Around 1853, gangs of workers under French supervision were excavating Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad, the ancient Dūr-Šarrukin (Fort Sargon). One of the great courts had some long storerooms along one side, and in one which they numbered 86 (or 84), they found marvelous things: “un vèritable mur métallique, occupant tout un côte de la chamber.” The orderly piles of ironware filled a space 5.80 metres wide, 2.60 metres deep and 1.40 metres high: hammers, pick-axes, grappling irons, chains, ploughshares, and fish-shaped iron ingots with a hole through them. The hoard must have weighed more than a hundred tons,* and was so plentiful that it was handed over to local blacksmiths to make sickles, wagon fittings, and other necessary objects. One of them remarked that aside from the famous Persian iron (wootz?) he had never yet worked better metal. Other objects like ploughshares were put back into use by the local farmers and served their purpose. This was all for the best, since most of the artefacts from Khorsabad were sunk by brigands near the Shatt al Arab at Kurnah in 1855 as they were being shipped to Europe. This was the period when the excavators at Susa built themselves a castle to protect themselves and their goods from robbers.
Finds like that were not uncommon in the early days of Assyrian archaeology. At Nimrud, the north end of chamber SW7 contained a mass of rusted scale armour piled 35 cm thick in spots. Groups of rusted-together scales can still be found in museums. Later the graves of three queens rich in ivory, gold, crystal and silver were uncovered at that site: probably Yaba, Banitu, and Atalia who lived in the eighth century BCE and were laid to rest with appropriately gruesome curses upon anyone who violated their chambers. These finds give us another perspective on early iron after looking at the lancehead from Deve Hüyük and the akinakes from the dealer in Iran. By the seventh century BCE, the Assyrians were incredibly rich in iron, and this presupposes a massive industry of charcoal burners and miners and smelters and forgers. So far, the only trace of this is the objects they produced. Read more
I had a post about people being Wrong on the Internet scheduled for this weekend, but last week was a big week in Canada, and it seems like time for something more mellow. So how about a post about another of those studies of early iron from the ancient Near East?
Western Iran is an extremely important area for the history of early ironworking, because in the 9th, 8th, and 7th centuries large amount of iron and bronze were deposited in graves. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s these have attracted wealthy collectors in rich countries, and almost immediately the locals organized to feed this market: digging up promising mounds, importing old iron to sell under a name foreigners recognized, and casting and forging their own “Luristan bronzes.” This left museums and collectors with drawers full of objects which are interesting as artwork, but hard to use as archaeology. Relatively few sites from this area have been scientifically excavated and published in a western language, and I don’t know of any metallurgical studies of iron from these excavations. In the 1960s Cyril Stanley Smith decided not to wait, bought half a dozen pieces of old iron from dealers in Tehran, and analysed them as best as he could (and while he was working at the dawn of historical metallurgy, that was very well indeed: yes, this is the Cyril Stanley Smith with the Manhattan Project, Theophilius, and Biringuccio on his CV). One of these objects was an akinakes. He guessed that it dated to the 7th century BCE, but I would take that with a pinch of salt.
Most studies of old iron begin with the Celts or the Viking age, with a few digressions on exotic eastern steels like the nickel-steel daggers from Tutankhamun’s mummy, wootz from India, krises from the jungles of southeast Asia, and katanas from Japan. In fact, there are a number of studies of very early iron from the Aegean and the Near East. One of the first of these examined a spearhead from the cemetery at Deve Hüyük on the upper Euphrates. (There is some dispute about which country the site is in right now). It was badly rusted and mineralized, but enough elemental iron remained to understand the composition.