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Forum Index > Historical Arms Talk > Celtic swords...bendy? Reply to topic
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Jean Henri Chandler




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PostPosted: Thu 09 Jul, 2009 11:03 am    Post subject: Celtic swords...bendy?         Reply with quote

Caveat: I know there are other threads here on Celtic swords but I have a very specific question I don't find definitively answered in my searches. If this is covered already in an old thread though just post a link.

There is a debate going on right now on the Celt wikipedia article and the article on Iron Age swords about Polybius famous claim from the battle of Telamon that Celtic swords were of poor quality and had to be straightened out over and over.

There was apparently a book published by Radomir Pleiner in 1993 called The Celtic Sword, which claims that Polybius was essentially correct and "30% of Celtic swords were of poor quality" which is being used now in the article to support Polybius claims. I've read a lot about swords from this period but over the years I have read so many contradictory things about Celtic swords that I wanted to find out what the current academic consensus is, and if possible find some other more recent sources besides this one from 1993. I know a lot of work has been done since then.

I realize "Celtic" is a term not even used much in Academia today, what I would like to know is are there any published studies, articles or books comparing the quality of La Tene culture swords with contemporaneous Roman swords, and is there any evidence in the archeological record to validate or refute Polybius claim that Celtic swords bent easily? Are there any swords known in the record to have been bent in battle (as opposed to being 'killed' in sacrifices?)

Also any published literary evidence of the metalurgical quality of La Tene swords would be appreciated (or personal knoweldge of resident experts) I gather La Tene swords had more carbon content (i.e. 'steely' iron) and were in some cases made with pattern welding but rarely showed any signs of proper tempering, whereas the Roman swords were the opposite, though there were also some pattern welded Roman swords.

Is that correct?

J

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PostPosted: Thu 09 Jul, 2009 2:37 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

This is more of a theoretical reply than a researched one based on artifacts being measured for spring elasticity, but.... Based on average medieval period steel chemistry and lack of known precise measurement methods in heat treat, a 30 degree flex with no set would be very outstanding for something dating back to Celtic or even just Old Irish history period in my opinion. I would expect most of the originals to be closer to mild steel (tougher than iron, but still bends once sufficient force is applied.)

Historical swords of high medieval era have had some carbon content measured (feature article with input from Craig Johnson I think if I recall it right) http://www.myArmoury.com/feature_bladehardness.html . Generally carbon content did not average throughout a sword to be much above 0.4 to 0.5. That was actually the superior 12th and 13th century A.D. era grade of European export steel for tools and swords (most known sources were a few select German locations.)

The above kind of steel-carbon chemistry generally does not approach spring stiffness of modern spring steel and alloyed spring steel sword reproductions that most of us benchmark our expectations from. (Consider 4140 chrome molly as an optimal modern alloyed example with carbon content similar to medieval era swords. It is tough enough for aircraft landing gear use, but does not flex the way we expect swords to.) A railroad spike (0.3% to 0.6% if made after 1970) is a reasonable example of a comparable simple alloy closer to average of period swords. This kind of material has much more toughness than wrought iron (low in carbon), but relatively little "spring capability." Other members here have commented that a crusade era sword in the forum's Oakshott typology was recorded as able to flex 30 degrees without taking a set. (I assume this to be along its entire length, with tip versus hilt being used as the reference for final angle.) I can only theorize, but this probably had a chemically superior batch of raw ores and some combination of mastery/luck in heat treat during its making.

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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Thu 09 Jul, 2009 3:18 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

In "Greece and Rome at War" (p. 115) Connolly reckons that he has personally seen a La Tene sword dredged from lake Lake Neuchatel "bent almost double and then flex back". This was a 2000 year old artefact, not a modern reconstruction.

Pleiner's work is the best book on this subject and his results should be no surprise, since the same thing is observed in every sword-making culture. Most swords are good functional tools, a few are exceptional, and the rest are poor quality. The specific percentages of each depend largely on the skill of the maker.
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Shane Allee
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PostPosted: Thu 09 Jul, 2009 4:22 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

You always have to take what the Greeks and the Romans wrote about the celts with a big spoonful of salt. Much like the naked barbarian image, if it happened once and they could used it make their population think less of them then that is what they would say.

