|Overview Luristan Project||Part 1||Striations and heads|
|Part 2||Pommel and hilt|
|Part 3||Animals and blade|
The Luristan Project - Results from Cut Sword; Part 4
Discussion of the "Cut Sword" Findings
|Most everything of interest has already been stated in the three preceding modules. For starters I will therefore give a description of how we envision the sword was made. I base this on our findings and on some straight-forward logical deductions. Further down I will discuss how that ties in with what is known from the literature.|
|The raw material used for forging the swords must have been some bloom from an 800 BC or so (and thus relatively early) bloomery. Those blooms might have been compacted and thus purified to some extent right after smelting but they still must have contained a lot of slag and possibly some other inclusions. Their carbon content strongly varied (from ferrite / wrought iron to hypereutectoid steel) even so the bulk of the bloom was probably low in carbon.|
|The only raw material
that is known to me from the time period in question (ca. 800 BC 550 BC)
are the Assyrian
bars" found in the palace in
(present-day Khorsabad), the capital of
Sargon II from
717- 705 BC.
Khorsabad is close to Ninve and thus not all that far from Luristan. In fact, during its largest expansion around 650 BC, the Assyrian empire may have contained parts of Luristan.
To quote myself: "Sargon II, who ruled the Assyrians from 722 BC 705 BC, was in possession of a tremendous treasure of iron that was stored in the palace of his capital Dur Sharrukin, present-day Khorsabad. One Victor Place, resuming excavations started by Paul Botta in 1843, found 160 tons of iron just in storeroom 84. Most of that iron was in the form of bipyramidal bars weighing 4 kg - 20 kg. Metallographic investigations by well-known Radomir Pleiner showed that this iron was rather non-uniform stuff, a mixture of wrought iron, mild steel and hard steel steel, with plenty of slag inclusions.". Fits the Luristan iron like a glove. Just a coincidence?
|If an average bloom
weighs in at 10 kg, Sargon's treasure involved 16.000 smelts. Considering that
this was just the strategic reserve and that far more iron was most likely out
there in the form of weapons and tools, Sargon's Assyrians must have made and
forged iron on an industrial base. This implies that plenty of experience and
highly skilled smiths were around then and certainly also before Sargon's II
reign since this kind of industry does not come into being over night. However,
besides the Khorsabad treasure, we have
whatsoever from the Assyrians (or Babylonians).
In contrast, we have the 100 or so Luristan iron swords (plus a few other iron objects) - but nothing whatsoever is known about smelting and working iron in Luristan.
|From the results we can
state with certainty that the ancient smiths did not start to forge a mask
sword directly from the bloom. They rather prepared a range of intermediate
semi-products as starting material for making the various parts of the sword.
It appears from our results that they first forged thin sheets. The elongated
slag inclusion always show a large length-to-width ratio, just what you would
get if you forge a cube into a sheet that is much longer than the cube and
accordingly thinner. Double-pyramid bars by the way, are a good shape for
drawing out thin and long strips as evidenced in
By cutting these single sheets to suitable dimensions followed by stacking them in a way that approaches the desired final shape, fire-welding these layers then allows to produce billets that already assumes the basic shape of the various parts needed. That is particularly attractive for the blade and the hilt; especially if only one piece was used.
Fire-welding might have been done by forging the stack of pre-shaped sheets or, if the shape attempted was simple, by stretching and folding, i.e. by faggoting.
Here we propose something new that you will not find in the literature. Mind that we do not claim that this technique was used for all mask swords. Mind also that around 800 BC iron technology made a big step forward and that composing blades by layering / faggoting was used by the old Celts as demonstrated by the "sword from Singen"
|However - the ancient
smiths were not too careful in doing this since the finished stacks, as shown
by all our pictures, contains very bad (many large slag inclusions) and very
good iron pieces in a seemingly arbitrary manner. Maybe they couldn't do better
or - maybe once more - they didn't care since the mask swords were definitely
not designed for fighting but only for showing off.
