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John A. Brown





Joined: 19 Feb 2015

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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 9:17 am    Post subject: Would iron and steel swords slice bronze age swords and shie         Reply with quote

Obviously iron and steel weapons are superior to bronze weapons there's no doubt.

But I notice on the internet and even a few TV shows like Deadliest Warriors there is a notion that bronze age weapons are so inferior that an Viking-age longsword or American Civil War saber would simply slice a bronze sword upon contact, if not outright shatter it into -tiny glass pieces.

So many discussions on bronze age vs iron age weapons assume that bronze is so weak that even the hard shields the Greeks used would be cut in half like butter by a Scottish claymore or smashed apart by a medieval war hammer.

Is this true? Was bronze weapons so inferior that giving an iron sword to some peasant would automatically enable him to cut a Spartan's sword and shield into pieces in a duel resulting in the Spartan being easily slaughtered?

That's the assumption of how much of a technological breakthrough it was for warfare when it was discovered that iron ore can be made into swords!

If the gap wasn't so great, what exactly made iron swords superior to bronze age weapons that lead to the dominance of iron in warfare (despite copper being far more commonly found)? I mean couldn't medieval peasants at least got the cheaper bronze weapons when called to war rather than the crappy improvised pitchforks and farm tools they often brought to war in the feudal era?
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Philip Dyer





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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 9:38 am    Post subject: Re: Would iron and steel swords slice bronze age swords and         Reply with quote

John A. Brown wrote:
Obviously iron and steel weapons are superior to bronze weapons there's no doubt.

But I notice on the internet and even a few TV shows like Deadliest Warriors there is a notion that bronze age weapons are so inferior that an Viking-age longsword or American Civil War saber would simply slice a bronze sword upon contact, if not outright shatter it into -tiny glass pieces.

So many discussions on bronze age vs iron age weapons assume that bronze is so weak that even the hard shields the Greeks used would be cut in half like butter by a Scottish claymore or smashed apart by a medieval war hammer.

Is this true? Was bronze weapons so inferior that giving an iron sword to some peasant would automatically enable him to cut a Spartan's sword and shield into pieces in a duel resulting in the Spartan being easily slaughtered?

That's the assumption of how much of a technological breakthrough it was for warfare when it was discovered that iron ore can be made into swords!

If the gap wasn't so great, what exactly made iron swords superior to bronze age weapons that lead to the dominance of iron in warfare (despite copper being far more commonly found)? I mean couldn't medieval peasants at least got the cheaper bronze weapons when called to war rather than the crappy improvised pitchforks and farm tools they often brought to war in the feudal era?

copper is a shitty metal to make weapons out of, way to soft. Pure iron is as soft as bronze, but iron and carbon are much more abundantly found in most of the world than copper and tin. From what I've read from bronze age academics such as Dan Howard, well worked bronze can be as tough as medium carbon steel
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Pieter B.





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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 11:07 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I prefer scientific documents but I think this video sums it up just as well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngjMtzJ6xgQ#t=615

Not the strongest of blows from a steel weapon but it does damage the edge of the bronze sword significantly. However using a shield with the bronze sword would largely prevent this from happening.
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Timo Nieminen




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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 12:33 pm    Post subject: Re: Would iron and steel swords slice bronze age swords and         Reply with quote

John A. Brown wrote:
Obviously iron and steel weapons are superior to bronze weapons there's no doubt.


Not obviously. OK, it's pretty obvious for steel, but it isn't at all obvious for iron. Iron is harder than soft bronzes, but hard high tin bronzes (such as were used to make cutting weapons) are harder than iron. Work-hardened iron can be harder than annealed high tin bronzes, but work-hardened high tin bronzes are harder still.

For bronze vs iron weapons, bronze will be harder. But bronze weapons need to be a little thicker to have the same stiffness, since bronze has a lower elastic modulus, and bronze is denser, so bronze weapons will be heavier, on average, for the same length and similar geometry.

John A. Brown wrote:
Is this true? Was bronze weapons so inferior that giving an iron sword to some peasant would automatically enable him to cut a Spartan's sword and shield into pieces in a duel resulting in the Spartan being easily slaughtered?


