Medieval and Modern Texts Concerning Crucible Steel
|Crusades to About 1500|
|What did people write about crucible steel "late" in history. With the early writings I have already dealt with in this module.|
|Let's start at 1095 AD - the time of the first crusade. "Our" knights encountered wootz blades then and until 1272, when the last crusade ended. What written accounts do we have mentioning wootz blades and Indian steel from the Western side? None, it seems.|
|That well-know tale of King Richard "Lionheart" comparing swords with Sultan Saladin is pure fiction! There are no authentic writings. This is certainly due - up to a point - to the fact that "our" knights were essentially illiterates. But enough literate clergy was around to record what was going on. They just never remarked on wootz blades.|
|In contrast, the Islamic world
provides plenty of writings about Indian steel and the trade of crucible steel
and finished weapons from before, throughout and after the crusades. Places of
origin are compared and sword qualities were ranked. There is no doubt that
South Asian steel (meaning mostly India and Sri Lanka) figured heavily in the
"Islamic" world and in the spreading of Islam in the 7th and 8th
century (by the word and
Recipes for making crucible steel were known and used outside India - there is
evidence that crucible steel was made in Egypt and Syria, for example. The
quality of the steel and the blades made from it were appreciated. For example,
Al-Idrisi or in
full splendor, Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Idris
al-Idrisi, (ca.1100 AD - 1166 AD), a well-known Muslim scientist, praises
Indian sabres for their sharpness: "it is impossible
to find anything to surpass the edge".
The prevalence of Indian steel in the "arabic" world is not just due to the high quality of crucible steel. Lack of trees and thus charcoal simply prevented large parts of the Arabic world from sustaining a sizeable iron industry of their own as pointed out before.
|What we also learn from Islamic
writing is that "Frankish" or European swords were quite common in
the Arabic world. Al-Kindi,
whom we have encountered before, remarks already in the 9th century on the
"river-like appearance" of the center of
Frankish blades, and that they were made from two kinds of iron /
steel". He must have seen pattern-welded blades, it seems.
One Ibn Hodeil in the 14th century wrote a book entitled "Equipment for Knights and Insignia of the Brave". There we read: "The Arabs claim that the fabrication of (Frankish swords) is the work of Genies. They are more resistant to blows one gives with them even during cold weather, while the hindy (wootz) sabre often breaks when the weather is cold...". It seems that the wootz swords had a "cold-short" problem, most likely caused by phosphorous.
China, by the way, was aware of the Indian steel in the Middle Ages, but seemed not to have been very impressed either. There are no indications of major trading or other interactions.
|In the same vein, Ibn Miskawayh (932 - 1030) or Abu 'Ali Ahmad ibn
Muhammad ibn Ya'qub Ibn Miskawayh, a Persian philosopher and historian makes an
interesting comment concerning the times when the "Rus" (=Vikings), who
originated in Scandinavia, lost their predominance in a part of their
south-eastern territory: "the Muslims opened their
graves and took out a number of swords, that are in high demand until today
because of their sharpness and excellent quality".
I owe this to Stefan Maeder, whom we will encounter extensively in the next chapter.
all of the Middle Ages there is little evidence other than the Islamic to
indicate that Indians were making high-quality steel or that they were shipping
iron and steel to other countries", to quote Bennet Bronson1) once more. This might be taken as
indirect evidence that the Islamic / Arabic / Persian "wootz sword"
with a typically curved blade by then was not superior to the typically
straight bloomery steel blades of Europeans. The Western knights certainly
stuck to their straight double-edged swords. To some extent that might have
been just good old-fashioned conservativeness ("what was good enough for
my Dad and Grandpa is good enough for me"), also known as plain old
stupidity. It is just like people who know about German beer but still drink
..... , for example. You only switch your behavior if the foreign stuff is a
lot better; just a bit better won't do.
We might conclude that the average wootz sword might have been "better" than the average Western sword - but not a lot. At this point we may also want to consider that the value of a sword for its owner came not only from its "mechanical" behavior in battle but also from the spiritual strength it imparted to its owner. You were just about invincible if you wielded the sword of the Prophet, a Saint, a famous King, and so on, or if your sword had been blessed by the Pope or one of his representatives. If it contained a holy relic it was well-nigh magical.