Only the outside had to look good, the inside quality didn't matter at all- in stark contrast to a fighting sword!. The outside quality mattered for two reasons.:
| The artisans making the
Luristan mask swords were experts at their trade. They knew not only how to
fire-weld but in particular how to make an object with a complex shape out of a
(by now layered and possibly pre-shaped) billet) of iron / steel. The next step
involved forging the various pieces as closely as possible into their final
shapes. This included the rough shaping of the heads and animal figures but
also of the pommel plate and the "rings" around the hilt. Doing that
would be a challenge to a modern smith today. It was important that the shape
after forging was as close as possible to the final shape because that made the
tricky and laborious next step easier.
Forging itself did take place at rather high temperatures followed by relatively fast cooling (water quench?) as evidenced by the Widmanstätten structures and other observations outlined in the preceding parts. That seems to be true for pretty much all swords because all investigations made so far agree on this point. High temperature forging requires a hearth of some sophistication and skilled helpers.
There is, however, also evidence for low-temperature forging and even cold forging. Small wonder since the final steps of assembling the sword did need some high temperature but as little as possible. The chisel work for crimping obviously had to be done at room temperature. Then there might have been some short medium temperature annealing after all was done.
|Final Shaping of the Parts|
| The various parts had
to be worked into their final shape and that involved:
|Assembling the Parts|
|Attaching the Rings
If you had made the core of the sword (hilt and blade) from one piece of material, I'm rather sure that in a first step the rings were attached. Looking at Luristan iron swords you will find that some rings were just wound tightly around the grip, while others were tightly wound etc. but also crimped into place. The following pictures show this
|There is no way to bend a partially elastic wire / ring around the hilt at room temperature in such a way that it snugs closely to the hilt at all places. You need to do that at a raised temperature, in particular if he material consists of hard steel as found in the rings. .|
|Attaching the pommel plate
The pommel plate is kind of riveted on, using the thin extension of the hilt that fits through a hole in the pommel plate. A picture says more than thousand words:
|We guess that at this stage the head / animal figures are not yet attached tot the pommel plate. It is interesting in this context that some mask swords do not have an upper ring, while others have complicated constructions right below the pommel. Here are two examples:|
|The upper "ring" in this example (also visible in some of the swords shown in one of the many Luristan modules) is more complex than the regular ones around the hilt, more a kind of decorative band. As the pictures above demonstrate, it takes some tricky crimping to make a fit that looked "wie aus einem Guß" (like from one casting) as we say in the true language.|
|Attaching the figures
Early investigators laughed at the "primitive" crimping technique they encountered when they looked at Luristan swords. They assumed that the old smiths had not yet mastered the art of fire welding for putting iron parts together in a solid way. But crimping was the only option for the ancient smiths! As we have seen, at least some of the smiths could fire-weld quite well. However:
|Details would have burnt off at fire welding temperature, and banging on the figures with a hammer wouldn't have done them much good either.|
| Now what? There is no
other way but crimping (if we discount modern gluing or soldering) and that, if
you think about it, is an exceedingly difficult thing to do.
|First you had to produce
the fittings or sockets for the figures (or the rings). You needed to do some
precision chiselling, producing the exact outline of the figures to be
inserted. You can't do this with the needed 1/10 mm precision if the the work
piece is red.hot so you needed to do some heavy room temperatures deformation.
That is exactly what we see in one of the crimps
I claim that you can do this only with soft ferrite / mild steel as a substrate. Hypereutectoid or just eutectoid stuff is hard and brittle and you just can't make those flawless (on the outside) crimping joints we find. Note that you ruin your intended product if the crimp wall you raise with your chisel disattaches, breaks, or gets otherwise disturbed. There is no easy fix if this happens.
Then you insert the figures and affix them by "crimping", i.e. hammering the crimp rim over the figure base. This is not something you do on the side; it must have taken a lot of practice to produce the perfect crimping we still see today.
Not caring all that much for the "inside", i.e. slag inclusions etc., saves time and money. The same is true for the fitting between the backside of the figures and the body of the sword. You can't see if there is a lot of empty space between the heads / animals and the pommel plate or the hilt. Perfect fittings would have called for a perfect match of the two surfaces to be joined. We may safely assume that the artisans who made these swords would have had no difficulty to make perfect joints or fits, too - but why go through the labor and trouble?
|I think it is likely
that the old smiths also noticed that some of the sheets they made as starting
material for stack-welding were of inferior quality, containing large slag
inclusions. But so what. Just put them into the inside of a stack and nobody
will know. Iron was very expensive, after all.