Along with The Celtic Sword, Early Irish Ironworking is another good book on the subject. I know that both left me with the feeling that there is a lot about them we don't really know. It really seemed to come about from the bad swords studied. From what I remember there were a couple studied that were clearly bad, and they new it. These were blades which had I believe a higher manganese content, which doesn't harden well with normal heat treatment. It does however work-harden, which they did as a last result. They were mixing different iron and steel at this time, so if that was the best they could do then they probably would have been trying to use it and weld it onto blade edges. The better blades studied show potential that they could have been doing some kind of heat treating or case hardening, but there really isn't evidence to show for certain they were.

Moving away from the metallurgy, In the late La Tene we do see some things that factore in as well. I have been amazed at how ridge the double fullered blades can be prior to heat treatment. That was probably a big step which help let them make some of the bigger blades we start seeing and still keep them light and useable. There is also the 32-34" long blades that look like they are from a 15th longsword with a delicate point. Even more radical than those are the "Sword of Spheres" which have the narrow diamond smallsword like blade. They probably aren't going to be doing blade styles like these is they bent the first time someone used them.

As the La Tene progresses we see longer and longer blades. These get more complex in both form and composition with early forms of pattern welding, and it does go beyond just piled construction blades. After Rome takes over, the main centers of production don't go away. These kinds of things don't seem to point to the junk blades that some would want us to believe they had.

There is also the question of why we don't know. I don't know of any recent studies being done, and people seem less open to the idea of cutting and studying blades now then the originals were done. When it was done they got more questions then answers out of it. Part of that may have been with some of the practices of the time. They folded some of those suckers up pretty good to kill them, so they may have been putting the heat to them as part of this. We don't know, and probably will never have a totally clear picture of a heck of a lot of things about this period.

Shane
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Jean Henri Chandler




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PostPosted: Thu 09 Jul, 2009 4:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:
In "Greece and Rome at War" (p. 115) Connolly reckons that he has personally seen a La Tene sword dredged from lake Lake Neuchatel "bent almost double and then flex back". This was a 2000 year old artefact, not a modern reconstruction.


If I understand you correctly, that is interesting indeed.

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Pleiner's work is the best book on this subject and his results should be no surprise, since the same thing is observed in every sword-making culture. Most swords are good functional tools, a few are exceptional, and the rest are poor quality. The specific percentages of each depend largely on the skill of the maker.


I guess the question relevant to Polybius remains then, how does this compare with studies of Roman swords? I know studies like this have been done on Roman weapons.

J

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PostPosted: Thu 09 Jul, 2009 11:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Shane Allee wrote:
These were blades which had I believe a higher manganese content, which doesn't harden well with normal heat treatment. It does however work-harden, which they did as a last result.

I suspect you are thinking of phosphorus, instead of manganese (which actually promotes hardening to some extent). Otherwise, spot on.... Wink

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Jean Henri Chandler




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PostPosted: Fri 10 Jul, 2009 7:28 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I looked for Early Irish Ironworking but it's out of print and no used copies were available on Amazon. I'll check Ebay later.

What you say about using phosophorous and the correlation to work hardeing is interesting, I know this was also done by the Vendel period Norse who smelted their iron with bone and / or bird dung to get their phosphorous.

I'd just like to find some more solid evidence if there is any, I'll post here if I find anything interesting, I'm going to review some online journals.

J

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Shane Allee
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PostPosted: Fri 10 Jul, 2009 10:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

G Ezell wrote:
Shane Allee wrote:
These were blades which had I believe a higher manganese content, which doesn't harden well with normal heat treatment. It does however work-harden, which they did as a last result.

I suspect you are thinking of phosphorus, instead of manganese (which actually promotes hardening to some extent). Otherwise, spot on.... Wink


You are right, I was thinking phosphorus. What I was remembering about manganese was something talking about modern use and work hardening.

I was also thinking about this tonight... Even if you take a dead soft blade from this period and try and use it, where will it bend and under what conditions. I have my doubts a person would see much until you start getting pooched cuts, where you are putting stress on the blade opposite the edge. Now bending might be more likely to happen at the tang near the blade shoulders, but that wouldn't follow the idea of straighting the blade with the foot.

Of course there is also the issue of having a limited number of times you can bend it before it breaks. I can say that I've noticed any that look like they were broken because of something like that.

If anything else, you can always try ILL to get a copy of Early Irish Ironworking. That is what I ended up doing since several years ago copies were already well over a hundred dollars US.