No. Consider that bronze armour continued to be used in the Iron Age. Probably more bronze armour used in the Iron Age than in the Bronze Age. Just consider Roman bronze helmets.

John A. Brown wrote:
If the gap wasn't so great, what exactly made iron swords superior to bronze age weapons that lead to the dominance of iron in warfare (despite copper being far more commonly found)? I mean couldn't medieval peasants at least got the cheaper bronze weapons when called to war rather than the crappy improvised pitchforks and farm tools they often brought to war in the feudal era?


Iron replaced bronze because it was cheaper. Eventually, steel replaced iron because it was better.

Iron is much more abundant than copper. But copper is common enough. What makes bronze expensive is the tin (which means that "weapons grade" high tin bronze is even more expensive than regular bronze).

You don't bring poor farm tools as weapons of war if you can afford better. If you can afford a spear, bring that. Some farm tools do OK, perhaps with a little modification. E.g., billhooks and flails. The more successful peasants would bring guns, all the guns they could afford. If you can't afford a spear, you won't be able to afford bronze weapons either.

"In addition to being efficient, all pole arms were quite nice to look at." - Cherney Berg, A hideous history of weapons, Collier 1963.
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 12:59 pm    Post subject: Re: Would iron and steel swords slice bronze age swords and         Reply with quote

John A. Brown wrote:
Obviously iron and steel weapons are superior to bronze weapons there's no doubt.


Completely wrong. High-tin bronze that is hammer-hardened is *harder* than any iron or steel available in the ancient world. It isn't until quenching of high-carbon steels becomes common that steel is overall superior to bronze. Mind you, straight hardness is only one of many qualities that must be compared when considering what makes weapons or armor "better"!

Quote:
But I notice on the internet and even a few TV shows like Deadliest Warriors there is a notion that bronze age weapons are so inferior that an Viking-age longsword or American Civil War saber would simply slice a bronze sword upon contact, if not outright shatter it into -tiny glass pieces.

So many discussions on bronze age vs iron age weapons assume that bronze is so weak that even the hard shields the Greeks used would be cut in half like butter by a Scottish claymore or smashed apart by a medieval war hammer.

Is this true? Was bronze weapons so inferior that giving an iron sword to some peasant would automatically enable him to cut a Spartan's sword and shield into pieces in a duel resulting in the Spartan being easily slaughtered?


Sorry, I don't know where all this stuff comes from, though I have a few ideas. It's all complete bunk. Geez, those are worse than usual! First of all, you don't strike ancient weapons against each other! *Shields* are for blocking. And battle shields were typically wood or hide--the classic Greek aspis (hoplite shield) was wood with a very thin bronze facing, or just a facing of linen or leather.

Back in 1963 there was a famous "test" of "bronze" armor and weapons by John Coles. He made a shield out of 0.3mm copper and hit it with a bronze sword (of unspecified alloy, weight, etc.). Chopped right through it. From this it has for 50 years been concluded with religious fanatacism that "ALL BRONZE ARMOR IS USELESS IN BATTLE". Utter crap. Tin bronze is FAR stronger and harder than the copper he used, and bronze armor and shields are in the range of 1 to 1.5mm thick, in other words 3 to 5 times thicker than Coles' "shield". With serious academics falling for silliness like this, I can hardly blame "Deadliest Warriors" for stupidity, but I'd still advise you to forget everything you've heard on shows like that!

Quote:
That's the assumption of how much of a technological breakthrough it was for warfare when it was discovered that iron ore can be made into swords!


There was no "breakthrough" at all--warfare overall did not change suddenly or dramatically. Probably! We still debate the exact hows and whys of the change from bronze to iron, but it's likely that sheer availability had a lot to do with it. Copper and especially tin come from only a few sources in the ancient Western world, whereas iron is nearly everywhere. Interestingly, during the Iron Age, the actual amount of bronze in use for weapons, armor, and domestic items went up dramatically, so it wasn't like bronze was "rare" or prohibitively expensive. The Greeks of the Archaic and Classical eras (including the Spartans we all know and love) were well into the iron age and had steel weapons, but used bronze almost exclusively for armor and other items. The Romans had plenty of good iron armor and helmets, but continued to make helmets out of bronze and even brass (which can't possibly be as strong as bronze!) right into the 3rd and 4th centuries *AD*.

