Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bladesmithing Interview - Part 2

3.Have you used smelted bog iron to make knives or swords? How do they perform?

I have made a number of small knives as replicas of known Viking Age types, plus some modern designed knives utilizing bloom iron as one component (Hector's Bane the best example there).
For my own work, I am concentrating on re-discovering lost historic smelting methods, which is certainly different than using the processes to produce the best possible blade making materials. This is an important distinction.

Historically, the aim of the smelt master was not to produce blade materials, but instead to get the largest bloom of iron that could be easily forged for general purpose work. Our modern understanding of how carbon (or other elements) can modify the base iron for ideal cutting edges just did not exist. Even in the Japanese tradition, there was no clear knowledge of how modifying a furnace or changing aspects of the firing might produce a specific result. Instead, the blade maker would use experience to selectively pick pieces with hoped for characteristics out of a larger pile of random quality bloom fragments (based on colour, crystal structure, fracture lines). Here I am talking about Northern European, Early Medieval, methods, also with the initial reduction of ore to bloom (not secondary modifications like 'hearth steel' or wootz).
So the most common base material past on from the smelt master into the hands of the Viking Age blacksmith was simple bloomery iron, compressed to working bars. This material would have next to no carbon content, and would contain varying amounts of slag tendrils (even inside the same source bar). As each bloom itself varies in its carbon from top to bottom, most certainly accumulated experience would teach some parts / methods of working resulted in blades with slightly better edge holding than others. There would certainly be no kind of predictabililty of results as is enjoyed by modern bladesmiths, working with our standardized industrial metal stocks.
'Bloom Seax' - Simple Norse era natural branch handle

What this means is that historic blades of bloom iron (or accurately created replicas) are simply not hard - and they just do not hold an edge. So much so that one of the most common personal objects for a Norse or Saxon male was a small sharpening stone, worn attached to the belt. Straight bloomery iron blades require almost constant sharpening! You also see this in the artifact knives, with most blades well worn down from all the sharpening during their use life.

For the modern designs, I use the bloom iron specifically to highlight its unique texture. Blades like Hector's Bane have bloom iron exterior slabs forge welded to a carbon steel core. As with other inset cutting edge styled blades, it is this modern alloy core that is forming the actual cutting edge. So the bloom iron is not really a functional component, but a decorative one.

'Hector's Bane'

Honestly, given the high skill and massive labour needed to create bloomery iron in the first place, this material is just to valuable in my eyes to waste. So I have never undertaken a series of destructive tests to firmly determine the absolute compairison properties of bloomery iron. Given the wide variation between individual blooms, I'm not even sure how useful any comparision to modern alloy steels would even be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Beads = Female ???

Posted by Jeroen on the Bladesmith's Forum:
A rare view of a burial including a longsax (or transitional), with scabbard fittings in situ: http://benedante.blo...r-grave-at.html

Longsax scabbard remains are pretty rare (I only know of one other example on top of my head), so this is is a great find! Hopefully there will be some cleaned photos of the scabbard mounts. Also interesting to see is the sword, which apparently had a fully organic hilt. Another interesting thing are the beads. I'd expect beads in a female grave, so is this a female warrior or just a man wearing a necklace? The dating they gave is too early, and should be around 700AD.
"Frankish warrior's grave of c. 600 CE uncovered during excavations for the TGV train tracks in Alsace"

 It was pointed out in a comment by Scott :
... from the comments at the bottom of the link it looks like there was a mistake in how the pictures were assembled.  The beads are apparently from a different grave.
"Collar or necklace of glass beads."

 First point might be that the source is from the internet, and further from an individual's personal blog. So the images might have come from anywhere, and the descriptive text is quite limited (!!)

