Bonus Content: Why do We Think Iron Shatters Bronze?

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Categories: Ancient
Armed with the power of HITTITE IRON, reedy doctor Sinuhe breaks general Horemhab’s sword! From scene 12 of Sinuhe: The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz director, 1954)

Most people interested in ancient weapons know that early iron swords were not any better than bronze ones. But they don’t always know where the idea comes from, or how we know about the properties of early edged weapons. If you want to find out, the article is available in Ancient Warfare XI.6 (The Decelean War) from Karwansaray.

But in a little magazine article, I was not able to include all the references which I wanted. So what if you want to learn more?

A steel bookcase full of hardcovers bound in blue cloth
Yes, we do have a whole bookcase of Prähistorische Bronzefunde-volumes, why do you ask?

If you want overviews:

  • Vagn Fabritius Buchwald, Iron and steel in ancient times (Copenhagen: Kong. Danske Videnskab. Selskab, 2005)
  • P.R.S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1999. {pp. 278-291 cover ferrous metals/parzillu}
  • J. E. Rehder, “Iron Versus Bronze for Edge Tools and Weapons: A Metallurgical View,” JOM 44.8 (August 1992) pp. 42-46

If you want metallurgical reports on specific objects:

  • Imma Kilian-Dirlmeier, Die Schwerter in Griechenland (ausserhalb der Peloponnes), Bulgarien und Albanien. Prähistorische Bronzefunde IV.12. Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart, 1993.
  • Effi Photos, “Metallographic Investigation of Iron Artefacts from EIA Cemetery at Vergina,” Prähistorische Zeitschrift (Berlin) 64 (1989) pp. 146-149 {study of three swords and two knives}
  • Mariya Masubuchi, “A Metallographic Study on Iron and Steel Arrowheads from Kaman-Kalehöyük Stratum II,” Anatolian Archaeological Studies XVII (2008) pp. 281-293 http://www.jiaa-kaman.org/en/aas_index.html
  • Cyril Stanley Smith, “The Techniques of the Luristan Smith,” in R.H. Brill (ed.), Science and Archaeology (MIT Press: Cambridge MA, 1971) pp. 32-52 {studies of four early iron edged weapons from Iran}

If you want experiments and historical parallels:

  • James R. Mathieu and Daniel A. Meyer, “Comparing Axe Heads of Stone, Bronze, and Steel: Studies in Experimental Archaeology,” Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 333-351
  • Kelly DeVries, “Catapults are Not Atomic Bombs: Towards a Redefinition of `Effectiveness’ in Premodern Military Technology,” War In History 4.4 (1997) pp. 454-470

Now, that is quite a few books and articles, and tracking them all down would be slow and expensive. If you just want the good parts, check out my article!

2 thoughts on “Bonus Content: Why do We Think Iron Shatters Bronze?

  1. Pen Name says:

    As usual, it depends.

    Weren’t some of the iron tools the Greeks used to make temples and other stone buildings harder and tougher than similar modern steel tools purchased in a hardware store?

    Making hard flexible steel for iron based tools and weapons was a closely guarded secret for a long period of history. I doubt that the iron smiths understood the technology, they just repeated what had worked well in the past and been taught to them.

    An advantage of Iron was that Iron is more abundant. Just go to a local stream and find a place where black iron sand has been separated out by the current. If you have a lode stone you can pick it up in high purity without any need for mining. No dependence on finding sources of Tin and Copper and reducing them to dust before smelting.

    Weren’t Roman Javelins deliberately made out of soft iron, so that they would bend on impact and could not be thrown back at the Roman formations or defences with any accuracy during the heat of battle?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I would be interested to see the study! Ferrous metals are pretty complicated, especially metals made with low-tech methods. Rather than nice homogeneous mixes controlled to parts in 10,000, they tend to be a stew of mostly Fe and a few percent of other stuff: carbon, phosphorus, sulphur, magnesium, silicous slag … and then techniques like forging and quenching give them a particular crystal structure. So people writing for a general audience often pick one detail to focus on. But late bronze swords were usually an alloy of 10-12% Sn and the rest Cu, work-hardened along the edges, and the iron swords of better material than that which I have seen are all after 200 BCE.

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