For Moslems, the "water patterns" on their swords may have symbolized the Waters of Paradise. "Just as a blade could simultaneously save a life while taking a life, water symbolized both life (clear sweet water) and death (dark brackish water). In Islamic poetry, to drink the water of the sword was to die and begin everlasting life in Paradise. The blade was the means by which a warrior would transmute from this life to the next. Thus, the water pattern on a blade was a very significant symbol of life, death, rebirth, and a constant reminder that dying in battle would result in being reborn into Paradise" writes Anne Feuerbach in 2012 for the American Chemical Society.
|The quality of a sword, by the way, is not a fixed thing but must be seen in context. The scimitar of the guy at the left in the picture above might be much sharper than the knights sword but that will not be an important advantage against his fully armored opponent. The crusaders sword may not be as sharp but is still good enough to sever plenty of heads.|
|About the first time that the "West" learned about famous "Indian" swords was around 1215 from the "Wigalois" of Wirnt von Grafenberg; a popular and long book / saga about one Wigalois, a knight of King Arthur's round table. It's rather long and contains these lines: "In inner India / there is a steel (=sword) for battle / that has red marking of gold / and is so hard / that it cuts stone / right as (soft) iron". That looks rather like hearsay (not just India but inner India!) and not like a first-hand experience from a crusade.|
|More to the point was Bertrandon de la Brocquiere, a French guy, who in
1455, wrote about his travels to the Middle East
in 143233. He wrote the book at the request of Philip the Good, Duke of
Burgundy, for the purpose of facilitating a new
crusade. Constantinople had fallen to the 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan
Mehmed II in 1453 and a new crusade was certainly called for.
Brocquiere wrote: "Damascus blades are the handsomest and best of all Syria... I have nowhere seen swords cut so excellently. They are made at Damascus, and in the adjoining country..."
That seems to be the source of the faulty notion that swords made from crucible steel and possibly with a water pattern were made in Damascus.
|The British and India|
|If we want to understand how crucible steel or "wootz steel became a big issue in the 18th and 19th century and why the British produced complete chaos around this topic, we must consider very briefly the history of the British - Indian relations. With "Indian" I mean the whole general area, not just present-day India.|
|Since I credited you with a halfway decent education, you know that it was a bad day for the American Indians when they discovered Christopher Columbus in 1492. You also know that Columbus (1451 1506) was a Portuguese subject who worked for the Spanish crown, and that his idea was to get to the East Indies by sailing West. The Spanish crown supported him in a kind of gambling game, hoping to outdo other powers like England in the contest for the lucrative spice trade with Asia / India.|
|It follows that
Europeans knew about the treasures of India in the 15th century and wanted
them. Spices, jewels, silk, gold and silver, dyes like indigo, and so on.
Crucible steel, however, was not on the "Wanted" list.
What is now called America was in Columbus' way, and the American natives, wrongly called "Indians", had to suffer ever since for causing that bit of unpleasantness.
|1498, Vasco da Gama, another Portuguese, finally discovered the much sought-after sea route from Europe to India. Serious trade along the lines "gold for glass pearls" could now commence. The Portuguese profited hugely because they now controlled the spice trade (first pepper and cinnamon a but then many more) for a while. Vasco's grateful superiors named him "Governor of India" under the title of a Viceroy in 1524. The (proper) Indians weren't asked if they needed a new Governor.|
|Vasco da Gama sailed with an armada - armed ships - and not with research vessels. He knew why, and the Portuguese soon were able to set up trading posts in Goa, Daman, Diu and Bombay. The French, British, and so on - but not the Germans - quickly followed suit and grabbed whatever was still available. Eventually, however, they lost most of their territories in India to the British.|
the English East India Company
(known as "the Company") was founded to get the trade with India
going in style and quickly took over parts of India. It not only subdued,
bribed and blackmailed local authorities by doing business as usual, but fought
outright wars. It employed its own soldiers / mercenaries and removed
uncooperative Indian rulers or other European powers that were in the way. In
effect it ruled most of India after 1700 or so.
