an abridged, meandering history of metalworking, part 2
hey hello again. I dont think i really did the bronze age justice so i’ll fart around there for a lil bit before i get to iron and steel and all them cool things we recognize nowadays. hang on2 ur butts~
the effects of early metalworking on the world thus far
i’ve said it in historyposts and elsewhere before, but it cant hurt to post it again- metalworking is probably the biggest shaping force in historical societal development and on human-environment interactions in general. probably the single biggest way this manifested was in charcoal production- recall that all of europe used to be covered in old-growth beech and oak forests. whered they go? did they run out of pep and joie de vivre and lie down and turn to mulch? no, they were felled and stacked in enormous mud-covered heaps or in trenches and slowly burned for days and weeks at a time to produce the many many many tons of charcoal used from the dawn of metalworking in the neolithic to the industrial revolution. obviously other factors were at work when it came to deforestation and such- opening up land for grazing and agriculture, or the harvesting of wood for construction, normal people-fires and cooking charcoal are all important- but the large-scale charcoal-burners were the frontiersman, especially as using the biggest (and therefore oldest) trees possible is advantageous and desirable for producing high-quality charcoal of an even, consistent grade.
this also had a coincidental, but extremely important effect i will eventually come back to in greater detail- metalworking, and the energy required to perform it, was directly tied to trees and their growth rate. the charcoal required to liquefy a pound of native copper, or worse yet, reduce a pound of copper from a non-native ore, shape it into a workable form (i.e. ingots, rods, bars, sheet, whatever), and then forge or cast a finished good, is immense. in many environments, a scarcity of fuel was a bigger hindrance than a lack of metal or metal precursors. the repercussions from this were two-fold: many regions with fragile or small forests experienced desertification/increasing aridity and deforestation/defoliation as metalworking passed into their regions and they over-harvested local forests, and the simultaneous concentration of metalworking in regions where wood for charcoal-making is most plentiful. however, the metal needed for metalworking is often not found in such locations; as a result, an extremely strong impetus for long-range trade emerged, especially concerning bronze.
im kind of sad this map is so vague and bad but it’ll do (also ignore the iron on there im p sure this map is literally rounding up all ancient mining sites ever). look at the distribution of copper- it’s reasonably easy to source locally, and wasnt terribly rare in the grand scheme of things (although its ease of access was steadily decreasing- remember that by the dawn of ironworking people have been busy picking up copper nuggets off the ground for a good millenia or two). but then look at tin- there’s only one ancient source in the entire mid-east, and tin was highly-prized as an alloying agent much farther abroad than just egypt or the caucasuses. arsenical bronze, although more easily-accessible, took a grotesque toll on the metalworker’s health, and this was clearly realized by its more-or-less permanent abandonment after a certain point. so tin was probably the main driver of the first serious trade routes across the ancient world- trading for luxuries is cool and fun, but 10 pounds of tin is enough to alloy 150 pounds of bronze, and that bronze could outfit an army- and when your neighbours may still be making do with copper, the Impetus to Alloy must have been very strong.
my point in continuing this non-ferrous tangent is that the quirks of copper- and bronze-working had a very strong effect on the development of human society at the time, creating ‘essential’ trade networks where they did not formerly exist, simultaneously widening the horizons of tooling, weaponry, armour, etc while chaining ‘progress’ to tree growth and therefore charcoal production, a limitation which wasnt overcome until the transition to mineral-based energy sources (this is HUGE but it has to wait until the industrial revolution )
the bronze-iron tradeoff, from a macro perspective
in my last post i talked briefly about how bronze is often superior to plan ol wrought iron (not steel), and how the iron > bronze assumption isnt necessarily true. but it’s much more complex than that. producing and working with iron is very different from producing and working copper and copper-alloys, and places different limitations and requirements on the societies that utilize them. copper (and especially the tin required to make bronze) was a site-specific resource- generally they were mined from various specific deposits and then transported to the place of further processing and fabrication into useful goods. iron, on the other hand, is everywhere- it is many, many times as plentiful as copper, and finding iron ore is often as simple as kicking through a rockslide or scree-field looking for red-stained rocks. however, the question of energy complicates things. copper is fairly easy to heat up to its fusing point, and liquefying copper for casting isn’t a whole lot harder. this is, of course, in relation to iron. iron has a melting temperature 1.5 times higher than copper; although it doesn’t sound like much, it’s enough to make iron merely malleable with charcoal heat, as opposed to liquid where copper is concerned. this means that extracting iron from its ores and then working it takes much more energy than it does with charcoal, and you basically cant cast iron at all without mineral-based energy sources (not technically true but its a huge enormous pain so nobody did it except the chinese [their metallurgical history is downright whack but im not well-versed in it] until the renaissance or later).
