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Andrew W




Location: Florida, USA
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PostPosted: Sat 12 Jul, 2014 7:25 am    Post subject: How would a 6th century smith have chosen what alloy to use?         Reply with quote

I've come up against a question in my PhD research that I lack the practical knowledge to answer, and I'm hoping some of you can give me guidance.

Smiths in 6th century CE England clearly knew how to distinguish between different alloys of iron (low carbon ferrite, steel, phosphorus). They welded steel or high phosphorus iron onto the edges of softer ferrite to give harder edges, used different alloys for pattern welding, and frequently applied the ideal treatment to the alloy they were using to get the best edge (work hardening phosphorus iron, quenching steel).

Given that bloomery iron is very heterogeneous, and that many smiths seem to have been working with iron that had been recycled, what methods could they have used to distinguish between different alloys?

The methods I've been able to think of are:
-testing the hardness with a file
-test forging a sample to see if it behaves the way the smith wants it to (or buying a billet that had already been partially forged to show its quality, like the ones used during the Iron Age)
-polishing and etching a sample (seems labor intensive?)

Are there other tricks or methods for guessing an iron's alloy? Is this something you can grasp intuitively with enough hands-on experience, so that tests might be unnecessary (is the whole idea of determining an alloy a modern concept, while smiths were more interested in finding an iron that responded correctly)? Are any of the ideas I've suggested not practical? I'm not a smith, and I'd love to hear any ideas you may have!
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Mark Griffin




Location: The Welsh Marches, in the hills above Newtown, Powys.
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PostPosted: Sat 12 Jul, 2014 12:34 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

An interesting question. I'm no metallurgist either but would a touchstone (of the right kind) be suitable for this task?
Currently working on projects ranging from Elizabethan pageants to a WW1 Tank, Victorian fairgrounds 1066 events and more. Oh and we joust loads!.. We run over 250 events for English Heritage each year plus many others for Historic Royal Palaces, Historic Scotland, the National Trust and more. If you live in the UK and are interested in working for us just drop us a line with a cv.
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Peter Johnsson
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PostPosted: Sun 13 Jul, 2014 1:46 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Iron with enough carbon content (steel) will harden if heated and quenched, while iron will not. This is very easily and quickly done by heating the end of a bar and then dipping it in water.
Phosphorous iron will work harden to a greater degree than iron when cold worked with a hammer. It will not harden from heating and quenching.
This means you can test to see what type of material you have, if you are uncertain.

They also feel slightly different under the hammer when forged, but that is a subtle thing and depends on your experience with the various types of material.

It is also possible that different grades/types/qualities of ferrous material was recognized by typical shape of the trade bars they were sold as. Different regions may have produced different shaped bars. Different types may have been shaped differently as a result of production as well as means of identification.
-This is something I caught up during a series of informal seminars held with archaeometallurgists and archaeology students a few years back. I think more research is needed to know more about these trade bars.
Some were wide and flat. Others narrow and rod shaped. Others still were wide, thin and folded over at one end and welded into a kind of socket (as a proof of quality presumably). There are other types of bar aside from these.
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Pieter B.





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PostPosted: Sun 13 Jul, 2014 7:58 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

In this documentary they show how a katana is made and they start with the process of extracting iron from ores and turning it into steel. The forge they use is practically the same as a bloomery (albeit one a bigger scale) and they demolish it at the end. The master melter then selects the right bits by using sight.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VE_4zHNcieM

Tune in at 11:20 to see him select the right bits and watch it from 5:00 if you want to see the bloomery in action.
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Jeffrey Faulk




Location: Georgia
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PostPosted: Mon 14 Jul, 2014 9:01 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Have there ever been any ingots or bars of raw steel and iron found in Europe from any period after the Romans and before the modern era? I would imagine nearly all of them would have been used up... I know there have been raw ingots found of Greek and Roman material, mostly bronze and copper and such, in shipwrecks for example. But I cannot think of any refined steel or iron that had ever been found from any such source.

