Up the Iron

By Marc Gener-Moret, Guest Associate Editor

The end of 2021 marks, among many other things, the completion of a year in which the whole world has been striving for recovery on an individual or a societal level. Resilience - a main characteristic of iron, is something that we are all after. It is thus only with great joy, gratitude and admiration that we can say that this year the archaeological science community output in the field of ancient and historical ferrous metals has been carrying on strong and steady. Building on the solid foundations established over the year, 2021 has seen a great variety of studies being published. This brief note is, necessarily, far from a comprehensive list of what has been achieved in the field for this time period, but it aspires to provide a fair overview of wha has been going on in different aspects of ferrous metallurgical studies. 

We find the expected wide chronological scope in the published works, given the significance that ferrous materials have for the societies that use them, but it is a sign of the good health of the field to see that the geographical scope of the research is also rather broad, although it would be a definitely much better sign to see a broader variety of places of origin for the individuals, teams and organizations involved in the research. This is something to keep actively striving for, not only in our more or less small community, but in the whole of the Archaeological Science field and, well, in the broader Academia. There is still a lot of work to be done in this aspect.

Down to specific subjects, we ‘ll start by saying that metallographical analyses (with OM and/or combined with SEM-EDS) are still a staple of the field (see for example D.O.I.s 10.1007/s12520-021-01414-0 for medieval iron objects from Talgar, SE Kazakhstan; 10.1007/s12520-021-01295-3 for medieval artefacts from Eastern Mongolia; 10.1007/s12520-021-01349-6 for iron production in the Chengdu Plain during the Han dynasty; 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.103179 for studies of wrought iron pieces from the Villarino 1880 ship, Argentina;10.15184/aqy.2020.248  for hunter-gatherer ferrous metallurgy in Northern Fennoscandiaas well as Verčík, M. and Güder, Ü "Searching for Necho's Armour in Didyma: An Archaeological and Archaeometallurgical Study on the Archaic Armour Scales" in G. Bardelli, R. Graells i Fabregat, Eds. “Ancient Weapons. New Research Perspectives on Weapons and Warfare”, RGZM - Tagungen 44, Mainz: Verlag des Römisch- Germanischen Museums, pp. 191-212).

These keep combining with the analytical studies of slags and other remains of production and transformation processes (see for example D.O.I.s 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.103160 for iron metallurgy of the Xianbei period in Tuva, SE Siberia; 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102892 for iron production at the end of the Meroe empire at Muweis, Sudan; 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.103255 for Iron Age production remains from Irtyash Lake, middle Trans-Urals, Russia; as well as Baužytė, E., Barfod, G. and Wynne-Jones, S. “Innovation, Tradition, and Metals at Kilwa Kisiwani”, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 54, 1 (2021), pp 53-75). 

Provenance and elemental characterization studies for ferrous metallurgy are of course of high interest and enthusiastically developing and, as such, they attract considerable efforts with a wide variety of methods and techniques involved (see for example D.O.I.s 10.1016/j.jas.2021.105334 for a fundamental review on the use of non-traditional heavy stable isotopes, including iron’s, in archaeological research; 10.3390/min11080900 for a look at the chemical variability of iron smelting slag with a case study from NE Madagascar; 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102814 for methods for determination of the source of iron of precontact Inuit and Dorset culture artefacts from the Canadian Arctic; 10.1111/arcm.12715 for the study of the provenance of iron bars from Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Roman shipwrecks in SE France via iron isotopes, or 10.1007/s12520-021-01333-0 for a multidisciplinary approach for a better understanding of the chronology, circulation and function of Iron Age ferrous semi-products in north-eastern France). 

It is also well known that crucible steel and wootz are a source of particular interest and fascination in the field of iron-based metallurgy, and it reflects in the literature (see for example D.O.I.s 10.1016/j.jas.2021.105529 for first evidence of medieval crucible steel production in Kubadabad, Anatolia, and its implications on technological exchange with Southern Asia; 10.1016/j.jas.2020.105224 for research showing that chromium crucible steel first made in Persia, or 10.1016/j.aia.2021.04.002 for early studies on wootz ingots and new evidence from Konasamudram, India).

But if, at the end, there is a staple of the Archaeological Science field, is multi-disciplinarity, which keeps having a tendency to present itself in singular ways (see for example D.O.I.s 10.1016/j.aia.2021.04.001 for archaeological survey and numeric simulation combined to provide insight into  the invention of cast iron smelting in early China; 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102803 for experimental archaeology and analytical techniques combined to study Levantine iron production and associated archaeological survey issues; 10.1007/s12520-021-01389-y for 3D engineering simulations applied to evaluating the performance of arrowheads from Turkic Khaganate period, and last, but not least, for Neutron Scattering techniques combined with other analytical methods, we can see D.O.I.s 10.1007/s12520-021-01330-3 for a study on the protective effect of the stress distribution on a lamellar Edo period Samurai helmet, 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102946 for a study on ‘Barbarian Scepters’ of the Viking Age from the Chernaya Mogila burial mound at Chernigov, Ukraine; 10.1111/arcm.12724  for analysis on microstructural evolution and control in ancient Indian high carbon steel).

Finally, as incomplete as this review may be, it would only lack further if it didn’t include books published in 2021 containing, to a greater or lesser degree, a relevant number of works on ferrous archaeometallurgy. A few examples would be: 

- Török,B. and  Giumlia-Mair, A. (eds.), 2021, Proceedings of the 5th International Conference " Archaeometallurgy in Europe ", Monographies Instrumentum 73, Éditions Mergoil,  (ISBN : 978-2-35518-121-4)

- Ivančan, T.S. and Karavidović, T. (Eds.), 2021, “Interdisciplinary Research into Iron Metallurgy along the Drava River in Croatia – The TransFER Project”, Archaeopress: Oxford (ISBN: 978-1-80327-102-6)

- Williams, A. and Dowen, K. (Eds.), 2021, “Arms and Armour: History, Conservation and Analysis. Essays in Honour of David Edge”, Archetype Books (ISBN: 9781909492820)

And that must be all for the time being. The field of ferrous archaeometallurgy keeps advancing at a steady and strong pace. We only expect that what is reflected in this short review is nothing but a promise of what is to come in 2022.

Now, the community is looking forward to YOU.

Up the iron!