Antique Texts Concerning Iron
|Wer are only interested in texts from
before about 1200 BC when iron came into its own. As far as the Bible is
concerned, only the (purely Jewish) Old Testament qualifies.
There are numerous references in the the Old Testament to metals in general and iron in particular, none of them very enlightening. One Charles Wilkins (1831 - 1913) in his 1903 Book. "The History of the Iron, Steel, Tinplate and other Trades of Wales" gives the following numbers:
iron: numerous. Examples:
|Then we have Genesis 4,
|There is, however, an indirect
reference to iron (the word itself does not appear) in I Samuel 13:19-22
that has produced some commotion:
|References to tin: Five. Examples:
|Then we have 84 references to brass, 267 references to gold and 122 references to silver.|
|Of course, nobody knows what the
actual authors had written long ago. What is cited above is what you get after
many copies of the original had been made (most of them lost) plus several
link digs a bit deeper. So when we read "steel" in some modern
Bible version, we do not really know what exactly the original author wanted to
Even more important is the question when those remarks were written. Or in other words: How old is the Bible?
|The Old Testament of the Bible (more or less the same as the Jewish "bible") has been written over a time span of 1500 years or so. The first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), sometimes called the Pentateuch, are considered to be the oldest parts. They are considered to go back to about 1200 BC, the ominous date of the Bronze age collapse! The rest is considerably younger.|
|What we learn from the Bible about the history of iron and steel is easily summarized: nothing at all! Iron and the other metals were well-know when most of the remarks to these metals were written. Jahwe also put more emphasize on using iron and steel to kill or subdue people than on making it. No recipe for making iron or steel was revealed. This stays in the general tradition of all religions that nothing directly useful was ever revealed from up high through prophets or other media.|
|Homer's Iliad / Odyssey|
|There are many references to metal,
in particular bronze, in these books. They were written between 1300 BC and 700
BC - the discussion about that is still going on. 800 BC seems to be the
As far as iron / steel is concerned, there are references to iron wheels and what not (I simply don't know). One particular interesting section describes the quenching of hot iron / steel as a way to make it strong (Odyssey. Book 9, lines 390 ff):
|They lifted up that stake of olive
and jammed its sharpened end down in his eye,
while I, placing my weight at the upper end,
twisted it aroundjust as a shipwright
bores a timber with a drill, while those below
make it rotate by pulling on a strap
at either end, so the drill keeps moving
thats how we held the red-hot pointed stake
and twisted it inside the socket of his eye.
Blood poured out through the heataround his eye,
lids and brows were singed, as his eyeball burned
its roots were crackling in fire. When a blacksmith
plunges a great axe or adze in frigid water
with a loud hissing sound, to temper it
and make the iron strongthats how his eye
sizzled around the stake of olive wood.
|Archeological evidence does seem to support the view that quenching was a known technique in 800 BC or even earlier. Otherwise the great books do not seem to contain anything more of real interest to iron and steel making.|
|Hittite / Mittanni / Amarna Letters|
|The Hittite empire was located in
north-central Anatolia and became
prominent around the 18th century BC. During the mid-14th century BC it reached
its zenith, encompassing most of Asia Minor plus parts of the Levante and
Mesopotamia. It came to an end during the
collapse after 1180 BC. Right at its southern end was the Mittanni kingdom
that is also interesting in this context.
A long-held view (now challenged) claimed that the Hittites were the "inventors" or at least the first masters of iron technology. This view appears to be more based on their extensive writings concerning iron than on the few iron / steel artifacts actually found. Of particular interest are two letters from a diplomatic correspondence:
|First Letter: A Hittite ruler (possibly
Hattusilis III (1282 BC - 1250 BC) writes to an Assyrian prince:
"In the matter of the good iron about which you wrote, good iron is not at present available in my storehouse in Kizzuwatna. I have already told you that this is a bad time for producing iron. They will be producing good iron, but they won't have finished yet. I shall send it to you when they have finished. At present I am sending you an iron dagger-blade."
Does "good iron" refer to steel? How does one translate cuneiform into modern words?
|Second Letter: The Mittanni King Tushratta writes to Pharao Amenhotep III (about 1386 BC - 1350 BC). This letter, written in cuneiform on clay, was preserved together with many others in the royal archives in Amarna, the capital of the enigmatic Pharao Akhenaten or Amenhotep IV (1350 BC 1330 BC), husband of Nefertiti.|
|Strangely enough, the letter of
interest to us here seems to be among the very few not easily found in the Net.
