an abridged, meandering history of metalworking – Ambrose Burnside – Jan 12 (1/2)

an abridged, meandering history of metalworking

first off: properly speaking, this should preface everything about history ever, but especially for metalworking- we dont know shit. we really dont. a tiny fraction of all metalcrafts ever crafted have survived to the present day, and some types of metal are inclined to just not hang around very long (i.e., ironwork will rust to nothing in most environments in a relatively short span of time); a copper or bronze artifact will verdigris over and last for many, many centuries more than an iron sword would. this is obviously dependant on the environment- a dry tomb will preserve most things way better than being dropped into a river or lost in the underbrush will. this means that theres a bias in terms of metals and type of artifact likely to be preserved.
in addition, a whole lot of knowledge has been lost!! i can’t stress this enough as a metalworker!! its humbling as heck to be a first worlder and then leaf through a book on decorative metalworking and have every third page contain a footnote along the lines of “the ancients invented this but it got forgotten and had to be crudely replicated in the modern day with far less skill and grade”. there are so, so, SO many examples of techniques and methods that are simply not known any more. sit the worlds best living goldsmith down in front of any portion of the Sutton Hoo hoard and he’d be entirely out of his depth.
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this is a shoulder-clasp from the sutton hoo hoard. it’s a thing that holds two halves of a cuirass together. look at it. maybe its just cause i have an appreciation for the work that went into it, but it blows my fucking mind. there isnt a person on the planet today- there isn’t a guild or an artisan’s organization who, collectively, could today- replicate it with the tools and resources of the time.
hinging off that last part, archaeologists (especially the early Victorian-era butchers) dont have the knowledge or expertise to analyze any workshops or tools found beyond the most obvious (hammers, anvils, etc). there are a great many tools which are completely mystifying to the layman but have a very clear use to someone who tacitly understands the given medium. for example, take this-
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i dunno, its a chisel or something. maybe its the start of a spear or big knife. who knows. *affixes “ritual object/craftsman’s tool” tag depending on coin-flip*
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ahhh. it’s a drift, a -very specific- tool that happens to just look like a big round bar thats a lil tapered. thats kind of an awkward example, but there are much, much subtler tools that have undoubtedly been dismissed as raw materials or overlooked entirely. the people doing the excavating generally have no understanding of the actual logic behind the craft in question, so a whole lot gets missed. modern blacksmiths ‘speak the same language’, more or less (excluding electricity), that the ancients did, and theres a wonderful clarity to tool design that isn’t dimmed by the passage of time or the loss of knowledge.

but i digress

the early years
the actual origins of metalworking are unknown, but it’s generally agreed that the precious metals (copper, silver, gold) were exploited first, during the Neolithic (this is obviously very dependant on region/culture but it’s an alright rule of thumb if we’re generalizing). this is because they all occur in their natural, pure form in easily-accessible places, are quite soft and ductile, making themselves well-suited to cold-forming (which is what people would have started with), and are reasonably abundant in nature.
this brings up another point people never really think about- metal distribution was entirely radically different 8000 years ago. all three of the above metals were, compared to the current day, plentiful in native (i.e. pure) form, especially in the hollows of river-bends, both dry/ancient and active. before metalworking, precious metals were just about everywhere, because nobody had bothered to gather them up yet (there is something to be said for people picking up the pretty shiny heavy rocks because they were pretty, but this probably wasnt a terribly influential factor until people figured out what to do with the damn things).
in addition!! other metals were known and exploited in far, far antiquity, but they tend to get short shift when we’re also talking The Important Metals (i.e. the valuable ones and the ones good for making death implements). lead was known and exploited very early- in our beloved Catalhuyuk, lead beads with drilled holes have been found- and tin, which also occurred natively, was also known, but it is far too soft by itself to be of much use, and its relative scarcity compared to lead meant that it was relatively unimportant until the deliberate smelting of bronze (which ill get to). other metals were also utilized- antimony artifacts have been found, which baffles the hell out of everybody because we -still- cant render antimony soft enough to work with by itself- and platinum, other rare metals were known but they were insignificant enough to not get much attention yet. meteoric iron was a very rare but highly-prized metal, and the early egyptians basically lost their shit whenever they found a meteorite because it would render a much better, more durable knife than copper would, but again, meteorites are rare enough to not be a significant metalworking factor.

at this point it would be good to point out that metalworking has probably shaped the modern landscape more than any other force. why? deforestation. you need fuel to get metal hot enough to work, and you need a lot of fuel to liquefy metal for casting, and that means burning a whole lotta charcoal. charcoal production depleted Europe’s old-growth forests faster and more thoroughly than any other force in human history, and this trend only accelerated after the neolithic/chalcolithic due to the properties of other metals yet to be worked (ill get to this too). so, until some undetermined point in history, metalworking was basically limited to pure natural-state precious metals and negligible quantities of other metals. and then bronze happened. but i’ll get there in a bit.