Thanks!
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Andrew W




Location: Florida, USA
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PostPosted: Mon 14 Jul, 2014 10:01 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeffrey Faulk wrote:
Have there ever been any ingots or bars of raw steel and iron found in Europe from any period after the Romans and before the modern era?


There are, and they're worked into shapes to show off their quality. Pleiner has a chapter on them in (I believe) Iron in Archaeology: Early European Blacksmiths (if not there, then in his 2000 book on smelting). I'm not sure if we have any finds for the specific period I'm interested in (5-7th c. Britain), but I'll go back and look.

Thank you for the helpful responses so far, it's very much appreciated!
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Jared Smith




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PostPosted: Tue 15 Jul, 2014 3:20 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have seen what i think was a 13th century English inventory of all available iron ores.. translated into readable modern day English. I have kicked myself many times for not saving it.. or loosing track of where I put it. It had a statement to the effect that all fine polished tool iron (suited for craftsman level tools capable of working other metals and suited to fine or polished blades) was imported. It gave a couple of German regions as sources. Similarly, Victorian era "coach axle" iron was commonly imported because no consistently reliable source of making steel with "spring" like balance of toughness and hardness was known locally at that time. I am not trying to start any controversy or advocate one source as being absolutely right.. just saying use of import metals and knowledge of very specific sources for materials from other parts of the world that are particularly suited to certain types of uses has been demonstrated in period documents since Pliny the Elder's Natural Historia.

I have very limited smithing experience. But the few things I have done I was lucky to have mentors repeatedly state the importance of finding out appropriate materials and sources... and they are meticulous about labeling and sorting what they store if they do serious projects such as blade making. I should think 6th century smiths would have pursued knowledge of how to process locally available materials (possible carburizing, reforging-resmelting) and what foreign sources were available to them which made more sense to use than trying to make absolute everything from local raw ores themselves.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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Owen Bush
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PostPosted: Wed 16 Jul, 2014 1:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I would imagine that there would be a whole language around the usability of different bloomery materials that us modern smelters are only just starting to have to make up again.
The 3 basic materials you mention are easily differentiated by hardening and feel under the hammer as well as fracture type.
However you would be guessing and a phosphoric carbon material is gonna be hart to differentiate from a non phosphoric one....possably.

I am fairly certain that with a trained eye you would be able to see textural qualities of the material grain etc ala Japanese Tatara masters but I cant read the material like that (yet).

It is worth mentioning that because the material is not just iron and steel the slag element plays a big part in the working and welding characteristics of bloomery material.
The swedish steel naturally containing manganese must have been a wonder. non manganese steel with is a bitch to harden to any depth.

With the patternwelding there is certainly a lot of attention given to material etch tone, the more I look at origional pieces the more virtuosic this work is.......mixes of material for engineering advantage as well as tonal quality and varying line thickness.....
Different ores will all give slightly or greatly different characteristic ranges to the material and there was defiantly wide trade in bloomery materials I would guess because of material suitability for one use or another.

A lot of all of this is intuitive in that you are entering a world of vagueness. no longer is the material " 1095 high carbon steel" but more like "I think its high carbon steel (sure sparks like it) and it hardens so it must be!"
its all very interesting.

forging soul into steel .

www.owenbush.co.uk the home of bushfire forge school of smithing .
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Andrew W




Location: Florida, USA
Joined: 14 Oct 2010

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PostPosted: Wed 16 Jul, 2014 2:43 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thank you, Owen, your thoughts are very helpful.

Jared, I think you're right on all counts. The evidence for the 5-6th century in England isn't as clear as for the 7th on (largely because few Anglo-Saxon settlement sites from this period have been fully excavated, so we're stuck relying too heavily on evidence from cemeteries), but for example the 'smith' buried at Tattersall Thorpe was buried with a cache of old knives, suggesting they'd been sorted out of the scrap pile because they contained steel.
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