The Working of Copper, Bronze, and Iron: Connections to Etruria and Early Italy

The challenges faced by and advances made by early humans in learning to refine and work with metals are dealt with in two articles in this series. This one deals with the working of iron and the other deals with copper and its alloys. Since this series of articles deals with the history of Italy and Rome, these two articles are included to provide a background to aid and understand why the entry of the Etruscans into Italy The Villanovans, the Palafitte, and other early human societies in Italy were users of metals but very little evidence exists that they actually separated the metals from their ores, which was at the cutting edge of high technology in Europe during the period from about 1800 B. C. until about the time of Christ. One wonders why so many bronze artifacts are available from the Roman period, while iron tools and weapons are extremely rare. This is one where the examination of objects found at archaeological sites can be quite misleading. Attempting to draw inferences concerning how widely iron was used or the percentage of iron weapons as opposed to bronze weapons that were in use at any given time by examining archaeological finds will lead to wrong conclusions simply because most of the iron artifacts lost or buried more than about 400 years ago have totally rusted away. It pays to pay close attention to the chemistry of archaeology when attempting to draw inferences about early Italian and Roman usage of metals. One good example is that of the common, ordinary pilum carried by Roman infantrymen for a period extending from about the time of Marius (100 B. C. or so) until the reorganizations of the army under Diocletian and Constantine (A. D. 293 - 307 or so) These were designed from the very beginning as a use once and throw away weapon. The pilum had a long, leaf shaped iron head joined to an iron socket with a thin neck of soft iron. A wooden haft of about four to five feet was fitted. Sometimes, it was simply finished off with a tang which was driven into the end of its wooden haft. The pilum was used primarily to disable an enemy’s shield. Just before the Roman legions met the enemy at sword point, the soldiers threw their pila in unison at the enemy shields. If it had done its hob well, the pilum would go into the shield and stick. Furthermore, the enemy could not snap the spear off at the base of its head because the soft iron would just bend. Now the enemy had a shield made clumsy and useless by having a bent- over spear with a long haft sticking out and in the way, poking out his comrade’s eye on one side and tripping the comrade on the other side. There was nothing left but to throw the shield away. Now, the Roman legionary moved in with his short stabbing sword or gladius, of good steel this time instead of soft iron and finish off the enemy with whatever cut he felt like using, now that the enemy was standing there looking ridiculous without his shield. Two facts can be inferred from this description, which pretty well matches descriptions given us by the ancient writers. The number of pila lost should have been in the hundreds of thousands at least, and the Romans knew how to make different kinds of iron, which were in reality different kinds of steel as the article points out.

While we are on this business of the archaeology of iron and steel, consider some facts that seem rather fantastic and bizarre until one looks a little deeper. Many objects have been recovered at archaeological sites which are made of iron with a high nickel content. Now the technology needed to produce alloy steels containing nickel or chromium or titanium or manganese only came about very recently, during the Twentieth Century A. D. in fact with some possible experimentation going on in the late Nineteenth Century. These steels are very complex, and higher temperatures are needed to fabricate them than are needed to melt iron, which melts at about 3650 degrees Fahrenheit (about 2020 degrees Celsius). Yet many objects are found made of nickel steel in archaeological sites occupied by primitive people. Not only that, but the nickel content helps to keep the iron from rusting so quickly, and these are often preserved whereas a pure iron object would have long since rusted away.

The answer lies in the fact that most if not all of these objects were made from nickel - iron meteorites found by aboriginal peoples and used by them as a source of metal up until modern times. Meteorite falls that show signs of having been worked for their metal content have been found in Greenland, Mexico, and other countries. A beautifully finished dagger, possibly of meteorite iron, was found in Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb. Though the truth is almost as bizarre as the supposition that these people were descended from interstellar travelers it nevertheless points up how easy it is to draw faulty archaeological inferences when one does not seek explanations from disciplines outside that of anthropological scholarship.

Just so that we don’t become complacent in the belief that there is a totally natural scientific answer to every mystery surrounding ancient technology, we don’t have to look very far to find more mysteries. For example, it seems that the ancient Chinese learned to develop a high tech anticorrosive coating for metal parts. In the book on the emperor Q’in and his buried army of teracotta soldiers cited below, mention is made of a thick oxide coating on bronze swords that contained chromium. Swords treated with this process were still bright and sharp enough to split a hair.

Time - Life The Metalsmithsmodern metallurgical analysis of ancient metal tools, pp. 38 - 40. early use of meteorite iron, pp. 83 - 85. King Tutankhamen’s iron dagger, p. 85
The First Emperor of China images of weapons, p. 57, pp. 66 - 69. Anti - corrosion coatings, p. 69.

Sinnigen and Boak Page 12
Grant Page 14


Return to Glossaries and Indexes Table of Contents - Up one level.
Return to History and Technology Back Pages - The home page for this entire site.