bronze vs. iron: Forget Everything Video Games Ever Told You
the transition from bronze to iron is presented as a pretty no-shit decision, but that really, really isnt the case. with iron, you can make steel, which IS superior in terms of physical properties- but iron doesnt start off as steel, and creating steel from iron is a difficult, precise process (if youve never done it before) that almost certainly happened by accident occasionally for untold millennia until someone realized what had to be done and in what order. bronze is stronger and harder than wrought iron, and generally makes for better weapons. in roman legions, foot-soldiers got iron gladia- but their commanders were equipped with bronze swords for just this reason. bronze -> iron isnt necessarily a no-brainer, but for some people in certain circumstances it was (ill get to this etc etc).
actually, i’ll clarify some terminology at this point, even though im getting ahead of myself:

  • bronze: an alloy of copper and(usually) tin, with copper making up the majority of the alloy. the tin strengthens the copper significantly. ancient bronzes tended to have alloy compositions all over the place, and to make things more confusing, you can make bronze with additives other than tin (and the first bronzes werent even tin bronzes).
  • brass: an alloy of copper and zinc. again, to make things fun, brass is often described as bronze in ancient sources, and the two were frequently associated or poorly-differentiated- but as zinc brasses arent well-suited for weapons, they certainly DID differentiate.
  • Iron: the elemental compound. never actually really used in anything- iron always has impurities that change its properties.
  • wrought iron: iron produced from a bloom (a big almost-molten lump of ore heated to the fusion point in a bloomery, sort of a big metal-refining kiln. the iron never liquefies in a bloomery, it just gets hot enough to fuse into a bigger mass). a bloom is largely iron and impurities- usually silica- and a bloom is processed by beating the shit out of it with huge sledgehammers to fold the silica into the metal, leaving wrought iron with a ‘grain’.

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this is a wrought-iron chain artifact- those fibers are the molten silica worked into the bloom at the foundry. in fact, in many iron artifacts the silica grain is the only part that remains. it should be noted that actual wrought iron is incredibly, vanishingly rare nowadays- although decorative ironwork is often called ‘wrought iron’, actual wrought iron is probably produced on the scale of less than a ton a year globally. thats absolutely nothing. nearly all of it is made in extremely small batches by hand by artisans like me, and a decent amount is reclaimed from old wagon-wheels and such, but it’s ridiculously expensive because of its scarcity.

  • steel: steel is iron with a very specific carbon content- usually 0.2% to about 2% by weight. the carbon imparts all sorts of neat qualities to the iron, generally strengthening it and making it more useful for things, but it gets more specific than that. mild steel (with less than 0.25% carbon content) is nearly all the steel you encounter day-to-day. it isn’t hardenable- that is, it cant be tempered to hold an edge or generally be hardened. higher carbon content than that makes the steel temperable, and the higher the carbon goes the harder but brittler the steel will be. once you pass about 2%, you get into…
  • cast iron: cast-iron has a very high carbon content and behaves quite differently from steel. most cast iron is fairly brittle but easily-castable. cast iron is quite rare in the historical record until the industrial revolution due to the grotesque amounts of energy needed to liquefy iron.

Bronzeworking, Hephaestus and You
Much like everything else involving metalworking, it isnt known exactly when bronze was first worked. nearly all bronzes need to be deliberately alloyed… except for one type which alllmost occurs naturally. arsenical bronze. arsenic and copper are often found in the same ores due to some geological horseshit i know nothing about, but the point is that people almost certainly started refining copper from ores (remember that the nuggets lyin all over the ground have been steadily depleted) and found that certain types of ore from certain quarries produced a product that was vastly superior to plain old copper. at some point, deliberate addition of arsenic-bearing ores or metals to copper probably occurred, but it is likely that arsenical bronze was a happy accident for quite some time. arsenical bronze shows up all over the place- the Mesopotamian cultures all used arsenical bronze extensively for all sorts of tools and implements, and even after tin bronze was discovered the two were used side by side in the region for probably close to a millenium.
so arsenical bronze can be dated with a tiny sliver of certainty to the deliberate reduction of copper ores, as opposed to the manipulation of native copper deposits. interestingly, the pervasive image of the lame smith also dates to this very specific era.
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this is hephaestus in art from ~500 BC. he seems to be in… a chariot wheelchair. huh. various sources and stories account for his disability (which is a very unusual trait for any god to have), like getting thrown out of heaven and then having to craft himself helpers to get around. but hephaestus isnt the only lame smith god. Vulcan, who was basically just hephaestus repackaged, was lame- but so was Weyland, the Norse blacksmith god. in fact, across most Indo-European faiths, a crippled blacksmith (srry for using that term but lame/crippled is almost always the historical descriptor used) crops up. this isnt accidental. working around arsenical bronze for any length of time, especially if youre involved in heating it up beyond arsenic’s vaporization point (which you do if you’re doing hot-forging), causes peripheral neuropathy, the most common form of which afflicts the feet and legs. so, for a period of perhaps ~2000 years, permanent disability was a side-effect of cutting-edge metalworking, and the image of the infirm blacksmith has been branded into the Western mythology ever since.

im tired of writing. i’ll try to get to iron and steel and more modern stuff soon