Culture & Art

Jul 1, 2016

A WELL GUARDED SECRET

From Ancient times, Mankind has been amazed by the effects the elements have on each other. Traces of iron artefacts dating back as early as the 4th millennium BC were found in Egypt, showing that, from an early stage, Man was able to extract iron, and work it. 

Although the beginning of smelting is not known, wrought iron existed from the 1st millennium BC, and by the end of the 2nd millennium BC iron was being produced from iron ores, and brought from China to Africa, south of the Sahara.

Blacksmiths were a respected figure across several cultures, they were very considered and looked up to. Their craft was almost considered magic. Because they kept their craft a secret, as would happen with other crafts such as construction, nobody really knew how they did what they did, and even the simplest tools seemed like they had been magically born from rock and fire.

At that time, when beautifully intricate pieces appeared, with patterns or shapes that differed from the usual, people would assume it to be godly. Such was the case with damascus steel, also called damasked steel, one of the most famous and strongest steels from the pre-industrial era, typically used in weapons. The technique for its craft was developed before the birth of Christ, and weapons of damascus steel became popular between 200-400 AD. In Europe, it became known from the 11th century, when the Crusaders reached the Middle East. It is a mysterious and remarkable material, which gains its strength from its manufacturing process.

Damascus steel is characterized by its exceptional hardness, achieved through the smelting process, and the watering pattern, an intricate pattern that makes it easily recognizable, also known as "damask" pattern. This pattern derives from the varying carbon levels of the original material, as well as the impurities that exist in it.

Manufacturing damascus steel involved a carburization process, where wrought iron was heated to red, and put in contact with various carbonaceous materials in closed vessels, resulting in an uneven carbon content, and various impurities. This would result in some parts being harder- and therefore more brittle- than other parts. The final iron-carbon alloy contained as much as 1.8 percent carbon, which was then shingled into long bars. After the first bar was formed, it was repeatedly doubled over and welded, intertwining the various layers, and "mixing" the harder and softer parts together.

The watering patterns that result after quenching and finishing served as a guide to the quality of the steel, as well of the blacksmith, since it meant that the material was more or less homogeneous. The images are generated in the phase of hammering and welding bars together, and they go through the entire piece, they are not just superficial: one oxidized steel is lighter, while the other is darker. The two types of steel react differently in the acid oxidation process, which means that the pattern is revealed on the surface only after this process. The more intricate the patterns, the better the mix was, and therefore less likely to break, to bend, or to blunt.

This steel ended up with a superior reputation. Its fame spread over the centuries, but always in secret, with blacksmiths never revealing the true mystery.  In fact, to this day, the exact methods used are not known - they were secret in their time, and lost over generations, even though it is possible to create similar materials, through identical processes. There are even those who still attempt to reproduce damascus steel, achieving very close results, and those who imitate it for its aesthetical properties, rather than for physical ones. However, for these pieces to be "authentic", they would have to present, not only, the characteristic damascene surface pattern, but also match the original chemical composition, and the microstructure that delivers the pattern to the metal.

Damascus steel fell into oblivion after the industrial revolution, because it was easier to manufacture and to obtain at the time, and the blacksmiths who knew the craft had no need to pass the teachings and secrets. Today, Damascus steel would even be obsolete. The tales of the strength of this material come from times when there were no blades that were stronger than these, but today's technology has allowed us to adapt the materials to the necessities, and the materials are chosen according to the needs, thus becoming the best in their fields of use.

Damascus steel has always been a symbol of respect, strength, beauty and class. Throughout History, prominent figures, whether warriors or emperors, Romans or Celtics, Vikings or Arabs, who possessed such weapons could be believed to be nearly invincible. It was not just a token for power and wealth, its mystical properties were also famed, brought in by the "magic" of blacksmiths.

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