Now we have an explanations why theses swords combine breathtaking workmanship with equally amazing sloppiness. The ancient smith had a modern attitude. Making money was more important to them then impressing archaeologists some 3000 years later.
Luristan mask swords today are always more or less corroded and blackish to rusty in color. They are not a particularly pretty or impressive sight. That was certainly not the case when they were new. If polished to a high sheen, they must have been quite striking in appearance.
| But polishing
everything would have tended to obscure the fine details of the figures. My
guess is that the figures were painted to some extent, outlining, for example,
details (like the rims around the eyes) in black or some other dark color. They
certainly must have made a (fashion?) statement for the fighting man that was
not rivaled by much else available 2800 yeas ago. In Luristan, that had a very
specific and very large range of (bronze) weapons and an iconic art style
(exemplified, for example, in the "masters of animals"), these swords must have
appeared as marvellous implements, but rather exotic in appearance. Not even
remotely related to anything else around.
My guess therefore is:
|I have no proof, of
course. But consider:
|So why didn't we find
Luristan mask swords in other places that once belonged to the Assyrian (or
Babylonian, if you like that better) empire? The answer is simple and convincing: For the
same reasons we found no iron whatsoever
left over from these empires (besides the Khorsabad hoard) even so we know for
sure that a thriving iron industry must have been in place (because of the
Why did we find far more Roman swords in Denmark (never part of the Roman empire) then in the area the Roman empire (far, far larger than Denmark)? Well, the old Danes liked to go on tours, and like all good tourists, they liked to bring something special back to the old homestead.
I rest my case.
|Comparison With the Literature|
|How do our results from the cut sword compare with what can be found in the literature? The straight answer is:|
|However: almost all
earlier investigations into the metallography of the mask swords were
restricted to very small samples making it hard to impossible to detect fire
welding. Moreover, some of the researcher harbored old and by now disproved
believes (like the possibility of "carburizing" or
"decarburizing" bulk iron) that corrupted their interpretation. Our
results shown here therefore do add considerably to our knowledge of the
Moreover, the journals then (as now) printed only a few pictures at small sizes. Worse, print quality was not always very high and prints were only in black and white. Topping all that is the sorry fact that what you see now in (often badly) digitalized copies of copies... is often just a faded ghost of the original picture. That's why we "publish" here with lots of clear and often large pictures.
| I shall now progress
through the key publications from this
list. An earlier "literary guide" is given
Let's start with the oldest of these papers:
|1||1957 F. K. Naumann: Untersuchung eines eisernen luristanischen Kurzschwertes Archiv für das Eisenhüttenwesen, 28. Jahrgang, Heft 9, (1957) 575 - 581|
|This is one of the
earliest but still best papers to the subject. Small wonder, it has been
written in the true
language by an expert metallurgist. Naumann investigated the
"Hamburg" sword and first dispels the believe that some iron casting
was involved in the making of the sword. Then he asks all the right questions
about the making of the figures, the assembly of the parts, the forging
technique (fire welding?), the materials quality and so on.
Since the sword had to remain mostly intact, he employed X-ray techniques, or better said, g-ray techniques since he used the high energy radiations of the isotope Ir 192. Here is an example of one of the many pictures he took:
|The picture is remarkable because it is the first "X-ray" image of a Luristan sword. It (and its brethren) show the individual parts and their partially "sloppy" attachment. We also see that the blade and the hilt were not made from one piece of iron (like our cut sword) but were "stitched" together from at least two pieces.|
|Naumann could investigate only very small parts of the sword metallographically, like an area of about 0.5 cm2 of the blade. The results are shown below:|
|I show this picture to illustrate the point made above: You don't see much anymore in present-day pictures of old publications. You do see , however, that Naumann's finding are quite compatible with ours.|
|From the little he was
allowed to do, Naumann drew many conclusions that are also valid in our case.
Here is a list
Maryon; with technical reports by R. M. Organ, O. W. Ellis, R. M. Brick, R.