The concept of beads = female is very much a 'Victorian' frame of reference. In the past graves were sex determined with a simple weapon = male / bead = female method. As archaeologists have (finally) gotten a bit more careful, this (largely male) point of view has been questioned.
The majority of at least Viking Age Scandinavian graves (the only cultural set I can speak too with any real knowledge) that contain beads have very few individual beads. Something like 3 - 5 as an average. Bearing in mind that every grave find with a full string can really throw that average, its just more typical that any grave many only have one or two beads found. This really means you have to question using beads as a sex determiner.
The position of an beads, and more importantly the possible inclusion of broaches is actually more significant. Beads found in what suggests a line across the chest are likely to have been supported between broaches - a use pattern that is certainly female use. A bead string (or a couple of beads) found around the neck can not realistically be used in isolation to determine sex of the individual.
There are some graves that from the bone evidence are females, but also contain weapons.
Of interest here would also be some graves from Finland that have larger knives with elaborate sheet or cast metal scabbard covers, the blades mounted to run in line with the belt. (Luistari #56, Eura, Satakunta, Finland)
Image scanned from 'Vikings - North Atlantic Saga' pg 111
 I know the thrust a the Bladesmith's Forum is an examination of the weapons in detail. But I do think it helps to have a larger picture of how weapons as objects were markers of social status especially. A sword included with a body might be telling a far more complex story that might be perceived at first glance...

I would most certainly refer readers to Neil Peterson's extensive research and data collection on the topic of glass beads in the Viking Age posted over on the DARC web site - HERE.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Bloomery Iron for Bladesmithing - some Questions and Answers (A)

Some Background:

I was contacted a couple of weeks back by a staff writer from a major magazine that focuses on contemporary bladesmithing:

I'm working on a story about knifemakers who have smelted their own bog iron. I was perusing the Bladesmith's Forum when I came across a post you wrote in January 2014 describing your experience with smelting. Would you be interested in talking to me for the story? I'm curious to learn more about the process of turning raw bog iron into blade and about the history of how smiths in the Iron Age worked with their material. 
There was a bit of back and forth. I was careful to explain that although I do consider my knowledge and experience with especially Northern European Early Medieval (Viking Age) furnaces to be considerable, my focus has been on the 'ore to bloom' phase, certainly not on the 'bar to blade' part. I suggested some further background reading off the (massive) documentation on my web site -  Experimental Iron Smelting. 

This lead to a list of specific questions.
Like usual, I started off like some absent minded college professor, pretty much delivering a compressed lecture on experimental archaeology, Viking Age history, the theory of direct process bloomery iron furnaces...
'This is just taking so long' says I. 
'Maybe you should not be trying to be so much the teacher' says she.
The guy wanted an *interview* - not a college level course...

But since I've written the stuff anyway, and knowing full well the final article is unlikely to do more than give me a line or two, I'm putting up the full 'answers' here...

2 (*). I'm interested in your historical reenacting. What is it like to smelt under historical conditions? 
Reconstructed Viking Age smelt at Vinland (L'Anse aux Meadows NHSC, 2010)

Leaving aside the larger questions of experimental archaeology and whether modern people can ever really duplicate the past (**).

The single biggest change I find in working in a 'historic' environment is the absence of modern time keeping. As early 21st Century North Americans, so much of our lives are controlled by our (obsessive?) use of time measuring devices. In iron smelting, reproducible and predictable results are framed in terms of burn rates, which are standard volumes against time.
My own team has used a number of 'ancient' type ways to determine time. When working with a hand powered bellows, using your heart rate is one possible measure. One of the team studies early music, and he wrote a couple of songs / chants to use to help regulate bellows stroke rates. Both of these methods were used in the final 'all Viking Age' iron smelt demonstration / experiment we undertook in 2010 at L'Anse aux Meadows NHSC for Parks Canada. We did have an observer / recorder keeping measured experimental data, but did not consult those notes until after the smelt was over.

My standard principle is 'History stops when Safety starts'. 