Quote:
If the gap wasn't so great, what exactly made iron swords superior to bronze age weapons that lead to the dominance of iron in warfare (despite copper being far more commonly found)? I mean couldn't medieval peasants at least got the cheaper bronze weapons when called to war rather than the crappy improvised pitchforks and farm tools they often brought to war in the feudal era?


Well, "peasants" did not go to war with pitchforks, but that's another discussion! (There were well-established laws and regulations concerning minimal equipment for military service, and those who could not afford the minimums did not fight.) As I indicated, iron was the cheap metal of choice long before the middle ages, and while copper and bronze were still very much in use, there would not be much of those on the average peasant farm.

I suspect the initial rise of iron to dominance was partly that it was much easier to find, but also in many ways easier to work. Sure, bronze can be melted and cast to any desired shape, but making molds and casting bronze is a very involved and tricky process that can go fatally wrong (for the object, I mean!) at any point. A mold can crack or warp while drying or firing, the molten bronze can leak out when pouring, or not reach the whole mold, or get blocked by a bit of charcoal, or the finished item can have charcoal inclusions or porosity or a big gap or crack across it, etc. A cast item being finished by hammer work can crack. Any of these mean chucking it all back into the crucible and starting over. You cannot hammer hot bronze, so it has to be annealed and worked cold. You can't forge weld it. By comparison, iron is extremely forgiving! It can be hot-worked, in fact you *have* to start by forging the bloom to remove slag, etc. Hot working means speed and safety, no fear of cracking. Cracks due to excessive cold work might be repaired by forge-welding, and smaller pieces can be welded together if necessary (pattern-welded or piled swords blades, for example).

Making a single socketed spearhead is actually more work and trickier than a sword blade because of the socket. You need a 3-piece mold, and if the core for the inside of the socket is out of place, the piece is useless even if the pour goes well otherwise. You have all the same potential problems for other kinds of clay or stone molds, and days of work. Give an iron worker a lump of iron, and with a couple apprentices and beaters he can work it out into a bar, start lopping off triangles, and toss at least 2 or 3 cheap spearheads into a bucket every hour. THAT has the potential to change warfare. An aristocratic warrior of any culture has no concern for drudgery or time or price, he simply buys fine weapons and armor. But no bronze worker is going to offer him a crate of 100 spearheads for cheap like an iron worker can. THAT makes a decently-armed *army* possible, not just a little "band of brothers".

Bottom line, it's complicated! But beware of all the garbage ideas floating around, based on bad data or worse interpretations.

Matthew
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Ben Coomer




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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 1:08 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think getting too focused on the weapon looses sight that training and skill have a bigger difference on how effective a weapon is. Obviously if there is too huge a difference in technology, training won't magically make up the difference. A Spartan fighting a plate armored knight is probably screwed. But handing a peasant a longsword and sending him in probably means a dead peasant. The peasant isn't going to simply cut through the Spartans equipment and the Spartan also knows how to use timing, distance, and strategy in a way that the peasant is just not going to have.

There's no magic super melee weapon that makes an outcome assured.
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Jeffrey Faulk




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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 6:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matthew:

I may be off base on this but could the use of bronze as armour by the Greeks versus iron be a status symbol thing if bronze was in fact more costly? If you could afford hoplite equipment, bronze could make more of an impression on the plebians than plain iron... Just a random thought.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Fri 20 Feb, 2015 11:02 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

When iron first started to be used to make armour it is likely that this was the status symbol because bronze was more prevalent. At some point in time, iron armour became more common and cheaper than bronze and bronze was once again the status symbol. Bronze made better armour than iron until the intricacies of quench-hardened steel were understood.
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Sat 21 Feb, 2015 7:05 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jeffrey Faulk wrote:
Matthew:

I may be off base on this but could the use of bronze as armour by the Greeks versus iron be a status symbol thing if bronze was in fact more costly? If you could afford hoplite equipment, bronze could make more of an impression on the plebians than plain iron... Just a random thought.