In the beginning mostly finished goods like fine cotton and silk was exported from India (made in parts in factories put up there) but as time went by the focus shifted to raw materials, which chiefly consisted of raw cotton, opium, and indigo, and more or less forcing the Indians / Asians to buy back the finished goods.
|Once more plenty of trade - but iron and steel is not mentioned. Opium, for example, was the big issue in the early 19th century.|
the Indians rebelled against the Company's rule. They were so brutally
suppressed that the British government was "forced" to take control
of the Company and of India. It favored the
princely states that helped suppress the rebellion, and tended to favor Muslims
(who were less rebellious) against the Hindus who dominated the rebellion. The
British ruled almost 100 years until 1947.
British rule might have been better for many Indians compared to the more or less despotic rule of their local maharajahs. But the main goal of the British was not to make the Indians happier but to make some Britons richer.
|What I wanted to make
clear is that the British had ample opportunities in more than 300 years to see
crucible steel made, learn all its secrets, and export as much as they wanted
to the motherland. But most of the time they didn't.
Early traders around 1615 and later commented on the iron going to Southeast Asia and other places, but not to Europe. These records make clear that there was a sizeable Indian iron and steel industry and that plenty of the stuff was exported - but no specific mention of crucible steel or superior quality of the steel seems to have been made.
Jean Baptiste Tavernier, obviously a French subject, makes the first remarks on
wootz steel: "The Persians are excellent artists at
Damasquing with Vitriol, or engraving Damask-wise upon Swords, Knives, and the
like. But the nature of the Steel which they make use of, very much contributes
to their Arts, in which regard they cannot perfom the same work neither upon
their own steel nor ours. This steel is brought from Golconda (=Haiderabad), and is the only sort of steel which can be
He goes on and comments on the special forging (low temperatures, no hard quenching), and that the steel was rather cheap. Than he writes: "I speak thus to undeceive these people who think our scimitars and Cut-lasses are made of steel of Damascus, which is a vulgar error; there being no steel in the world but that of Golconda that can be Damasq'd.
|There you have the
source of the notion that the only kind of crucible steel that can produce a
pattern comes from Golconda, the present day Haiderabad.
What makes Tavernier special is that he admired the Indian / Asian culture and didn't look down on it as was then the common attitude in the "West".
|There are other reports from around
this time about swords made in Persia with Indian steel. While there are
contradictions and uncertainties, we can be sure that patterned blades were
made in the 17th century at least in Persia, and that plenty of Europeans knew
about that. Nobody seems to have been particularly impressed however. And we
should be aware of two points in this context:
The European products even sold well in the "high-end" market where competition from India-made blades should have been most severe.
This is a first hint that European swords by then were just as tough and flexible as the wootz swords, which were supposedly unbeatable in the "bowing around your body without fracture " discipline. The Europeans, contrariwise, describe Indian swords as rather brittle, given to fracture when bend. Actual tests of wootz swords (I'll get to this in more detail later) seem to support this view.
| But let's not get
carried away. Swords from crucible steel, like all other swords, came in a wide
range of qualities. Wootz swords of exceptional quality as well as mediocre
ones must have been made, and it is hard to tell from a few tests what kind of
quality could be attained for the top products.
There are also hints that Indian smiths had problems with their own steel. "Bad" Indian blades have been found, and the fact that Persian smiths could sell swords they made from Indian wootz steel back to the Indians supports this view. On the other hand, English connoisseurs around 1875 remarked on Indian steel products as being unsurpassed, resisting blows on granite without being chipped. We must always bear in mind that "a few hundred" years are a long time. The British (no to mention the French) right now, for example, cannot make decent cars but that was not always so. Rolls Royce (presently a BMW in drag), for example, did enjoy a respectable image less than hundred years ago.