You notice in the image from the Vinland experiment that although the team members are in Viking Age clothing and using historic type tools, we are still wearing modern safety glasses. Going blind from having a hot piece of slag or scale damage an eye is also historically accurate - but we are not completely crazy. Use of leather aprons and gloves has been standard for metalworkers since ancient times, if only to protect clothing, which was considerably more valuable before modern industrial textiles. Wool and Linen fabrics are actually considerably more functional around the furnace than modern synthetic materials. The main safety concern I have had over wearing historic clothing is in the footwear. Soft soled Viking Age shoes can be very slippery, and certainly provide little protection if you drop something on your foot!

In operating a 'short shaft' direct process bloomery furnace, higher air volumes have proven to produce larger, more dense iron blooms. In fact, blooms most like those few found in the archaeology. You most certainly will get iron with less air, but those blooms tend to be smaller (less efficient) and much more lacy in composition.
There remains an open question on just what kind of bellows was actually used for iron smelting in the Early Medieval period, as there is nothing remaining in terms of archaeological evidence. The size of the reconstructed bellows created for the Vinland experimental series was largely guess work, but the measurements were based on the theoretical requirements for air inside the furnace used.
The effective pumping rate was one stroke per second, alternating between the two chambers. Individuals varied on their stroke force (delivery pressure), but averaged 60 - 75 strokes per minute. This without interruption, over the course of the entire firing sequence extending roughly 5 hours. We found that to maintain the needed consistency, we needed four individuals, working in roughly 10 minute shifts. This labour force needed to be at least semi-skilled to this task. This is a requirement totally separate to the needs of feeding and operating the furnace itself.
Its easy to see why the development of water powered bellows, starting in the 700's and moving across Europe through to about 1100 AD, had such a huge impact on bloomery iron production.
Of course there is also the labour involved in preparing all the required raw materials. Hundreds of pounds of charcoal (wood gathered, cut, baked, broken). Ore to be found, dug, roasted, broken. Clay to be dug, dried, screened, re-mixed. A furnace to be built.
All this just gives you a raw bloom. This still needs to be refined by hammering, folding, re-welding into a working bar. Its only at that point the bladesmith can start working his own art.

* Question 1 was related to contributing some images for the final article. I will be adding some of the ones I suggested as illustrations through my own series here.

** This is where I realized I was going out of control!
I had written the following as a mere lead in to what is above for question 2:

One of the huge problems in attempting to discover possible historic / ancient physical practise is the whole concept of 'can modern people really duplicate the mind set of historic people'. This actually is a topic of considerable debate in the museum and archaeology field.
Coupled with that is the whole problem of attempting to re-discover what at base is a completely 'lost' working tradition. Outside of Japan, there is no living progression of these skills down into the modern day. This is especially true for Northern Europe, where archaeological evidence is extremely limited, and the technology itself had shifted before any written descriptions of the original processes had been recorded.
Leaving that mainly aside, there are a couple of primary problems that impact any attempt to reproduce historic iron smelting methods:

- Outside of some very rare and isolated examples, there are almost no working traditions of smelting iron that extend down into the modern age. Japan is the primary exception to this. However, because ore type directly influences furnace design and operation, Japanese methods are quite different to those undertaken in Northern Europe. This is important, because most North Americans are patterning their furnaces around what are essentially late Iron Age / Early Medieval European 'short shaft' type furnaces. There are a number of modern makers specifically basing their work on Japanese models (Jesus Herandez would be one). Lee Sauder started with African prototypes, which he moved away from as he developed the base level understanding of the smelting process. (It was from this work and him that almost everyone else in NA learned the basics by the way.) Lee has recently returned to work on these systems.