so, the fundamental tradeoff of bronze vs. iron is- the former is harder to source but easier to work, the latter is omnipresent but requires a great deal more energy to work and form. it also put other restrictions on things from the metalworker’s perspective.
for example, plate armour (especially cuirasses and other big single-plate designs, as opposed to lamellar or scale-based armours) emerged in the bronze age, and appears to have been reasonably well-distributed among ‘complex’ cultures who could support hoity-toity highly-skilled metalworkers.
this is the dendra panopoly, dating from ~1500 BCE, the only ‘complete’ (its lacking the arm and shin-guards, which disintegrated to splinters alongside the intact portions) suit of ancient bronze plate found to date. it’s incredibly cumbersome and primitive, but it’s still fundamentally a near-total solid-plate armour bubble surrounding the warrior. bronze plate was easy to form, as molten bronze could be poured thinly onto a flat surface and then worked from that near-finished state. bronze plate-work was clearly highly-developed; muscle cuirasses were a funky fusion of art and armour that hung around for some time after iron showed up.
(from ~300 BCE greece) (also note that theres a very good chance that muscle cuirasses weren’t actually terribly-practical defensive items, so the jury’s still out regarding their actual usage)
on the other hand, iron cannot be poured like that. iron must be welded together into an ugly little compact lump, and then drawn out into plate by hand. this is. time consuming. like really, really impractical. it’s the reason why plate armour disappeared after the fall of the roman empire and didn’t resurface for another millennia, when water-powered trip hammers in the late medieval period could perform the labour of 10 sledge-wielding apprentices each, making plate viable again. note that im ignoring lorica segmata and other strip-based armours b/c they’re not ‘true’ plate and im making a point. i think. or at least i was for a bit there. anyways
i yearn, u yearn, we all yearn for iron
iron has been known and worked for almost as long as copper or the poor metals, but only in a very limited capacity until ~500 BCE onwards (although this depends greatly on the region). meteoric iron was vanishingly rare and valuable- the only reference to ‘pre-iron-age iron’ i can find is to the hittites trading silver for it, and to give an idea of the value it held, a given piece of iron was valued at 40 times its weight in silver. b/c im a crazy person i just crunched the numbers and silver is, pound for pound, worth approx 4500 times as much as steel in the current market.
in any case, it was clear that iron was in ascendancy by the time of the early Roman empire, and was used alongside bronze until basically the fall of the roman empire. as i pointed out in my last post, bronze is materially superior to wrought iron in many aspects, and was sought out for various uses (i.e. it was still castable where iron wasnt, and its material properties meant that officers with bronze gladii lead legionnaires with cheaper iron gladii). in my opinion (i.e. uninformed, dumb), bronze was ‘artificially supported’ by the roman empire- its vast stable trade networks allowed for the importation of tin and copper from distant places and made its continued use practical. however, once the roman empire collapsed those delicate trade networks either disappeared or contracted significantly, and bronze became a much harder substance to produce in any quantity. the collapse of the roman empire forced a near-total switch to iron metalworking during the migration period, although work in precious metals never stopped.