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Jeroen Zuiderwijk
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PostPosted: Mon 20 Jul, 2009 1:40 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

"Iron and steel in ancient times" by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald (2005), contains analyses of 24 different continental iron age swords, including 1 hallstatt and the rest la tene swords. None of these swords have been quench hardened, eventhough several of the swords have sufficient high carbon. The phosphorous contents is generally low with some exeptions, but some of the high carbon ones have virtually no phosphorous. All except one suffering fire damage, show increase in hardness through workhardening (the fire damage example shows evidence of workhardening due to fragmentation of the slag inclusions). The hardness readings (5 given per blade), vary mostly in the 150-250HV range. So these swords definately would bend, supporting Polybius notions. I've yet to see any evidence of pre-Roman quench hardening in weapons and other sharp implements.
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PostPosted: Mon 20 Jul, 2009 5:10 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

That's pretty interesting. Back around 2001 or two I attended a lecture by Dr. Alan Williams at the Wallace collection, in which he described the swords he had analyzed as being carbon alloyed with phosphorus rather than carbon. It's nice to know that there was more to La Tene stuff than that. My own experience of medium carbon steels fit to make springs from is that if the metal is normalized, it should give it a fine pearlitic structure if done properly, which is actually quite 'springy', though not as optimally as a full heat treat.
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PostPosted: Thu 23 Jul, 2009 6:43 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeroen Zuiderwijk wrote:
"Iron and steel in ancient times" by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald (2005), contains analyses of 24 different continental iron age swords, including 1 hallstatt and the rest la tene swords. None of these swords have been quench hardened, eventhough several of the swords have sufficient high carbon. The phosphorous contents is generally low with some exeptions, but some of the high carbon ones have virtually no phosphorous. All except one suffering fire damage, show increase in hardness through workhardening (the fire damage example shows evidence of workhardening due to fragmentation of the slag inclusions). The hardness readings (5 given per blade), vary mostly in the 150-250HV range. So these swords definately would bend, supporting Polybius notions. I've yet to see any evidence of pre-Roman quench hardening in weapons and other sharp implements.


So are you suggesting that the Roman weapons were different, were Roman swords heat treated and were they steel or iron? I haven't been able to get accurate information comparing the metalurgy of the two cultures (broadly speaking).

J

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PostPosted: Thu 23 Jul, 2009 6:44 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

James Arlen Gillaspie wrote:
That's pretty interesting. Back around 2001 or two I attended a lecture by Dr. Alan Williams at the Wallace collection, in which he described the swords he had analyzed as being carbon alloyed with phosphorus rather than carbon. It's nice to know that there was more to La Tene stuff than that. My own experience of medium carbon steels fit to make springs from is that if the metal is normalized, it should give it a fine pearlitic structure if done properly, which is actually quite 'springy', though not as optimally as a full heat treat.


Yes this complicates the issue further, there seem to have been many ways to make a ferrous weapon flexible or suitible to be a sword....

J

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PostPosted: Thu 23 Jul, 2009 6:57 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There is also a possibility that the geometry of the blades came into play. A longer, thinner blade will be more prone to bending than a short, thick one. I don't know enough about the cross-section profiles of Celtic swords and gladii to be sure, but I suspect that at equivalent metallurgical quality, it is easier to bend a Celtic sword than a Roman gladius. Perhaps this effect would be sufficient to explain Polybius' observation...
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PostPosted: Thu 23 Jul, 2009 9:50 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Could it also be that the treating wasn't thorough, causing weak spots that were prone to bending? Would alloying with phosphorous allow it to be hardened only up to a degree where tempering isn't needed (thus preventing it from shattering)?

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Jeroen Zuiderwijk
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PostPosted: Fri 24 Jul, 2009 12:25 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jean Henri Chandler wrote:
So are you suggesting that the Roman weapons were different, were Roman swords heat treated and were they steel or iron? I haven't been able to get accurate information comparing the metalurgy of the two cultures (broadly speaking).

J
I've seen various Roman swords that were definately hardened. None of them are contemporary with the La Tene swords though, all are several centuries later. Mind that a lot of the celtic swords were steel, not just plain iron, they just weren't heat treated. My guess is that this was because they hadn't figured out tempering yet.
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PostPosted: Fri 24 Jul, 2009 12:37 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Vincent Le Chevalier wrote:
There is also a possibility that the geometry of the blades came into play. A longer, thinner blade will be more prone to bending than a short, thick one.
Mind that a thinner longer blade also flexes more easily. You can bend it a lot further before plastic deformation occurs. This does happen at lower forces though then with short and thick blades.

