The Ironworker’s Craft Goes Online!

The Ironworker’s Craft Goes Online!

The time has come. A year of intense studies is officially over.

A few days ago I officially graduated from University College Dublin with an MSc in Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture.

My thesis bore the simple title of ‘The Ironworker’s Craft’ and dealt early medieval ironworking in Ireland (400-1100 AD), beginning with iron smelting and ending with the forging of artefacts. There was even some space left to devote to metallography.

What I was interested in was addressing 3 main research questions:

  1. Testing and comparing different ways of processing bloomery iron. Can they all be performed in a simple early medieval smithy?
  2. Can the different methods be recognised by metallographic analysis? Can two methods produce the same result? Can one method produce several different outcomes?
  3. How do the results compare to actual archaeological artefacts? Did I end up producing something similar to the work smith a thousand years ago?

In other words: I have a science degree in setting things on fire and hitting them with hammers! This is probably the closest that I will ever get to a mad scientist.

Since research needs to be shared, The Ironworker’s Craft is now available on my Academia Page!

It was a quite an engaging spring and summer of experimental research which produced this.

First of all there was the preliminary work of studying what has been done on the topic so far, collecting published metallographically analysed artefacts and doing some initial smelting trials.

Then I had to get reconstruct a an early medieval bloomery furnace, collect some bog ore, and produce two usable  iron blooms.

Once that was taken care of, I had to get a simple forge set up and start processing the raw iron. Some got consolidated, some got consolidated and folded, while some was re-smelted. I could then forge the resulting iron and steel bars into knife blade.

Then came the not so minute task of cutting these blades up learning how to do some basic metallography in the last minute.

All of this produced a considerable amount of data, which I had compare and interpret in the light of archaeological finds from early medieval Ireland, as well as Europe in general.

My colleagues found the results quite surprising and praised my work. It turned out that no only can good iron be made from the dirt found in an Irish Midlands bog, even producing some high-carbon steel is fairly straightforward task. This makes you wonder why so many artefacts were nevertheless made from far worse materials. Maybe the difference between ‘good’ and ‘good enough’ was far greater back then.

What a lot of archaeologists found very surprising is that it was often not weapons which were made from the best materials. Instead the most care could be put into the making of reliable craft tools.

Metallography on the other hand turned out to be slightly problematic. It turns out that the different ways of processing bloomery iron can sometimes be hard to tell apart and one should be very careful when interpreting metallographic analyses. It could be that there is more than one way of producing the same result.

The final result a bit under 20,000 words including appendices, a series of pictures and some astoundingly positive feedback from the good professors who marked the thesis. Seriously, when I read the marking notes, I was not sure if we have the same paper in mind. This just goes to show that sometimes others might be more impressed with your work than yourself.

So instead of me praising my work here, how about you go and read it, so that you can make up your own mind?

May you find it helpful and share it with others who might find it interesting!

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