Well, I would say that just about ALL armor is a status symbol of some kind! Ancient warfare WAS ceremony, a huge ritualistic focus of their lives. Bling counted. But I would say the Classical Greeks used bronze for armor and helmets simply because that was their tradition, and it worked fine. There simply was no iron armor industry, even though there had long been iron and steel weapons. The first iron armor we see in the Aegean is Phillip II's cuirass from Vergina, and as Dan said, that was clearly a royal status symbol (even though it is perfectly functional and effective armor). What gets less press, incidentally, is that right next to that cuirass were fittings from an organic cuirass, though I don't know if there is evidence for whether it was leather or linen.

What's also interesting is that when cheap pilos (or "bell") helmets start to be produced in Greece, for a growing number of mercenaries and "cheap" infantry, they're all made of bronze! Greece has no copper or tin deposits, so ALL bronze had to be imported, but for some reason, what we think of as the "obvious" concept of using more local iron deposits for armor simply escaped them. Remember, these people invented the atom, so reducing a problem to its smallest basic parts was hardly foreign to them! It's easy for us to over-think all these questions.

Matthew
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Cotter Eyre





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PostPosted: Fri 15 Sep, 2017 12:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

My understanding (and i'm no proffesional, I've just talked with people who know things) is that while iron makes better weapons, bronze makes better armor.
Iron is more brittle than bronze, and thus is more prone to break when used as armor. Bronze bends more often when hit (while being used as armor), and thus is better than iron as armor.
Bronze's bending is good while in armor form, but you would never want your sword to bend. Since iron doesn't bend as much, it is a better material for swords (not to mention its ability to be sharpened).
Proof for this can be found in how greek hoplites used mostly bronze armor, but iron weapons. They clearly were aware of iron's better properties, and took advantage of them.
The reason, I gather, that iron replaced bronze as armor had little to do with superiority. Iron won out because it was cheaper and easier to make. To make iron, you need one thing: iron. To make bronze, you need both copper and tin. And not only is tin much rarer than iron (I don't know about copper), but often you can't find both copper and tin in the same places.
Often the best way to get both bronze ingredients was through trading. But your trade routes tend to get broken when in war, so bronze is harder to get a constant supply of.
Thus, when trying to build massive armies, you need mass supply of a type of metal. Iron can be made in larger quantities than bronze, and requires only one source, so naturally civilizations gravitated toward that, rather than bronze.
If I have said anything that is incorrect, I apologize. I'm obviously not an expert, and I'm open to correction.
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Luka Borscak




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PostPosted: Fri 15 Sep, 2017 1:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I won't comment on the armour efficiency because testing would be needed, but you definitely want your sword to bend rather than break. You can still fight with a bent sword, with broken not. Unless you are Tony Curtis.


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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Fri 15 Sep, 2017 7:42 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Cotter Eyre wrote:
My understanding (and i'm no proffesional, I've just talked with people who know things) is that while iron makes better weapons, bronze makes better armor.
Iron is more brittle than bronze, and thus is more prone to break when used as armor. Bronze bends more often when hit (while being used as armor), and thus is better than iron as armor.
Bronze's bending is good while in armor form, but you would never want your sword to bend. Since iron doesn't bend as much, it is a better material for swords (not to mention its ability to be sharpened).
Proof for this can be found in how greek hoplites used mostly bronze armor, but iron weapons. They clearly were aware of iron's better properties, and took advantage of them.
The reason, I gather, that iron replaced bronze as armor had little to do with superiority. Iron won out because it was cheaper and easier to make. To make iron, you need one thing: iron. To make bronze, you need both copper and tin. And not only is tin much rarer than iron (I don't know about copper), but often you can't find both copper and tin in the same places.
Often the best way to get both bronze ingredients was through trading. But your trade routes tend to get broken when in war, so bronze is harder to get a constant supply of.
Thus, when trying to build massive armies, you need mass supply of a type of metal. Iron can be made in larger quantities than bronze, and requires only one source, so naturally civilizations gravitated toward that, rather than bronze.
If I have said anything that is incorrect, I apologize. I'm obviously not an expert, and I'm open to correction.


