Saturday, March 09, 2019

"Americas Lost Vikings" Iron Smelt sequence

I had undertaken an iron smelt last October for Arrow Media (of the UK) for their series America's Lost Vikings.
This was all related to a specific object, a small spear head in the collection of the Wayne County Museum, Lyons, New York. (1)

'Charles Point' Spearhead : Length = 9 inches (+)
Now, I had been asked by the Producers not to release any information about this undertaking until the airing date for the segment I would be included in. This became part of episode three, later given the title 'War in the New World'. (2)

There was considerable back and forth, in considerable detail, on my research into bloomery iron smelting, Viking Age making and working technologies, Norse weapons, especially spears, and 'Vinland' in general. (3)

For this specific commentary, I will be limiting my critique to the only the depiction of the iron smelting itself :

during the smelt

Some technical aspects of the iron smelt :

Furnace Type - standard 'Norse short shaft' on stone plinth
Wall Material - clay / sand / horse manure mix
Measurements - ID = 27 cm / total height 73 cm
Tuyere - standard copper
Placement - 21 cm above base, 5 cm proud, 22 degrees down angle
Air System - standard blower, 1100 LpM (via scale)

Total charcoal consumed - about 60 kg
Base Set - 1.2 kg slag added
Ore type - Taconite (5 kg) / 'DD1A' (red oxide with 10% added forge scale)
Total ore used - 30 kg
Total time - 6 hours (plus burn down and extraction time)
Bloom weight - 8.5 kg
Yield - 28%

Supporting Team : David Robertson & Neil Peterson (seen but not named)

This is just the 10 minute segment that features the iron smelt itself.
Currently the full episode is available on YouTube. (4)

Leaving the edit method aside. (I personally hate that jumpy film technique - and this was not how it was shot originally.)

There is too much information that was filmed, but was not included.
There was totally artificial 'drama' created.


There is inclusion of a diagram, intended to picture what happens inside the furnace.
It is wrong - and based on illustrations since proven to be incorrect. Including extensively in my own writings, presentations - and information sent to the Producers, and as described during that long day itself.
extracted from about minute 6
- The internal structure of the furnace as a 'layer cake' is simply not the actual case. I had explained the real mechanism in some detail. In actual fact, the reduction chemistry is a gas reaction, so the ideal (and real) is an even distribution of ore evenly through the charcoal mass.
(The theory illustrated is based on incorrectly understood descriptions of African 'tall shaft' furnaces, long discredited.)
- Why are two air intakes shown? And no tuyeres? And shown as flat lines? And shown right on the base of the furnace? This certainly does not illustrate the furnace that was built. Or Viking Age furnaces of any kind. Or the diagrams I provided before the filming?
(This appears to be a cross section of a Roman 'passive draw' furnace - which typically are three to four times the physical size of what was used.)
- That is not were the bloom forms. Its not the right shape. It is most certainly not an illustration of what the real filming shows happened!
- Where is the slag? Above the bloom? Again, this is simply not what happens in the real working furnace.

NONE of this agrees with the (extensive) descriptions I gave, both during the initial research, and during the actual day of the smelt.
NONE of this agrees with what is actually seen in the filming sequence itself. (5)


That slag tap.
It is so NOT what actually happened.
You have to consider my personality, my nature as a teacher.
I had two archaeologists, who had never seen an iron smelt before. The tone of the whole day was as an example of the real operation of a bloomery iron furnace. I was acting as a 'known expert'. Nothing was 'faked'. I cautioned the Producers extensively that the smelt was a linear process, which could not be modified in any significant way. What they would see would be what actually happened on the day. There would be no halts. There would be no 're-do'.
'Things have gone badly wrong. Our experiment is about to fail'
Do you notice that I am taking time to describe the situation inside the furnace, how I know that, what it means, what I have to do? Must not be that much of a panic.
You notice that all the comments about frantic action, failing experiments - all are coming from the hosts. Shot away from the activity at the furnace? Set up to anchor a commercial break?
All to add 'drama' to what was in fact a wonderfully even and controlled iron smelt. Honestly, at the time I was actually concerned that there would not be ANY slag tapping required. I wanted to have Mike and Blue experience this aspect, and worried they might not see it. The 'frantic' was because the two, without experience (of course) were moving just too cautiously and too slow. There was need for a slag tap. This was a slag tapping furnace after all! (6)


'If there is too much exposure to Oxygen, it will contaminate the Iron'
Heard during the sequence when we are doing the initial compaction and cutting.
Who had that fit of imagination?
The need for speed is that the iron bloom quickly cools below effective working temperatures when it is pulled from the furnace. Only.
That statement is a total fabrication.