Quote:
I don't know enough about the cross-section profiles of Celtic swords and gladii to be sure, but I suspect that at equivalent metallurgical quality, it is easier to bend a Celtic sword than a Roman gladius. Perhaps this effect would be sufficient to explain Polybius' observation...
Polybius states that "the Gauls at the Battle of Telamon (224 BC) had inferior iron swords which bent at the first stroke and had to be straightened with the foot against the ground". What swords did the Romans use 224BC b.t.w.? AFAIK the swords at that time were longer and narrower then the typical gladius of later years.
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PostPosted: Fri 24 Jul, 2009 2:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeroen Zuiderwijk wrote:
Vincent Le Chevalier wrote:
There is also a possibility that the geometry of the blades came into play. A longer, thinner blade will be more prone to bending than a short, thick one.
Mind that a thinner longer blade also flexes more easily. You can bend it a lot further before plastic deformation occurs. This does happen at lower forces though then with short and thick blades.
That's what I meant, if for example there is no temper at all the longer sword is more likely to bend upon impact. Assuming there is a difference in cross-section/thickness indeed... If the sword is longer and not tempered as well, the effects compound...
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PostPosted: Fri 24 Jul, 2009 12:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Vincent Le Chevalier wrote:
Jeroen Zuiderwijk wrote:
Vincent Le Chevalier wrote:
There is also a possibility that the geometry of the blades came into play. A longer, thinner blade will be more prone to bending than a short, thick one.
Mind that a thinner longer blade also flexes more easily. You can bend it a lot further before plastic deformation occurs. This does happen at lower forces though then with short and thick blades.
That's what I meant, if for example there is no temper at all the longer sword is more likely to bend upon impact. Assuming there is a difference in cross-section/thickness indeed... If the sword is longer and not tempered as well, the effects compound...
If there's no temper, the blade will shatter, rather then bend. Remind that tempering is to remove brittleness, quenching is to increase hardness (and brittleness as a result) Happy The celts could definately quench harden, and would know the effects. They probably hadn't mastered tempering yet, which is why they didn't quench harden swords as they'd be too brittle without tempering.

But you're right that a long and thin non quench hardened blade is more likely to bend then a shorter thicker blade with the same treatment. I wonder though if the early Roman swords contemporary to the Celtic ones were that different in shape. I recall pictures of early Roman swords, IIRC they were long and thin as well. Perhaps not as long as the Celtic swords, but a lot closer then the later gladii. If they were of the same low hardness, they'd bend as well, although a little less frequent.

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PostPosted: Fri 24 Jul, 2009 9:24 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeroen Zuiderwijk wrote:
"Iron and steel in ancient times" by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald (2005), contains analyses of 24 different continental iron age swords, including 1 hallstatt and the rest la tene swords. None of these swords have been quench hardened, eventhough several of the swords have sufficient high carbon. The phosphorous contents is generally low with some exeptions, but some of the high carbon ones have virtually no phosphorous. All except one suffering fire damage, show increase in hardness through workhardening (the fire damage example shows evidence of workhardening due to fragmentation of the slag inclusions). The hardness readings (5 given per blade), vary mostly in the 150-250HV range. So these swords definately would bend, supporting Polybius notions. I've yet to see any evidence of pre-Roman quench hardening in weapons and other sharp implements.



Jeroen,
I have to say that I find it rather interesting that you are using “Iron and Steel in Ancient Times” by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald to support the writings of Polybius considering Buchwald states the following:

Almost all the Celtic swords here examined were of good quality and would undoubtedly have yielded good service. It is thus very difficult to accept the statement by Polybius (200-118 B.C.) (Book 2: 33) when he describes the fight between invading Celtic armies and Roman Army under Consul Flaminius in the Po Valley 223 B.C. Polybius says “The swords of the Celts are such that only the first cut is dangerous; then the swords become bent and assume the shape of a strigil, so that the men have to have time to put the swords down and set them straight with the foot. Othererwise the next blow is entirely without effect” This appears to be a tall tale, or sheer nonsense, because it is impossible to deform a Celtic sword, generally of a 45 X 5mm cross section so that it is bent both lengthwise and crosswise as a strigil, and secondly it is still more impossible to rectify the situation with the foot. It would require reheating to forging temperature and hammer and anvil. Tholander (1982) and Pleiner (2000;34) are of the same opinion.