Sneyers, E. E. Herzfeldand F. K. Naumann: Early Near Eastern Steel Swords,
American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr., 1961), pp. 173-184
|A key paper, reviewing the properties of 11 Luristan mask swords. The Naumann paper from above is prominently featured, including some of its picture in much better quality than what is left from the original. Here is an example:|
|Compare to the picture
above and you see the problem with pictures in old publications.
As far as the metallurgy of Luristan swords is concerned, Maryon reports on Naumann's finding and on metallurgical results from the "Toronto" sword. Only small parts (the "beard region" of one of the figures) was investigated in some detail, and the results are in line with what we found: High-carbon regions, some Widmanstätten structure - an example is shown here,
|Maryons paper is
interesting because he speculates about the origin of these swords. Here are a
|Maryon might have been
the first one addressing the problem of making the figures:
"The formation of the lions and of the human heads would have been effected first by forging, then the finer details would be added by means of chasing tools and punches, for there is no indication of the employment of cutting tools upon them."
He also realized that we are looking at supreme examples of craftsmanship:
"Just as the earliest books printed with moveable type are in many ways unsurpassed, so here, the sword handles forged in the new metal, steel, by these pioneer smiths of the Near East, exhibit skill of a high order, and no comparable steel sword-hilts have been found in any other land before the time of the Renaissance in sixteenth century Europe."
C. Lefferts: Technical Notes on Another Luristan Iron Sword
American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 59-62
|In this short paper the
issue gets confused. Two major if wide-spread errors are introduced in the
context of the New York
|Well, Kate Lefferts
obviously is not a metallurgist, as also evidenced by statements like:
"This gives us a hardness softer than air-quenched
steel and again indicates, as does the absence of pearlite, that the blade was
For you non-metallurgists out there: Hardness increase by quenching only works if there is sufficient carbon in the iron (typically in the form of pearlite) and it is the absence of martensite that indicates a lack of quenching.
R. Maxwell-Hyslop and H. W. M. Hodges: Three Iron Swords from Luristan
Iraq, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Autumn, 1966), pp. 164-176
|An important paper
describing the first sword cut into two parts like ours. From todays point of
view this cut sword was rather atypical in its construction. Since nobody could
know this at the time, its unusual construction was assumed to be typical and
dominated the structural discussion for a while. Look
here and below for
We investigated a rather similar sword and found that it was much simpler in construction, rather more like our cut sword (just without figures etc.) Here is a comparison:
|Note that the hilt of the Hyslop sword actually consists of a stack of "thin" sheets. Fire weld the stack and you have what we found.|
|Beside the cut sword several others were investigated, all of them but one without figures and therefore probably earlier than our cut sword. The set of swords investigated is shown below:|
|The sword with the
figures led to some insights:
|However, the authors
completely misjudged the sword production process:
Bird and Henry Hodges: A METALLURGICAL EXAMINATION OF TWO EARLY IRON SWORDS
Studies in Conservation, 13 (1968), 215-223 215
|This paper contains in
essence the metallographic study to the Hyslop-Maxewell paper above. It
contains more micrographs of etched surfaces but does not add much new
insights. Two swords were investigated, one was made of "wrought
iron", the other of steel (including hypereutectoid steel).
"There is, however, an amusing inconsistency :On the one hand it could be argued that the second sword was made from deliberately manufactured steel, and that during working the surfaces it becomes decarburized". So far, it was the other way around;: The wrought iron, supposedly, became carburized. Both processes are impossible anyway as pointed out many times already..
S. Smith: The Techniques of the Luristan Smith
Science and Archaeology (Ed. Rober H. Brill), Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971
|Smith actually purchased "Luristan" iron swords so he could take them apart for analysis. However, only one of his objects can be classified as an iron Luristan mask sword. At least one of the others is an akinakes, usually associated with the Scythians. Smith knows his metallurgy and the paper is rather interesting. He found and discusses at length spheroidized carbon (actually cementite) and found and discusses nitride precipitates for the first time. Unfortunately, the pictures are by now so bad that one can't see anything anymore.|
|A few quotes and
comments, always in the context of the Luristan mask sword:
| Smith acknowledges
fluctuating carbon concentrations from smelting and the high T - low T forging
already mentioned several times.