Coupla things. Straight wrought iron is actually quite malleable, and tough. But apparently it is best worked (forged) at high temperatures. Trying to work it cold makes it split or crack. That all changes in various ways depending on the carbon content, or the addition of sulfur or phosphorous, both used to increase hardness.

It was much more difficult for a while to make iron *sheet*, in other words to make armor and other thin objects. Thin metal loses the heat too quickly, so until they worked out methods such as stacking or folding or more efficient hammering, there just wasn't much in the way of iron *armor*. Iron weapons they could do.

Bronze also varies a LOT depending on the tin content and whether it is hammer-hardened or not. Some was malleable--swords certainly could bend--some was very hard and more likely to crack.

Yes, copper and tin come from only a few places and most people had to import them. That generally wasn't a problem, though obviously it added to the cost. And cost wasn't a problem for the wealthy classes who were buying the bronze armor (and other items), in fact it was a plus. Conspicuous consumption! Wars tended to be very short, and were rarely on a scale that was international enough to disrupt trade to the point where bronze imports were halted. Wouldn't matter in any case, since you didn't bother going to war unless your troops were already equipped, generally.

Yes, if you need more troops equipped than just the upper classes, iron starts to make more sense. Of course, most of those un-wealthy troops did not *have* armor, most of the time, so you only need shields and weapons.

In the end, I do agree that the availability of iron made it the obvious choice. Also the wide range of ways to improve its various qualities was probably helpful. But bronze never really went away, in fact the overall amount of it in use INcreased over time. And yes, I wouldn't say one metal or the other is "better" for either armor or weapons, since both had advantages and disadvantages beyond simple hardness.

Complicated issue!

Matthew
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Sean Manning




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PostPosted: Thu 22 Mar, 2018 3:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Seeing the idea of iron vs. bronze on this forum inspired me to write a two-page article on the question in Ancient Warfare XI.6. If you ever wondered where the idea came from, I hope you will learn something new!

If anyone has read it and still has questions, I might be able to answer quick ones.
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Doug Lester




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PostPosted: Fri 23 Mar, 2018 2:41 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Yes copper and tin are less common than iron but iron is harder to extract from it's ore and in the bronze age it was as expensive as gold because of this. Just like at one time aluminum was more expensive than gold, even though it is even more common then iron in ore form. To make steel the iron would have to be need to have carbon added to it which is not an obvious procedure as mixing tin with copper.

As far as bronze armor goes it wasn't as common in the bronze age as people think. Layers of linen glued together was more common and it was quite effective. Remember cloth armor was worn through the late middle ages to good effect at least for the common foot soldier and in the early middle ages it backed up mail.

Doug
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Fri 23 Mar, 2018 4:45 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Doug Lester wrote:
Yes copper and tin are less common than iron but iron is harder to extract from it's ore and in the bronze age it was as expensive as gold because of this.


At first, yes! King Tut's dagger, iron blades in noble graves in Italy, etc. However, iron smelting involves the use of a reducing atmosphere, which was already well known from pottery firing. Not saying it was an obvious thing! More like, "Oh, we know how to build THAT kind of furnace!"

Quote:
To make steel the iron would have to be need to have carbon added to it which is not an obvious procedure as mixing tin with copper.


It's hard to escape a certain amount of carbon content, but it certainly was a long time before they figured out how to add enough to make steel that could be quench-hardened, or how to make decent steel consistently and in more than small amounts.

Quote:
As far as bronze armor goes it wasn't as common in the bronze age as people think. Layers of linen glued together was more common and it was quite effective.


Ah, no! Glued linen is entirely a modern invention, with no basis in historical evidence. *Quilted* linen was known to the Mycenaeans, but linen armor may not have become common until well into the Iron Age. And it was likely mostly twined at that point. Though some sort of leather or hide was also common, in Greece at least and probably elsewhere. I do agree that there was not a lot of bronze body armor in most places during the Bronze Age! In fact I strongly suspect that many of the "Bronze Age" cuirasses that survive from Western Europe are actually Iron Age in date.

