Thursday, January 03, 2008

Ritual and Meteors

At the risk of offending people's personal beliefs, I wanted to post this commentary on a web site recently sent to me to take a look at. The page (not given here to protect its author) Includes several commentaries on Ritual and Viking Age Blacksmithing.

The main source material - G.A.Wainwright's 'The Coming of Iron' - is listed as from the journal Antiquity, but the early date (1936) should be setting off some alarm bells.
Right off the top, the main thrust of the material is about Egyptian associations with iron - and should be questioned. This culture is technologically at the boundary between copper and bronze, not a primary iron age culture at all. Although there are a very few iron objects surviving from the culture, these are all meteoric iron. There is no evidence that the Egyptians themselves had any understanding of smelting iron. The oldest smelted iron objects come from northern Turkey and about 2000 BC (+/-).
The connection between streaks in the night sky and lumps of rock was actually not made until the 1800's. An argument could be made that the ancients knew things we did not - but this assertion can not be made based on negative evidence. In a practical sense, a farmer pulling up a large lump of strange metal in his field may have considered a supernatural origin. In a world where no iron existed. The leap from a rusted rock to streaks in the sky is a huge one.
I would be interested in reading the Wainwright article, but I suspect he is a linguist (?). Very much has been made - by Anthropologists - of determining ritual, but even the language they use is far removed from the practical world of the forge. (Take a look at all the stuff recorded on African iron smelting from the 1970's. Those guys may have painfully recorded every bit of clothing and working song, but they missed any understanding of the actual working method of making good iron!)

In a Scandinavian context, there is very little hard evidence about what (if any) ritual practices may be undertaken by the Norse. I have seen much attributed via Wicca and especially Astru - but frankly those are both VICTORIAN re-creations. My own general feeling (and please note that this is not backed by hard evidence) is that any Norseman would be trying to stay as far away from the powers of the Gods as possible. At best I would suggest a blurred line between practical ritual and effective technology. Much use of 'small R' ritual - and hardly any use of Ritual. A smith drinks a cup of mead (to steady himself - as you noted) and also spills a bit into the slack tub. This becomes just 'the practical thing you always do' - rather than a pre-meditated attempt to harness the powers. We moderns tend to think in terms of formal Religion - and in most cases I suggest the ancients did just the opposite. It might be possible to delve into the Sagas, but all that would be found would be mere scraps. The smiths themselves were unlikely to communicate their methods, and the tales are highly Christianized and recorded centuries after the events.

On the web site there is some speculation the possible special qualities of meteoric iron, but these miss the nickel content of the alloy. Metoric iron is distinguished by having a nickel content usually plus 5 - 7 %, sometimes as high as 15%. This alloy was not made 'artificially' in the smelter until the late Victorian period (latter 1800's). The difference is so specific and striking that this is how meteoric source is determined for artifacts. If you have ever tried forging modern stainless, the difference would be obvious to you - the stuff is darn hard even at bright forging temperatures. In an ancient world where every iron object rusted - something of meteoric iron would basicly not tarnish. Note that meteoric iron has no CARBON in it, so all those problems of carbon enrichment by the smith still remain.
When Scott Langton made his replica of the Sutton Hoo sword (back in the late 1970's - its the one on display in the British Museum), he included an alloy called L6 in the mix. L6 is a middle carbon, nickel content alloy (typically about .5 % carbon with something like .5 - 1% nickel). A good source for this stuff is old wood cutting band saw blades (not the bi metal ones). In your pattern weld, it will give you bright silver lines against the matte black of the high carbon and ropey texture created by wrought iron. (I use this mix too, so you would see it on my own web site images of past blade work - check 'Sword of Heroes')


Thors Revenge said...

I was wondering what was the name of the website? or title of the article

Thors Revenge said...

I would really like to know the title of the article you were talking about

the Wareham Forge said...

I have been asked a number of times to link to the web page that sparked this commentary.
Two minutes on Google and you can find it.
Obviously someone who is more concerned with their personal view of Norse religion than archaeological evidence or metallurgical facts.

'Nuff Said??


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