|It is fair to say that between 1500 - 1600 Asia was the technological equal of Europe. The Europeans did not see it that way since facts count for nothing relative to believes, especially if they are based on religion. This situation changed around the mid-seventeenth century, when the technology gap between Europe and Asia actually had widened and kept widening. The irony is that at times when the West was really ahead, "products of the Orient began to attract widespread admirations not just for their richness and rarity but for the technological skills they embodied", writes Bronson. Europeans now were bent on discovering the "secrets" of the Orient - witness the craze for "China" or porcelain in the 17th century and the race to figure out how it was made. The winners were Johann Friedrich Böttger and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, who made the first European "china" in 1708 in Dresden / Meißen.|
|Illustrious names became
enamored with the the Orient: Voltaire, Leibnitz, Diderot, Watteau, Goethe,
.... In this general befuddlement the myth of the superior "damascene
sword" was born. Why the term "damascene" was used for blades
with a "water" pattern throughout the later history is not really
clear; I will comment on that later in more detail. Here it is sufficient to
note that the much-admired water-patterned sword made from Indian crucible
steel had nothing whatsoever to do with the city of Damascus except that you
could buy one there, like in all other "Asian" cities.
Significantly enough, the appreciation of wootz swords as superior weapons did not start with the Europeans who lived in the Orient and were exposed to these weapons on occasions but with the couch potatoes at home. As intellectuals are wont to do, they read up on the topic - in all those old (Islamic) writings then becoming available - and payed no attention to direct evidence. Just take the classical archeologist as example.
|Before and parallel to that, Western smiths and scientist did try on occasion to work a piece of crucible steel. One Joseph Moxon remarked in the 1670s that it is difficult to work with but "keeps the strongest edge" of any, steel. Once more sharpness, always related to hardness, is the topic, and products were not swords but punches, files, and such.|
|It wasn't just the urge to do
science that triggered all these and many other guys to look into the
"steel issue". There was a lot of money in it, too.
Réaumur was payed
quite handsomely by Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, to get a better grasp on iron
and steel because the French iron and steel industry was seriously backward by
then and that was an impediment in conquering the world.
It was thus straightforward thinking to look at "super" steel of others. Indeed, Réaumur was induced to look at the steels "from which the famous Damascus swords are made".He received some samples via the French consul in Egypt and found them hard to forge.
|Nothing more remarkable followed. This might just indicate that Réaumur was not aware that some smiths in France knew exactly how to work with wootz. He was a member of the upper class and simply might not have had any contact to the "working" part.|
|Whatever happened in detail, by the
end of the 18th century two developments could be noticed:
To quote Bronson: "Some may have been good enough scientists not to allow the possibility of getting rich to lead them into actually falsification of evidence, but a degree of suppression and obfuscations can be expected in the writings of all specialists of the period who worked on the problems of wootz and damascus steel"
|One noticeable event was caused by
Helenus Scott, who lived in Bombay around the end of the 18th century. He send
some samples of wootz steel to Sir Joseph Bank, the President of the august
Royal Society, asking his opinion about that steel that "was in high esteem among the Indians". He also
remarks on the excessive hardness of the stuff, that this makes it useful for a
number of tools and uses (swords, however, are not mentioned it seems), and
that it couldn't be welded to regular iron / steel. Banks passed samples on to
scientists who were affiliated with the Society (and thus being top notch by
definition) and others. Their response is of some interest to us:
Before I go on I need to exorcise one little demon that permeates about every paper I have read about the subject:
|Steel itself was mysterious. Any
steel or any form of iron. The differences between Sheffield steel, Solingen
steel, blister steel, puddle steel, and so on ad infinitum were just as
puzzling as the differences between all of those and crucible steel. Consider
|Faraday, certainly one of foremost scientists of his days, together with Stodart, his black smith so to speak, actually did come up in 1820 with the observation that wootz could produce a "water" pattern, realizing that excess carbon in the steel and slow cooling rates played a role a in this.|