'One bloom = one sword'
I got asked specifically about this. This is NOT what I told the Producers.
I had actually converted my long reply in detail to my estimate on how much workable iron this smelt had produced into an earlier blog posting.
My actual reply ?
Estimate two or three - depending on quality of the blades

'Viking Age swords have a blood groove'
Aw come ON...
This is just plain pop culture trash. No one who actually knows anything at all about weapons design, especially historic weapons, knows this is just plain stupid.
The shallow groove down the centre of a long blade is called a fuller.
The purpose is two fold:
a) it reduces the volume of metal, so reduces the overall weight of the blade
b) it changes the cross section from a diamond to a more complex shape --]---[-- , structurally strengthening the blade

Someplace in the edit process, the Producers (someone) decided to purposefully dumb down the whole content. Information was distorted for dramatic effect.
Entertainment totally dominated over content.

From such a good beginning, the final result?

1) Expect a fuller commentary to come about this object, and my own assessment of what it may actually represent.

2) I hardly know where to start here!
I have to say that the end product as broadcast is most definitely NOT what I expected!
- I had initially found the researchers at Arrow to be intelligent, undertook background reading I suggested, and both appeared to understand those materials and ask relevant questions.
- Both 'hosts', Mike and Blue, I found to be engaged and truly interested. They both were more than willing to get in and get involved in the tasks required. (The by-play and hesitancy seen on screen was largely made up for the camera.) Both were actually had at least a basic understanding of Viking Age Norse history.
- The camera crew where extremely professional and easy to work with. Almost everything was shot exactly as it happened - in real (working) time.
The final broadcast version was not what I had been lead to expect as the tone of the series.

3) What I personally consider the major flaw in the whole premise of the series as presented :
Vinland is not a single point location
The term 'Vinland' was used by Leif Erikson quite specifically to label a large region.
It should be compared to 'Iceland', or his father Erik's label of 'Greenland'.
So, to the people who gave the name, it was always intended to refer to 'That area west of Greenland, laying south of Helluland and Markland. (You do note the use of other regional names on this list?)
To the Norse, the piece of ground at L'Anse aux Meadows was specifically named 'Leifsburdir', meaning 'Lief's Houses'.

4) The included segment here is 10 minutes of the total 45 minutes of the episode, running roughly from 15 - 25 minute marks. I freely admit that I am skating on thin ice here.
I admit than have not been given permission to publish this sequence.
This segment has been drastically reduced in both quality and size. It also represents a bit less than 1/4 of the total. I also freely admit that this is more than the standard 'reproduce 10%' allowed for commentaries.

The YouTube link is to some (unknown to me) private individual who obviously viewed and recorded the full episode. There may be blocks based on your personal location (I saw someone say it was blocked for view inside the USA?) The video may also be removed at any point.
(I don't have commercial TV here, and would not have seen my own sequence if not for this placement on YouTube!)

I may undertake an additional commentary about Real vs 'Reality Television' - as those who follow these pieces may note a bit of a trend towards this topic of late.

5) All I can say is 'what the...'
Other than laziness or plain refusal to use fact - I can see absolutely no reason for this illustration. The Producers obviously instructed someone to draw these graphics. They obviously allowed the wrong source materials to be used - when they clearly had the correct information available.
I personally can see absolutely no reason what so ever that this would be undertaken. Did no one see that they were presenting information that contradicted their own filming? (You do understand the link between accuracy and 'authority'?)

6) My concern here is largely personal - and based on reputation.
I get introduced as 'one of the few in the world'. Ok - most certainly the only in Canada, and honestly one of the few in North America. But 'in the world'? (Apologies to my friends in Denmark especially!)
But seriously - this was almost a text book example of an ideal bloomery iron smelt. That is the proof of ability.

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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