- Not only is European process not represented as a surviving tradition, the exact type of small scale direct process bloomery that most of us are using today was mostly abandoned as a working technology by the middle of the Medieval period. The specific technology of processing raw ore into working metal bars has changed several times over the last 1000 years, which earlier methods replaced with newer systems that offered larger scale production, better efficiency and increased control of the results. The big shift from wrought iron to mild steel via the Bessemer process in the later 1850's being an example modern blacksmiths (should be) familiar with.
This is not quite a direct severing of ancient / historic process. Sometimes shifting realities will re-introduce an older working method. One of the best examples is the rapid growth of small to medium scale iron smelting in America just post revolution. Cut off from British industrial supply, the new nation had to rapidly and massively increase its production volume. Typical 'Yankie Ingenuity' was combined with abundant wood resources for charcoal,  particularly in the New England region with its many locations for water power, resulting in many smaller scale bloomery furnace operations springing up.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

that Spiral Cooking tool...

...or - Have I told this story so many times now that I am *sure* it is true??

This tale starts with the following image, seen on the Wareham Forge web site:

The specific objects illustrated here I created for the feature film Outlander, back in 2006. The commission included a cauldron hanger and cauldron, plus the set of cooking tools seen above. There was also a 'slave chain'. The chain and the cauldron set would both be clearly seen in the final film. (1)


It appears that the image above has been shot around a fair amount over the world wide web. Usually with all the citations removed. (2) Particularly via  Pinterest, which appears to be intentionally designed to remove the original source information. The image seen on Pinterest actually appears to be located on Tumblr : here

Next element to this story is that one of those Pinterest images got posted up to a special interest group on Facebook (quoted here with the links and names removed) :

Joanna Dionne
Joanna 25 January 19:03
Greetings original foodies ! A number of years ago I was given a metal spiral on the end of a long handle and was told that it was for baking bread. Also, that small loaves of bread had been found with this distinctive spiral on the bottom. Does anyone remember something like this and could give me a reference to it? I want to bake bread on it for an event, but I need the documentation. Thank you for any help you can give. I found this image through google that shows it. I hope this url works -
viking vikings viking food -

Let us feast and make merry - Viking style! A selection of images to make the mouth water.
One of the other members of DARC, sent along a copy of that message - pretty much as a chuckle (knowing full well what the original source was).

Because of that posting to face book, I have had some people track me down over the last week, asking for the artifact reference.

Have you ever had research you undertook years ago come back to haunt you?
In this case decades ago!
" It's in one of these books - one of them - someplace... "

Well, after about three hours and dozens of reference books checked page by page, the answer to that is 'not really'.

My original production notes for the Norse Encampment (going back to the early 1990's) gave me this (single) reference:
Spiral Iron - Berger, Norway; in Universitetes Oldsaksamling, # 15788
(You might note that there is a typo there, long un-corrected - it should be BERGEN) (3)
The description I provided was:
This cooking tool would have been used for grilling meats. This item appears to have been much less common, with only a half dozen or so samples surviving. Most of the artifacts are quite small, with the diameter ranging from 6 to 17 cm, with the average being around 13 cm across. This is likely because of the large length of iron rod needed to make a spiral. Although the reproduction is only 15 cm in dia, forming it required about 70 cm of rod. One of the major domestic meat animals for the Norse was sheep, and port was likely more commonly eaten than beef. In both cases the excess fat would drip through the open coils during cooking.
The only drawing of my own I can find is one intended as the production drawing - my visual notes for creating the replica for the Encampment program. An such, not a drawing from an artifact, but at best only an 'interpretation' : see Iron Objects 2 on the Norse Encampment documentation (Of interest may be that the original spelling mistake may go back to this hand written note.)

All that digging did turn up this :
Original drawing 4 3/4 inches wide - click to expand
I also 'remember' seeing another artifact in photograph. It was much smaller, with the shaft broken off just after it bent away from the body of the spiral. (No idea at all what or where!)

For this next bit, I have to thank Christie, known as the Viking Answer Lady. Over the years I have come to respect the depth of her research and understanding. I had sent her a quick e-mail asking her if she knew an artifact source she could quote me :
 Actually, I found a couple of examples in museum website data galleries and sent them to you a while back, since I had noticed that uy'all didn't have pics on the Forge website. Hmm. Let me look...

