In the time of transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, quite possibly the most important discovery in the progress of human metalworking was the discovery of steel.
The early Iron objects forged by ancient smiths, while less brittle and longer wearing than bronze or copper artifacts, were still somewhat soft and prone to bending. In fact one of the Icelandic sagas tells how the Viking warrior had to keep stepping on the blade of his sword in the midst of battle to straighten it. While this was obviously included to show the intensity of the battle and the prowess of the warrior, it speaks more to the softness of his iron sword.
We don’t know exactly when or how the discovery of steel was made, though it may have been the Hittites who emerged as history’s first true Iron Age culture. The fuel for the smith’s fire in ancient times was not the modern coal we use today, but charcoal made from hardwood, and thus organic in nature. The ancient smith learned, perhaps by sheer accident, that iron left to heat longer in the charcoal absorbed some of the carbon and became harder and darker colored than iron heated for shorter periods of time. Since most ancient forges, like their modern counterparts, were only able to heat small pieces of iron at a time, the process of “faggoting” was developed. This is where alternating layers of the harder carbeurized steel and the softer iron were heated to forge-welding heat and hammered together to form a tough piece of steel with the hardness to hold an edge and softer piece of iron to allow flexibility. The process we use today in creating billets of pattern-welded steel is popularly but incorrectly called “Damascus” steel.
As the process of adding carbon became more refined, some smiths would add bits of bone to the charcoal fire to increase the available carbon to be absorbed by the iron. Eventually the iron was placed in airtight pottery vessels with organic materials to allow absorption of carbon as these were heated in the fire without absorbing impurities.
Our modern age owes quite a debt to these men hidden in the shadows of antiquity, for without their inquisitiveness and perseverance, how few of the things we use and take for granted every day would ever have come into being. So the next time you use a really sharp knife, or even shut the steel door on your automobile, send up a prayer of gratitude for those grimy sweaty ancestors who stood over the fire ‘til they got it right.
God Bless and Happy Smithing!