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Thread: Iron in iron age, roman and early medieval swords

  1. #1

    Iron in iron age, roman and early medieval swords

    I just made a summary of metallurgical data on iron swords from "The prehistory of metallurgy in the British Isles" by R.F. Tylecote. Feel free to add more examples (especially on Hallstatt swords if anyone has it).

    Iron age:

    Isleham, UK, 50BC-50AD
    - carbon contents: variable
    - phosporous contents: 0.01%
    - manganese contents: -
    - hardness: 320-450 HV (cutting edge 370-450 HV)

    Notes: sandwich of three layers, with a higher carbon central layer. Hardness suggests fast aircooling.

    Waltham Abbey, UK, ?
    - carbon contents: 0-0.25%
    - phosporous contents: 0.075%
    - manganese contents: 0.0035%
    - hardness: 170-250 HV

    Notes: 24 piled layers of 0-0.25 %C. 250 HV at edge, 170 HV at core

    Other blades: examination of 5 blades from Llyn Cerrig Bach showed 4 piled blades with wrought iron with various degrees in carburization, and one piled at right angle to the axis of the cross-section (linear pattern), with alternating higher and lower carbon contents. All five blades have hardnesses in the 140- 265 HV range, usually higher at the edges and lower at the core.

    Other notes: edges sometimes workhardened on the iron age swords.

    Roman period:

    'N' type Nydam sword, Denmark, first half of 3rd century AD
    -Edges: one side 0.29% C, other 0.43% C
    -Core: 0.5% C
    -Thin iron strips on either side of core: 0.1% C
    -Three twisted billets either side of core: 0.1-0.6% C
    -Phosphorous contents: 0.16-0.21%

    Note: A sword from South Shields, UK (197-205AD) has twist damast as well, with similar bronze inlays as Nydam sword.

    Possibly spatha, Whittlesey, 2nd-4th century AD
    Section shows well diffused structure of ferrite and pearlite with a higher carbon zone running through its centre, varying from 0.3% C at cutting edge to 0.25% C at center. The carbon contents of the center decreases to about 0.1% C at surfaces. Hardness varies from 120-150 HV.

    Early medieval period:

    Ulfberht sword, Donnybrook, Dublin, Ireland, ?
    - carbon contents: 0.2%
    - phosporous contents: 0.02%
    - manganese contents: 0.1-1.0%
    Fine grained ferrite with spheroidal pearlite

    - carbon contents: 0.3-0.4%
    - phosporous contents: trace
    - manganese contents: 0.1%
    Quench-hardened to 520-550 HV

    Notes: piled layout.

    French pattern-welded swords:

    M. 7 core:
    - carbon contents: 0.12%
    - phosporous contents: 0.21%
    - manganese contents: 0.01%

    M. 10 core:
    - carbon contents: 0.09%
    - phosporous contents: 0.30%
    - manganese contents: 0.05%

    M.11 core:
    - carbon contents: 0.08%
    - phosporous contents: 0.16%
    - manganese contents: nil

    M.11 edge:
    - carbon contents: 0.2%
    - phosporous contents: 0.14%
    - manganese contents: nil

    Luneville sword, core:
    - carbon contents: 0.01-0.05%
    - phosporous contents: 0.18%
    - manganese contents: nil

    Luneville sword, edge:
    - carbon contents: 0.02-0.03%
    - phosporous contents: -
    - manganese contents: -

    Three Norwegian pattern welded swords: 0.414% C, 0.401% C and 0.52% C

    Ulfberht sword from Norway, 10th century AD: 0.75% C (not patternwelded)

    Frankish sword, Canwick Common, 9th-10th century AD:
    Piled in 2mm thick layers
    Structure varies from high-carbon martensite to lower-carbon structure throughout the structure
    Hardness 306-630HV

    Pattern-welded sword of Palace of Westminster, UK, 9nd century AD:
    Patternwelded areas down the center consist of 0.2% C iron together with fine and coarse grained ferrite and small globules of slag. Hardness 186-188 HV. The edges consist of fine-grained mild steel with a ferrite + pearlite structure, but surprizingly only a hardness of 136- 145 HV. Patternwelded areas are possibly harder due to higher phosphorous contents.

    Story of the batlle at Swanfirth against Snorri and his folk shows that good and bad swords were used concurrently. Steinthor found that "the fair-wrought sword bit not whenas it smote armour, and oft he must straighten it under his foot"

    General note: Phosporous adds slightly more hardness to non-quenched, non-workhardened steel then carbon does. So in none heat treated iron, you can replace phosphorous by carbon to get a blade of similar hardness. Phosphorous makes the steel more brittle though.
    Last edited by Jeroen Zuiderwijk; 01-06-2007 at 11:01 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Nov 2002
    Great summary Jeroen...

    Its great to have this data in a concise easy-to-read format.

    I learned alot...

    Thanks for taking the time to do this.

    Two swords
    Lit in Edenĺs flame
    One of iron and one of ink
    To place within a bloody hand
    One of God or one of man
    Our souls to one of
    Two eternities

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Mar 2002
    central New Mexico
    Anybody want to sumerize the data in "The Celtic Sword" by Radomir Pleiner?


  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    The Netherlands
    Interesting post Jeroen, thanks!

    Here's a chart for converting HV to HRC:
    Perhaps useful for those more familiar with HRC.

    The Ulfberht sword from Donnybrook is about 50 HRC. Not bad! Interesting that they achieved it with such a low carbon percentage.
    Last edited by Paul Hansen; 01-08-2007 at 04:40 PM.
    HwŠ­ere ■Šr fuse feorran cwoman
    to ■am Š­elinge. - Dream of the Rood

    "Ah, Blackadder. Started talking to yourself, I see."
    "'s the only way I can be assured of intelligent conversation."
    - Lord Melchett and Lord Edmund Blackadder


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