07 December 2006

Newsflash - Ancient Swordsmiths Knew What They Were Doing

As long as we're on a roll with the genius of our ancestors... a story today in the Christian Science Monitor on how scientists are just figuring out how ancient swordsmiths made such strong steel swords. They talk about the Damascus swords, and how scientists today were unsure of how the swordsmiths got such "strength, flexibility, and ability to keep a keen edge".

Scientists looked at the swords under an electron microscope and found to their surprise that nanoparticles were the reason. I do have one quibble from the article, this thought, "Ancient craftsmen profited from stores of trial-and-error knowledge. They were not practicing materials science as we know it. "

To me, ancient craftspeople were as much scientists as what we have today. Experimenting with proportions of minerals to find a better formula for making steel is scientific investigation. Reducing their accomplishments to "stores of trial-and-error knowledge" is a backhand slap at themselves, because isn't that how we still conduct scientific investigation today? Also reducing these swordmakers to 'craftsmen' is a subtle slam, considering the place craftspeople are regulated to in today's society. Is it because we are so competitive that we can't stand the thought that our ancestors did something we can't figure out? Or are we so arrogant that we think anything not invented in the last 50 years is worthless?

Yes, I have an ax to grind. So to speak.

For us ancient history type people, if you want to read more about the Damascus sword making and steel properties, there are some articles with good explanations - The Key Role of Impurities in Ancient Damascus Steel Blades and Damascene Technique in Metal Working


Carla said...

Nanocrystals turn up in the ancient Egyptian hair dye recipe I posted about a couple of weeks ago. I guess the distinction the commentators are trying to draw is that the ancient swordsmiths wouldn't have known about nanocrystals and the theoretical reasons why their techniques worked. I'd call it applied science, and I have a feeling the line between applied science and craft is a very fuzzy one indeed.

Gabriele C. said...

With the right sort of iron, already Celtic and Roman swordsmiths got results that surprise modern scientists. The ferrum Noricum was the high quality steel of the first centuries AD.

Someone out there knew what he was doing. :)

Constance said...

Carla - A few thousand years of observation and coorlation trumps an electron microscope in my book. But it's neat to know there is a reason, we know what materials were used... and we still can't reproduce the finished object.

Gabriele - I have a little more knowledge of armor rather than swords, so any info is interesting. I also prefer a bow, but then I'm a distance killer. :)