Anyway, Tushratta mentions in his notes the shipment of gifts to Egypt,
"including daggers with steel and iron
This indicates that the difference between iron and steel was known around 1360 BC, more than 100 years before the Bronze age collapse. Being a bit less specific we might simply assume that those guys just knew that there could be different grades of iron.
This letter ties in beautifully with the archeological find of King Tut's iron dagger. Pharao Tutanchamun, to give the boy his full name, was the son of Akhenaten and thus the grandson of Amenhotep III. His dagger might be the one mentioned in the Armarna letter or another one given as a gift from Hittites or others around then.
Here is a "Tushratta letter". As far as my cuneiform goes, it is not the letter, though.
|Both letters allow one simple conclusion: iron or steel daggers were extremely precious objects around 1300 BC. They made for kingly gifts and were far more valuable than gold. That is the same conclusion that follows from evaluating the stuff in King Tut's grave. It also follows from business correspondence in and around the Hittite empire (see below).|
|Kültepe Letters, Bogazköy (= Hattusa) , and Anatolia in General|
|Kültepe in Turkey is a quite
famous archeological site; I have devoted a special module to it. Here it is
only important to know that an immense library of essentially business letters
survived because the business district of Kültepe (a kind of Assyrian
merchant colony) burned down twice. While that was disastrous for the
inhabitants, the fire provided for a kind of monstrous kiln where the soft clay
tablets with the cuneiform inscription got fired to hard and endurable
This has happened in many other places, too, and explains why a lot more cuneiform writings in fired clay survived until today than writings on papyrus or other short-lived substrates.
|What follows is mostly from an
article of Ünsal Yalçin 1).
The Kültepe texts from the early 2nd millennium (say 1800 BC) make clear that iron was extremely precious around then. It was only supposed to be traded for gold and silver but not for copper. One letter refused an offer of eight shekles of gold for one shekel of iron. Forty shekles of silver could buy one shekel of iron, and only small amounts were traded.
Here is one of those letters, still encased in its partially destroyed clay envelope:
|Old Hittite sources also describe
iron as extremely precious material, linked to kings and queens. Some text
liken words of the king to the unbreakability and immutability of iron. Thrones
and scepters - large objects - of iron are mentioned, prerogatives of a king.
The first written account of iron used for weapons comes from Tell
Açana; province Hatay, from 1800 BC: iron was used for 400
"sukur", probably spear points.
In the heydays of the Hittite empire iron is mentioned quite a bit. On the other hand, the archeological evidence counts just about two dozen finds. This link shows all the objects in the "Early Iron Age" display case in the Archeological Museum in Istanbul (haha)!
|The second major city in this context is Bogazköy, also called Bogazkale, the present day town next to Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire in the late Bronze Age. Both names are used like synonyms in the literature.|
|Hattusa was torched in 1700 BC but rebuilt in the
second half of the 17th century BC. It thrived from then on. 27 Kings or better
Emperors succeeded each other until about 1180 BC, when the empire came to an
end during the
Thousands of clay tablets from the royal archives have been found, and many references to iron appear. What becomes clear is that the value of iron decreased substantially from its extremely high value around 1800 BC to far below that of gold and silver around 1200 BC.
We also learn that iron developed from a luxury item to a commodity. What we don't learn, however, is how iron was made. The best that can be found are listings of artisans including "iron smiths".
|The high point of the Hititte iron literature is the famous letter of Hattusilis III (1282 - 1250 BC) already dealt with above.|
|The Hittites, as the letter makes clear, differentiated between regular iron ("An.Bar") and somehow better iron ("An.Bar Sig"). If the regular iron refers to wrought iron and the "better" iron denotes steel is anybody's guess. Then they had "An.Bar Ge", sometimes interpreted as iron from heaven, i.e. meteoritic iron. However, in other texts the sky is likened to iron so iron - sky connections may not relate to meteoritic iron at all|
|We simply must accept that there is no definite and safe translation of words from dead languages into present day technical lingo. German archeologists 3000 years from now, when running across the word "steel" in writings of the long since dead language "English", will have a huge problem. "Muscles like steel"? This-and-that steel? S355J2G3 steel?|
|Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian king, produced a famous "code" or book of 228 laws around 1770 BC. The Hammurabi code specifies exactly how much things should cost and what kind of punishments should be meted out for crimes.|
|For example, if a wife besmirched
the repudiation of her husband, she was to be put to death by strangling,
drowning, precipitation from a tower or pinnacle of the temple or by the
iron sword. Those were the good old times.