Aha! Here you go:

So here is what you will find there:

Object 580 - description
# 580 - image altered to increase surface detail

# 580 - Field Drawing (?) Note resemblance to 'page 156' reference.
Object 15788 description
# 15788 image
These are the two written descriptions provided - image of the original Danish, then an attempt at translation via Google Translate (plus edit)

A Toast (?) ; of iron;  formed by a long, flat iron plate of about 1 T's (inches ?) Brede (breadth) (breadth is ei (not) everywhere DC (uniform?) ), which is bent in spiral form, so that the Forms a round surface of approximately 6 Tr's (inches ?) on an average, and then go straight out as a Haandfang (handle ?); its length is approximately 5 Tr (inches ?). but a piece seems to be disconnected. (Avb. R. 429).

Gravfunn from the early Iron Age. Berger (gnr. 14-16), Aurskog p. og pgd., Akershus . and PGD., Akershus.
A remnant of a spiral formed grating av iron, lik(e) R. 429th . Both the most audiovisual (remaining?) shaft and the inner part audiovisual (remaining?) coil is missing.

What you see from the artifact samples:
Small diameter (# 580 at 15 cm)
Formed of flat profile stock
Forged to a fairly tight spiral (not given or scaled for #15788)
No detail on original handle terminal, length

So at least some of my original Encampment description bears relationship to the artifacts.
(My memory somewhat intact - I did not make this all up!)

One glaring early interpretive error I note now:
The concept of allowing fat and grease to run off is an extremely modern, Canadian, observation. If anything, in the cold northern climate of the Viking Age, fats would have been retained and consumed for their high energy content.

I also received this question this week:
From Joanna:
I was gifted with one of these irons a number of years ago.  At the time I was told that there had been a find of petrified bread rolls/patties/some kind of baked bread that were marked on the bottom with spirals the size of this iron.
Do you have any idea of where any articles about this may be?
To that question, I draw an absolute blank. I am not aware of any food artifacts as you suggest. (But I'd guess the Viking Answer Lady knows!)

I do make general replicas of all these Viking Age cooking tools for sale off the Wareham Forge web site : see NORSE TRADE GOODS

 I can make not only the basic cooking irons and trammels, but more elaborate pieces like the Oseberg Tripod, the Mastermyr Pot and Mastermyr 'cooking' grill. In the past I have created pots and cauldrons in antique wrought iron, steel, copper and brass / bronze - as well as decorative forged cauldron hangers.

Why not get these from the original source?

1) For a full look at my work on these props for Outlander, see:
Description on the Wareham Forge
Earlier Blog Postings

2) Try this experiment : Go on to Google Images / search using ' spiral, cook, viking '
What I see is that only the first eight images actually are of cooking tools (and even then, #3 is of a spear.) Five of those eight are images of various replicas of this spiral cooking tool that *I* have made over the decades. *
NONE are actually artifacts - and I have not been able to source an artifact reference via Google Images.
The other two images are of a version by 'Welandsmithy' :
You can see that version is made from round profile stock. This is certainly not historically accurate, and has surely been chosen for the much easier forging effort on the part of the blacksmith involved.

About # 20, you will find an image of the version by 'Iron Leaf Forge'
What has been done here is that round stock has been forged to the spiral, then pounded flat. This results in the irregularities seen. Once again not the historic method.

3) What I find particularly humorous about this, is the written description given  (and not credited btw) :
" Based on the few fragments found in Berger, Norway this cooking tool was thought to be used for cooking fatty meats. "
Note the repeat of my original typing error?

Honestly, I personally find the way most people pass off work as 'replicas', or even worse, 'reproductions' fairly annoying - and certainly without accuracy.
Its also a wee bit insulting that other metalworkers are selling lower quality versions of my own work - obviously using my research without doing their own.

* I do note that because of the 'custom search' method that Google is using, your personal results might vary!


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

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