Furthermore he goes on to say:
Considering the nonsense-statement by Polybius, one comes to think of the many ritually S-bent swords which have been found in Celtic graves. Perhaps the contemporaneous writer was aware of these deformed weapons and misinterpreted them.

Still need to spend some time with “Iron and Steel in Ancient Times” to get deeper into it. It is limited in that it is a reexamination of 23 of the swords Pleiner studied and these only date to the La Tene I and II periods. The very end of the La Tene II and beginning of the La Tene III period is when we do see all the new innovation in blade design and technology start happening. As far as I know this has not been studied like the earlier stuff and shouldn’t have the same conclusions drawn about them. Buchwald mentions that none studied has a deliberate piling, and we know this isn’t the case with the later swords from the period since some show clear piled construction and some possible pattern welding.
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PostPosted: Sun 26 Jul, 2009 3:25 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Shane Allee wrote:
Jeroen,
I have to say that I find it rather interesting that you are using “Iron and Steel in Ancient Times” by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald to support the writings of Polybius considering Buchwald states the following:

Almost all the Celtic swords here examined were of good quality and would undoubtedly have yielded good service. It is thus very difficult to accept the statement by Polybius (200-118 B.C.) (Book 2: 33) when he describes the fight between invading Celtic armies and Roman Army under Consul Flaminius in the Po Valley 223 B.C. Polybius says “The swords of the Celts are such that only the first cut is dangerous; then the swords become bent and assume the shape of a strigil, so that the men have to have time to put the swords down and set them straight with the foot. Othererwise the next blow is entirely without effect” This appears to be a tall tale, or sheer nonsense, because it is impossible to deform a Celtic sword, generally of a 45 X 5mm cross section so that it is bent both lengthwise and crosswise as a strigil, and secondly it is still more impossible to rectify the situation with the foot. It would require reheating to forging temperature and hammer and anvil. Tholander (1982) and Pleiner (2000;34) are of the same opinion.

I'm basing my opinion on the hardness measurements, and the blade geometry of most la tene blades I've seen, combined with my own experience with working with metals of these hardnesses. The majority of la tene blades I know are very very thin. The I've seen various blades with tip sections just 1-2mm thick, basically sheet metal. If those swords are of the same hardness as the tested swords, you can easily bend that even by hand, no need to put it under your feet. But even at 5mm, you can bend a blade with a hardness of 150-200HV under the foot easily. I've actually even bend a hardened steel blade (40 x 5 mm) under the foot that needed some straightening after hardening. That just took a lot more force, and bending it at a much greater angle before it took deformation.

Now Polybius is probably exaggerating a lot, and may have taken account of a few swords bending in such fashion after a bad strike and generalizing that over all Celtic swords. Naturally these swords were very useful weapons, otherwise they would have made them differently. But did have their weak sides. The same holds true for bronze age swords, which are generally even softer aside from the edges (though usually thicker at the center or midrib and usually shorter). These can be bend by hand easily, yet survive a well performed full force cut at even a solid piece of wood without any harm.

Quote:
Furthermore he goes on to say:
Considering the nonsense-statement by Polybius, one comes to think of the many ritually S-bent swords which have been found in Celtic graves. Perhaps the contemporaneous writer was aware of these deformed weapons and misinterpreted them.

Still need to spend some time with “Iron and Steel in Ancient Times” to get deeper into it. It is limited in that it is a reexamination of 23 of the swords Pleiner studied and these only date to the La Tene I and II periods. The very end of the La Tene II and beginning of the La Tene III period is when we do see all the new innovation in blade design and technology start happening. As far as I know this has not been studied like the earlier stuff and shouldn’t have the same conclusions drawn about them.
That may be true, but Polybius describes swords of the La Tene II period, so IMO his observations are supported by the metallurgical evidence. Naturally these 23 swords don't show the entire picture, but they do show that within 23 swords, non were quench hardened. That shows that even if they did quench harden swords, these would have been rather exceptional. Of later periods, amongst such a number of swords at least a handful would be hardened. So my answer to if Celtic swords were bendy is still yup, a lot of them were, at least up to about 200-100BC.
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