He also considers fire welding or faggoting but believes that, if at all, it happened when the bloom was processed. This certainly disagrees with our results
|7||1971 P. R. S. MOOREY: CATALOGUE OF THE ANCIENT PERSIAN BRONZES IN THE ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM|
|Interesting, in particular as far as the history of iron and the style of the Luristan swords are concerned, but no new metallurgical information is given.|
Schumacher: Eisenschwerter mit Maskenzier aus Luristan
Kleemann Festschrift II Teil (= Bonner Hefte zur Vorgeschichte, n. 4), Bonn, 1973, p-97 ff
|Describes the appearance of about 30 mask swords and provides with drawings (including Luristan type II swords). No new metallurgical information is given.|
|9||1987 Claude Forrieres, Étude par microscopie électronique de structures de trempe d'une lame d'épée du Luristan, Étude par microscopie électronique de structures de trempe d'une lame d'épée du Luristan ArchéoSciences, revue d'Archéométrie Année 1987 11 pp. 17-29|
|It's in French! Probably
interesting but meant only only for Frenchmen. In addition, the (many) pictures
are of bad quality.
We do see Widmannstätten structures, spheroidized cementite, and things with some similarity to what I've called "really weird" for our sword
Muscarella: "Bronze and Iron", (Book)
New York 1988 (pp 184 . 189)
speaketh. O. Muscarella certainly knows about Luristan things and has written
about it at length. He is, however, not a materials scientist or
metallographer. In the book referred to here, he gives - among much other stuff
- a detailed description of the special mask sword in the Metropolitan Museum
in New York. It is special because
|Muscarella makes a point for the origin of these swords in Luristan (which I'm not so sure about) and mentions that he is aware of 88 of those swords.|
|11||1991 J. E. Rehder, The Decorated Iron Swords From Luristan: There Material And Manufacture; Journal of Persian Studies, Iran, Vol. 29 (1991) pp. 13 - 19|
|This is a review without
pictures. Rehder discusses the "Toronto" sword and others, including
the radiocarbon dating of the Toronto and MIT sword.
He reviews the available information and mentions spheroidized cementite. He also points out erroneous or misguided stuff in older publications.
Rehder marvels at the workmanship and concludes that the swords were not good as weapons and probably for representation.
He discuses smelting techniques and iron / carbon systematics in detail and relates that to the making of the swords..
Overlaet, The Early Iron Age in the Pusht-i Kuh; Luristan;
Acta Iranica, Vol. XXVI, 2003; selected parts of the huge volume
Bruno Overlaet, The Chronology of the Iron Age in the Pusht-i Kuh Luristan,
Iranica Antiqua, Vol XL (2005), pp. 1 - 33
|The ultimate about Luristan graves. Excerpts from the detailed excavation report and so on - but no details abour mask swords.|
Hasanpur et al.; The Baba Jilan Graveyard Near Nurabad, Pisht-i Kuh,
Luristan - A Preliminary Report,
Iranica Antiqua, Vol. L (2015), pp 171 -212
|Some details about the only mask sword (now in Brussels) ever found during an excavation by archaeologists (if only in the detritus left by the grave robbers). No metallurgocla details, however.|
|There is a general agreement in the
old literature about the following points:
|Our findings generally agree with
that but we claim the following points as new:
|Part 1 Heads
Part 2 Pommel and hilt
Part 3 Animals and blade
Critical Museum Guide: Metropolitan Museum, NYC
Museums in Athens and Olympia
Early Iron Sites: Hattusa
Antique Texts Concerning Iron
Sword Places: Luristan
Early Iron Swords
Large Pictures - Chapter 11.1
Early Iron Making Empires in the Middle East / Mediterranean
The Luristan Project - Results from Cut Swords
The Luristan Project - Results from Cut Swords Part 2
The Luristan Project - Large Pictures of Cut Sword
The Luristan Project - Results from Cut Swords
Master of Animals Finials from Luristan
The Luristan Project - Literature Review
Master of Animals
Large Pictures I
Early Iron Sites: Kültepe
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)