The Writer’s Guide to the History of Blacksmithing

Blacksmithing has a long history. Only stone working is older. The craft was refined and advanced by trial and error and through interactions between cultures. The weapons and tools produced by these early smiths forged cities and countries.

As always, magic is the exception to the rule. Because magic.

The Copper Age

Between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age is the Copper Age or the Chalcolithic Age, which just means “copper stone” in Greek. [1] It lasted roughly from the late 5th to the 3rd millennia. Gold, silver, and copper were the first metals worked by humans since they are malleable and occur naturally. Elaborate shapes could be crafted from these metals and as well as tools and weapons hardened by long periods of light tapping known as work hardening. Evidence of copper smelting during this period was found in Serbia. [2]

A selection of Copper or Chalcolithic Age objects. Image source.

The Bronze Age

Lasting from approximately 3,300 BC to 1,200 BC, this period saw the growing use of bronze and the development of advanced techniques, such as smelting, melting, casting, riveting, and forging. Bronze is a mixture of copper and either tin, arsenic, or other metals. It is harder than copper, more resistant to corrosion, and has a lower melting point, making it easier to melt and cast. [3] Just like copper, bronze cannot be tempered with heat but must be work hardened. Bronze smithing appears to have originated in the Middle East with the Indus River Valley civilianization, but it spread across Asia, Europe, and Africa. It was also developed in the Americas with the Incas, the Moche civilization, and the Calchaquí people of Argentina, all possessing the technology. [4]

A bronze age furnace. 1890 engraving. Image source.

The Iron Age

The Bronze Age ended with a period of sudden and violent social collapse. Even today, we are unsure of the cause, although natural disasters and invasions are common theories. The Late Bronze Age Collapse engulfed most of southeast Europe, west Asia, and North Africa. The knowledge of smelting and working iron developed in Anatolia, where it was closely guarded. With the collapse of their empire, the knowledge rapidly spread throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

An Iron Age shield in the La Tène style. It is one of the most significant pieces of ancient Celtic art found in Britain. Image source.

The Steel Age

Unlike the sudden transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the development of steel was sporadic and uneven. Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, and Iron Age smiths would occasionally make it by accident. The weapons made from this accidental steel were highly prized and considered gifts from the gods. In some cultures, these weapons were the only ones given names. There were some civilizations that discovered the secret to making steel, but they usually guarded it closely and prevented the knowledge from spreading. There is evidence of limited production from Anatolia from as far back at 1800 B.C. [5]

The Roman ensured their legions were equipped with steel. Their weapons were far superior to those made of iron, and they recorded that when they were fighting the Celts, their opponents had to step on their swords to straighten them after two or three swings.

The earliest and most consistent production of high carbon steel took place in southern India. Known as Seric Iron or Wootz steel, it was exported to the Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and Chinese. [6] Later this type of steel was called Damascus, a type that is still prized today for its durable sharp edge. Eventually, the knowledge of how to create steel disseminated throughout the Old World, across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Steelmaking would be the backbone of the Industrial Revolution and the material used to build much of the infrastructure of the modern world.

A dagger made of wootz steel. Image source.
A sample of patterns possible with Damascus and pattern welded steel. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) ISBN 0-19-861263-X, p. 301: “Chalcolithic /,kælkəl'lɪθɪk/ adjective Archaeology of, relating to, or denoting a period in the 4th and 3rd millennium BC, chiefly in the Near East and SE Europe, during which some weapons and tools were made of copper. This period was still largely Neolithic in character. Also called Eneolithic... Also called Copper Age – Origin early 20th cent.: from Greek khalkos 'copper' + lithos 'stone' + -ic”.
[2] “Serbian site may have hosted first copper makers”. UCL.ac.uk. UCL Institute of Archaeology. 23 September 2010. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
[3] James E. McClellan III; Harold Dorn (2006). Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. JHU Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8360-6. p. 21.
[4] “El bronce y el horizonte medio”. lablaa.org. Archived from the original on 17 April 2009. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
[5] Akanuma, H. (2005). “The significance of the composition of excavated iron fragments taken from Stratum III at the site of Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey”. Anatolian Archaeological Studies. Tokyo: Japanese Institute of Anatolian Archaeology. 14: 147–158.
[6] Srinivasan, Sharada (1994). “Wootz crucible steel: a newly discovered production site in South India”. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. 5: 49–59. doi:10.5334/pia.60.

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