Matthew
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Fri 23 Mar, 2018 11:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Doug Lester wrote:
Yes copper and tin are less common than iron but iron is harder to extract from it's ore and in the bronze age it was as expensive as gold because of this. Just like at one time aluminum was more expensive than gold, even though it is even more common then iron in ore form. To make steel the iron would have to be need to have carbon added to it which is not an obvious procedure as mixing tin with copper.
Doug


Experiments with ancient types of smelters suggest that it is very easy to add carbon. High carbon steel is the most common product and it is harder to produce steel with lower levels of carbon. In many smelts the bloom has a carbon content that is too high and needs to be decarburised by charging the smelter with more ore. Lee Sauder's work is well worth reading.
http://www.leesauder.com/smelting_research.php

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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Fri 23 Mar, 2018 11:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Matthew Amt wrote:
Ah, no! Glued linen is entirely a modern invention, with no basis in historical evidence. *Quilted* linen was known to the Mycenaeans, but linen armor may not have become common until well into the Iron Age. And it was likely mostly twined at that point. Though some sort of leather or hide was also common, in Greece at least and probably elsewhere.


I know that Matt knows all this but for those new to the subject, it was covered here.
http://myArmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=32137

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Sean Manning




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PostPosted: Sat 24 Mar, 2018 2:01 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Doug Lester wrote:
Yes copper and tin are less common than iron but iron is harder to extract from it's ore and in the bronze age it was as expensive as gold because of this. Just like at one time aluminum was more expensive than gold, even though it is even more common then iron in ore form. To make steel the iron would have to be need to have carbon added to it which is not an obvious procedure as mixing tin with copper.

As far as bronze armor goes it wasn't as common in the bronze age as people think. Layers of linen glued together was more common and it was quite effective. Remember cloth armor was worn through the late middle ages to good effect at least for the common foot soldier and in the early middle ages it backed up mail.

Doug

Unfortunately, the idea that glue was used in ancient linen armour appeared when Joseph Paul Lacombe's 1868 book on arms and armour was translated from French to English. Lacombe was summarizing a description of linen armour by a medieval writer who also does not mention glue. Ever since that clumsy translation, the idea keeps resurfacing, but the evidence is never there.
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William P




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PostPosted: Sun 27 May, 2018 9:36 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Howard wrote:


Experiments with ancient types of smelters suggest that it is very easy to add carbon. High carbon steel is the most common product and it is harder to produce steel with lower levels of carbon. In many smelts the bloom has a carbon content that is too high and needs to be decarburised by charging the smelter with more ore. Lee Sauder's work is well worth reading.
http://www.leesauder.com/smelting_research.php


ok so i think im missing a step, always the understanding of weapons has usually been
bronze
soft iron
later, iron with enough carbon to actually harden it,

and that getting to step 3 is a technological step forward, for example the romans and iberiians were famous for having steel, not iron swords. i presumed that meant that most iron produced was of quite low carbon content...
now your saying the smelters often produced sometimes too high carbon iron...

so yes, some expansion of this point would be nice because i think im missing a few pieces of the puzzle
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Mon 28 May, 2018 2:38 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

William P wrote:
Dan Howard wrote:


Experiments with ancient types of smelters suggest that it is very easy to add carbon. High carbon steel is the most common product and it is harder to produce steel with lower levels of carbon. In many smelts the bloom has a carbon content that is too high and needs to be decarburised by charging the smelter with more ore. Lee Sauder's work is well worth reading.
http://www.leesauder.com/smelting_research.php


ok so i think im missing a step, always the understanding of weapons has usually been
bronze
soft iron
later, iron with enough carbon to actually harden it,

and that getting to step 3 is a technological step forward, for example the romans and iberiians were famous for having steel, not iron swords. i presumed that meant that most iron produced was of quite low carbon content...
now your saying the smelters often produced sometimes too high carbon iron...

so yes, some expansion of this point would be nice because i think im missing a few pieces of the puzzle


I already provided a link to some well-researched papers.

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