Actually, wives also had a lot of rights in Hammurabi's code and men needed to watch out, too
|More interesting, perhaps, is that
codes in Hammurabi's time specified that
|This is mildly interesting. We learn that iron was definitely known to the Babylonians in 1770 BC (or 570 year before the ominous year 1200 BC) and that it was extremely precious.|
|I only added this paragraph to point out this reference:|
|Caroline van der Brugge: "IF I HAD KNOWN THAT MY LORD WANTED IRON". The beginning of the common use of iron in Assyria|
|You will find a detailed account of Assyrian (and other) cuneiform texts concerning iron.|
|Alexander the Great and the Greeks|
|Alex (356 BC 323 BC) first introduced the phenomena of guided mass tourism to the unsuspecting world at large. He moved hither and thither with his crowd, visiting most places just once, taking in the sites, the souvenirs, the maidens and so, just like modern tourists. He just forgot to pay most of the time.|
|He must have had a rather good sword because he could slice through the Gordic Knot in just one stroke. Nothing has been recounted about his sword, however. It didn't have a name, it seems - in contrast to his beloved horse Buceophalus.|
|Alexander comes in rather late in the history of iron. He is only interesting here for making two points:|
|The ancient Greeks in general left plenty of texts. I've already dealt with Aristotle's mastery of science issues in general and that of steel in particular. The rest isn't much better, it appears.|
|The Greeks, however, distinguished between
"sideros" = iron and Chalybs = steel
since the first millennium BC. Both words left traces: "Siderophile"
means iron loving. Gold, for example, is a siderophile element that can
dissolve iron, and the word "chalybs" is contained, albeit veiled, in
The Chalybes, actually, were a people somewhere in Anatolia, and the Greeks
assumed that they knew how to make the good stuff.
Much around that is unclear, however, and all we can note is that the Greeks themselves obviously were not up to fully mastering iron and steel around 1000 BC when others already did.
|What Did We Learn?|
|What did we learn from all these
early texts? Next to nothing about the making of iron or steel. But a few
general facts do emerge from the texts alone; one need not have artifacts to
back them up:
|1)||Ünsal Yalçin: "Frühe Eisenverwendung in Anatolien" Istanbuler Mitteilungen; Band 48 (1998) p.79 - 95|
Critical Museum Guide
General Remarks to Literature and Sources
Invention or Discovery?
Diffusion in Iron
Discussion of the "Cut Sword" Findings
Part 1 Basics about Scythians and Their Akinakai
Critical Museum Guide: Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, Germany
Museums in Athens and Olympia
10.2 Making Iron 10.2.1 Early Iron
Early Iron Sites: Hattusa
Sword Polishing and Revealing the Pattern / Structure
The Frankish Empire And Its Swords
Steel Revolution. 1. The Kelly - Bessemer Process
10.3 Iron and Steel in Early Europe; 10.3.1 Technology Transfer and Trading
Antique Texts Concerning Crucible Steel
10.5.4 Making Steel Things
Early Metal Technology
Steel Revolution. 2. The Thomas - Gilchrist Process
Early Iron Swords
Scythian Special Large Pictures
Early Iron Making Empires in the Middle East / Mediterranean
10.4. Crucible Steel 10.4.1 The Making of Crucible Steel in Antiquity
Riveting, Soldering, Liquid Welding Plus Gluing and Screwing
Science of Deformation
Fracture Mechanics II
Early Iron Sites: Kültepe
The Luristan Project - Results from Cut Swords
The Luristan Project - Results from Cut Swords Part 2
The Luristan Project - Large Pictures of Cut Sword
Master of Animals Finials from Luristan
The Luristan Project - Literature Review
The Luristan Project - Results from Cut Swords
Master of Animals
Literature to "Scythian Special"
The Luristan Project - Results
How Sagas Develop. The Gospels as Examples
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)