|Many more people tried their hands with wootz samples during the 19th century. And quite a lot watched it being made in India and reported about that. Crucible steel making, after all, was a major industry in India until about 1900 and and "up to this day, massive heaps of broken crucibles cover the outskirts of several Indian villages, and are testimony to a time in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Indian wootz ingots were sold by the shipload to European and Arabian merchants, serving international markets", writes Thilo Rehren. Here is a picture from his homepage illustrating this:|
|Bronson lists 18 credible accounts of crucible steel making, dismissing a number of suspicious ones. The process, or better the processes, were rather well known. They were quite different in many details and also in major points. The source of carbon, for example, could be plants, wood, charcoal or even cast iron.|
|It's time to stop. Going into the intricacies of who did what and when, and why that conflicts with other sources; who might have cheated a bit or just didn't get it, and why interest was lost eventually, would fill many more pages. All I'm going to do now is to give a few more highlights, selected completely subjectively, plus my opinion on some points.|
|1. Not everything proclaimed to be "wootz" was crucible steel. In the 19th century people could make all kinds of good steel in other ways too - and that includes Indians in India. Cylindrical wootz "cakes" with flat bottoms are actually a bit suspicious; a wootz "egg" is more to the point since most crucibles did not have flat bottoms. Some of the wootz distributed by Sir Joseph Bank at the end of the 18th century might have been such a "pseudo" wootz.|
|2. Even among real wootz large differences must be expected with respect to the carbon concentration and whatever else was in the iron. In the 18th and 19th century it must have been possible to raise temperatures in a wootz kiln to degrees that could melt ordinary steel and not just high-carbon steel. That allowed to make "wootz" with less than 2 % carbon, easier to work with but still quite hard. Then, as always, a bit of phosphorous, manganese, sulfur, silicon and so on would also have made a difference. This simply means that the quality of a wootz steel could vary considerably.|
|3. All things
considered, crucible steel was foremost a high-carbon steel, or in modern lingo
actually a Ultra High Carbon Steel (UHCS) with a carbon
concentration between 1 % and 2 %. These steels are used nowadays whenever
extreme hardness is good - but they still occupy only a niche market. While
proper forging or processing (nowadays with
metallurgy, for example) does exorcise the inherent extreme brittleness of
UHCS to some extent, you cannot expect miracles. Pulad eggs or wootz are
"dirty" UHCS and will not be susceptible to miracles either.
On the other hand, UHCS is still a material good for a few surprises. It will exhibit superplasticity at high tempratures, for example, if its structure is right
|4. All high carbon steels have the potential to show a surface pattern caused by inhomogeneously distributed cementite particles. Not all UHCS, however, can be coerced to produce a nice pattern. What exactly is needed for pattern formation in general and for nice patterns in particular, will be dealt with in the next chapter.|
|5. Sword bearers
in the 19th century tended to go for showy
swords. They were typically officers who carried but did not use a sword (except in a duel).
Regular grunts did neither carry nor use
swords anymore. That's why there was a certain revival of the pattern-welded
"damascene" sword and all this interest in wootz and "true
damascene" in the 19th century. It was just more fancy.
While scientists at least tried to analyze the wootz cakes, rigorous tests of wootz swords are suspiciously absent until 1924, when Zschokke tested four wootz swords and found them to be inferior to standard-issue blades. With your wootz sword you might have been able to cut that silk handkerchief, definitely impressing the Ladies and assorted couch potatoes, but not necessarily your enemy on the battle field.
|6. All that experimenting with crucible steel was certainly helpful in getting on with Western science and technology of iron an steel, but those Western scientist and engineers would have come up with all their insights and inventions without wootz too. Maybe a little later, maybe with a few more dead ends - but there is no doubt that this would have happened. Contrariwise, having had a "superior" iron / steel technology for more than 1000 years did not do much for Eastern Science, and I include China here.|
|7. There is still
a tremendous lot of BS published about wootz. Even modern scientists contribute
directly or lead you astray by "unfortunate" wording. Here are two
examples from an otherwise very good article (that shall remain anonymous):
"The early European blacksmiths failed to duplicate Damascus blades because they were in the practice of forging only low carbon steels at white heat, which have a higher melting point. Biswas mentions that the forging of wootz at high heat would have led to the dissolution of the cementite phase in austenite so that the steels were found to be brittle enough to crumble under the hammer." This is complete BS. The melting point is irrelevant for forging; and austenite is neither brittle nor does it crumble under the hammer.
