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The Serpent in the Sword: Pattern-welding in Early Medieval Swords
Lee A. Jones
The Fourteenth Park Lane Arms Fair (1997)
Introduction: From the time of its first appearance about 4,000 years ago, the sword soon became the pre-eminent weapon of personal defense and has been a preferred vehicle for technological and artistic expression even since its relatively recent decline. Within what at first seems to be merely a simple variation of that basic tool, the inclined plane, metallurgical studies have revealed complex piled structures in iron swords dating from as early as Celtic times(500 BC). Being composed of several rods welded together and running the length of the blade, such piled structures allowed the smith to localize desired properties by empirically joining together irons with differing properties owing to different origins and concentrations of trace elements. Additionally, small rods could be carburized to increase hardness by increasing carbon content. Ideally, steel (which is an alloy of iron with small amounts of carbon) would be chosen to provide hardness at the edge. However, since an increased carbon content concomitantly causes brittleness, softer and more malleable wrought iron or mild steel is better used for the remainder of the blade in order to impart resistance to fracture. Piled construction provides another advantage in that it averages the strengths and weaknesses of the individual components.
In the pattern-welded sword blades made from the Migration Period through the mid-Viking Age (5th through 10th centuries), swordsmiths manipulated the piled structure of the blade to create a striking decorative effect. Virtually all existing swords from these times are in excavated condition and in many cases weak acidity in the earth or water has differentially etched the blade surfaces and the presence of complex geometrical patterns integral to the substance of these European sword blades has long been recognized; the lithographs in the survey of Norwegian Viking swords in the Bergens Museum by Lorange from 1889 remaining unsurpassed in their beauty and clarity. In the earlier part of this century, some academics proposed impossibly complex explanations of the “lost art” of forging these patterns, although the basic techniques of pattern-welding had, in fact, on the factory floor, remained in use into this century in the forms of Damascus shotgun barrels and in Solingen’s production of presentation grade sabers and daggers, including those of the Third Reich. Essentially identical pattern-welding techniques are also commonly encountered in near-Eastern weapons such as yataghans, kindjals and quaddaras as well as in Indonesian krises. Herbert Maryon introduced the term pattern-welding in 1948 in conjunction with a sword found near Ely and in 1960 published a detailed account of the pattern-welding process. J. W. Anstee, Lena Thålin-Bergman and Jaap Ypey, among others, have made further contributions in this field, with the metallographic studies of R. F. Tylecote and B. Gilmour and the radiographic studies of Janet Lang and Barry Ager being the most significant recent works.