western swords until well into the eighth century AD.  They could and did make longer blades, but they bent when used and could be cut by a good bronze blade.  Short stout iron blades hold up better.  


I was going to recommend Peter's talk to you, but it is only in reference to later western swords.  You need to talk to Jeroen Zuiderwick, a member here on the forum.  He has much deeper knowledge of this stuff than I do.  


Terminology: Appleseed refers to the way the edge is ground.  As in, in cross-section the edge is biconvex like the pointed end of an appleseed.  I am not familiar with "hatchet point." and secondary bevel is just that.  The edges of most western blades consist of a primary bevel with a very small secondary bevel that forms the actual sharp edge.  This is opposed to Japanese blades, which tend to be what we call "zero ground,"  where there is only one angle from the thickest part of the blade to the cutting edge.


If I think of anything else (always likely!) I'll add it.  

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Thanks Alan. One reason I posted here is that Jeroen Z. still hangs out here (he has come over to the dark side of that other metal!)

It would be great if one of the primitive smelting folks like Lee Sauder could write up a book (or if Peter Johnsson could finish his!) The thing is, I am an armour and textiles person, so I would have to cut one of the trades I already practice out of my life to learn another (grinding a couple of blades out of mild steel or 1045 or taking an evening class in blacksmithing is one thing, but that just does not make you a bladesmith any more than taking one first-aid class makese you a nurse- and to do primitive smelting you really need a house with tolerant neighbours and a truck). So I am interested in what I should be looking for and measuring.

Sometimes people don't think to describe the cross-section and how the thickness of the blade changes from the hilt to the point, and if you don't measure that while you are there other people can't see it in photos. It seems like a lot of people who have handled original swords find that they are thicker in the spine and thinner near the point than they expect. So that is why I am interested in hearing what about the three-dimensional shape of swords people wish the books and articles described.

The size and metallurgy of early swords are topics where what I see in the site reports and the catalogues and the metallurgical reports does not match our preconceptions. The early iron swords and knives from the Aegean which Effi Photos studied had carbon contents averaging around 0.1-0.4% in the blades (with a lot of variety!) So far I have not seen any sword-blades as soft and low-carbon as some of the ones from northern Europe (the Assyrians were churning out hundreds of tons of soft iron for everyday use, but so far I have not found weapons made of the stuff). There have not been a lot of metallurgical studies, and some of them like the ones by Cyril Stanley Smith are very early, but the old guys could tell the difference between slaggy iron and carburized slaggy iron.

One of the things I am puzzling over is that between 100 BCE and 100 CE, Roman infantry swords get shorter as Rome gets richer, replaces its mass conscript army with a small professional army, and absorbs the ironworking cultures of the Alps and Thrace (from about 65 cm of blade to about 45 cm). Everyone talks about the sword from Delos but this one from Egypt is much better preserved (the archaeologist who published it in 1910 thought it was Persian!) memphis_iii_pl_xxxviii_2_sword_scabbard. And early on, when you would expect the smelters had the worst problems with quality control, is when we see some of the biggest swords. If swords were as big as they could make them given the available materials, they would be getting longer over time. Its just like how swords in Greece lose the gold and silver and ivory decorations in the same period that Greece gets richer with more access to materials from distant lands.

So they must have been considering several factors when they chose to make most of their swords small, like desired price-point and the type of fighting they expected. I notice that often happens in the history of technology: people take an improved technique and use it to make much cheaper but slightly worse products.

Edited by Sean Manning
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11 hours ago, Sean Manning said:

carbon contents averaging around 0.1-0.4%

That range is normal for a short-shaft furnace.  0.4% C is right on the edge (pun intended) of being hardenable, but the question then becomes was it hardened?  That's where you need metallography and sections of those blades to look for martensite.  


And yes, there's no telling why people do what they do, even now. :lol:  Hands-on is really the only way to get to know how these things work, and it's a pity it's so difficult to get your hands on the early stuff.  

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There are also issues with what happens to iron when it has been in the ground for so long which I don't understand, the archaeometallurgists throw around terms like mineralization. And the way the rust eats away at the surfaces and the thin parts, which is where we would expect them to put the hardest iron and any quenching to have the most effect, is tough. I might be able to scrape up some grant money for X-rays, CT-scans, or archaeometallurgical tests in the early-2020s ... but I don't want to be the kind of academic who walks into the salle or the shop, walks out a few months later and announces that they are experts with important insights because they made six knives or learned six cuts :)

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It's worth noting that the difficulty of forging a blade increases pretty much linearly with length, while the difficulty of heat treating increases geometrically..

Jake Cleland - Skye Knives


"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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1 hour ago, jake cleland said:

It's worth noting that the difficulty of forging a blade increases pretty much linearly with length, while the difficulty of heat treating increases geometrically..


That's so true it hurts.  


This also goes back to those long early swords.  I am willing to bet they were not heat treated, but rather were work-hardened just like bronze.  With a medium-to-low carbon iron like that 0.1% - 0.4% C, cold hammering works quite well to harden edges.  If phosphorus is present, the effect is far more pronounced.  I suspect that's one reason it took so long for quench-hardening to come into common practice.  If what worked with bronze works well enough with iron, it works well enough.  I would love to have been present the first time someone used to working bronze quenched a medium-carbon iron thinking that was going to anneal it.  

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From what I have read (and I am not an archaeometallurgist just someone with high-school physics and chemistry who tries to read the literature) we still can't push quenched steels much back before Philon of Byzantion around 250 BCE and the La Tenè sword that Peter Connolly saw. And in Luristan the same people seem to have been working bronze and iron. What I don't know is if the Near Eastern and Greek mines had anything like the "phosphorous irons" in northern Europe which get harder than mild steels without quenching. The Italian, Greek, and Iranian iron just has not found its Pleiner yet :(

I just don't know why we see long swords in Assyria, Greece, and Halstatt early in the Iron Age then they fall out of fashion after 700-600 BCE as iron technology is improving. Or why Roman infantry swords get shorter as Rome gets richer with smaller armies and better iron industries.

Edited by Sean Manning
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