"Ultrahigh carbon steels could be both superplastic at warm temperatures and strong and ductile at room temperatures". Superplastic? Wow! Sounds certainly good. Would you have guessed that "warm temperatures" mean a least 700 oC ( 1300 oF)?
|Russia and Wootz|
|Everybody who looked into the
"wootz" issue just a little bit knows that some Russians had unveiled
its "secret" before anybody else. And that's about it. There seem to
be not too many details around of what, exactly, was done in Russia. Here are
some bits of information; mostly from
|So the Russians actually produced their own wootz and made weapons from it as early as 1819, when English researchers had not achieved very much yet except to produce some confusion? It just doesn't seem to be quite believable.|
|Anosov, besides being a general, was obviously a good scientist. His interest, it appears was the "damascus" pattern on sword blades that he must have perceived as sign of high quality. His steel research was centered on reproducing it by making suitable steel. Two of his actions are noteworthy:|
|What he did not do is to find the secret of wootz / damascus
steel because there never was a secret beyond the general secret of steel at this time. He did, however, find
four ways to produce crucible Damascus
steel with the characteristic pattern:
|Knowing only this it becomes clear
that Anosov "simply" found the major ways to make steel, including
high carbon steel plus ways to process (some of) the products in such a way
that a "water" pattern could develop. He was aware, for example, that
the cooling rate was important - slow
cooling is necessary for a "damascene" pattern, plus
repeated forging at low temperatures. He also looked into methods of
producing different patterns.
This was a momentous achievement in its time. It was by necessity completely empirical. Anosov and anybody else around this time could not possibly have understood the role of carbon in iron and why cooling rates make a difference. The first more or less tentative phase diagrams did not appear before 1875, after all.
|The list above, while clear in
principle, leaves many open question. How did Anosov control a direct reduction process? Bloomeries by then had
made iron and steel by carbon monoxide (CO) reduction for more than 2000 years
by then, but making high carbon steel with
a defined amount of carbon this way was at best a
luck. That is not an easy thing to do. What kind of steel did he melt for
reacting it with carbon? And so on.
It doesn't matter much, however. What Anosov did was to produce halfway homogeneous (=melted once) steel that contained enough carbon to allow pattern formation by distributing cementite particles inhomogeneously. There is no mystery in this. The difficulty or "mystery" in the old times was that everything in a long chain of processing steps needed to be done "just right".
Anosov communicated with or even met many of the other big guys in steel research in the early 19th century, and actually gave some of them (e.g. Faraday) "damascene" swords made by him. Those swords are languishing somewhere, collecting dust. Unfortunately he only managed to write one short paper on the topic, entitled "On the Bulat". It was published in 1841 and is about all we have besides surviving swords (some of which are now being analyzed 2)).
Most people, however, like simple mysteries far better than complicated facts. In a recent (2008) paper from Russia 2) we read for example that "the secret of obtaining bulat steel was partially lost after the death of Anosov". Come on! A whole factory in Zlataoust, wherever that might be, is making the stuff in large quantities and then suddenly the folks there didn't know how to do it any more? Might it not be just as likely that interest was lost because Anosov's UHCS was simply not so great for making serious steel thing like guns? My guess is that the market for showy officer swords collapsed when the bloody Crimean war started in 1850.
|1)||Bennet Bronson: "The making and selling of wootz, a crucible streel of India", Archeomaterials, Vol1, No. 1 (1986) p. 13 - 51|
|2)||V. M. Schastlivtsev et al.: "Structure of Three Zlatoust Bulats (Damascus-Steel Blades)"; The Physics of Metals and Metallography, Vol 106 No. 2 (2008) p. 179|
Invention or Discovery?
History of Carbon
Myths and Bullshit Around Quenching
The Verhoeven - Wadsworth Jousting Tournament
The Frankish Empire And Its Swords
Steel Revolution. 1. The Kelly - Bessemer Process
11.3.2 More to Pattern Welding
11.5.3 Forging a Wootz Sword
Antique Texts Concerning Crucible Steel
Käthe Harnecker and Wootz Blades
Steel Revolution. 2. The Thomas - Gilchrist Process
Old Sagas, Heroes and Swords
10.4. Crucible Steel 10.4.1 The Making of Crucible Steel in Antiquity
The Goldilocks Principle
King Richard "Lion Heart" meets Sultan Saladin
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)