this is a buckle from the sutton hoo hoard, probably laid down in the 600s AD (that pretty gold thing i posted in my first post was also from the same hoard). this was produced at a time most people have dismissed as “the dark ages”, when everybody was supposedly farming mud and living in hovels and either raiding or being raided on a weekly basis. the fact that they could support the sort of lifelong-dedication skill, and the skilled-craftsman infrastructure that implies, speaks volumes about the misconceptions about the migration period
(that has nothing to do w/ iron but i cant miss an opportunity to post beautiful impossibly-skilled artifacts from people who we assume were miserable and barely surviving)
anyways. iron. ironworking was embraced and spread extensively by the romans, but they were far from the best or even the most prolific. my coverage of this is very very western-centric (this is quite possibly because im a eurocentric fuckshit myself), but even fuckin Percival MacAnglo, doctor of western triumphs can’t talk about historical metallurgy without talking about wootz steel and indian ironworking prowess in general. from as early as 300 BCE, an extremely high-quality steel was being produced in India and sri lanka- the ores used, in a pleasant coincidence, contained trace amounts of tungsten and vanadium, and this promoted the formation of carbides and (as far as we can tell) fuckin carbon nanotube sheets throughout the steel. in addition, their furnaces were built in such a way as to capture monsoon winds and funnel them down long tunnels into the crucible furnaces, approximating the air-blast of much later Western steel production methods. by the time of classical antiquity, indian steel was highly-sought and almost legendary in quality across most of the known world. the steel was produced in a crucible, a method not used in the West until the 1800s, which produced a then-unheard-of uniformity in the metal- in addition, it allowed for the actual production of large batches of steel, as opposed to the normal bloomery method used in europe and elsewhere.
…which i should explain. a bloomery is a big open-topped chimney-furnace into which crushed, roasted iron ore and charcoal are poured and ignited. the heat and the carbon monoxide allow the iron to fuse into a bloom, which is then worked into wrought iron (as i said earlier). along with this, however, small quantities of steel are produced, along with larger quantities of useless cast iron- most of the bloom absorbs little carbon and remains iron, but as you get higher in the chimney, the carbon content rises. a lot of it absorbs too much and becomes brittle unworkable cast iron, but a small quantity hits the sweet spot and becomes steel. this steel was carefully separated and saved for using as the edges of weapons- a small steel bit would be welded into, say, a wrought-iron axe body, saving on steel. wootz steel wasnt little chips of steel with the proper carbon content, it was full-sized ingots of beautiful uniform metallurgically-damn-near-perfect steel, something that wouldnt be seen again until the blast furnaces of the industrial revolution.
its worth adding that the wootz ore reserves are entirely depleted, and modern ‘damascus steel’ is a crude imitation of real damascus (i.e. wootz steel imported to damascus and similar middle-eastern countries and worked by their master swordsmiths).
pictured: real wootz steel, along with ancient arabic inscriptions on damascus shamshirs
the indians were capable of much more than just masterful steel, of course. the most famous (and deservedly so) example is the Pillar of Delhi, a 6-ton solid-wrought iron pillar that has stood without corroding or degrading for over 1600 years
this pillar was forge-welded, which kinda blows my mind b/c i still can’t forge-weld thin lil steel rods in my forge. the heat and talent and resources needed to weld a mass of iron that large is incomprehensible, and certainly wasnt attempted in the west until the construction of very large cannon. in addition, the corrosion resistance is probably deliberate- the very high phosphorous content of the iron was increased by using charcoal made only from phosphorous-rich wood, and by the omitting of fluxes which would remove phosphorous from the iron during production. a project of this scale would only be possible today in a very large well-equipped foundry, with an entire suite of custom tooling required to even take a crack at it- the fact that this was done in 400 AD is nothing short of astounding. and its original purpose was, of all things, as a sundial needle- think of how many swords and helmets and chisels and axes could have been made from that. the fact that the indians who made it initially could afford to use that much of such a precious resource on what is, at best, a monument, suggests a whole bunch of stuff that im not smart enough to speculate on
welp i wanted to get to the industrial age with this post. guess not. still in antiquity; a shameful poster