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Did the Hittites have Iron Weapons?

The Hittites dominated huge tracts of the Ancient Near East for over 4 hundred years (roughly 1650 BC – 1200 BC). Their military was feared far and extensive. Their mighty infantry and thundering chariots had been the dread of the battlefield. At instances they might muster as many as fifty thousand males. They received many, many battles for his or her king and their gods. What was the secret of their success? Well, widespread conception has it that the Hittites possessed an additional edge over their rivals… an fringe of iron.

“Hold on…iron?
Iron in the Bronze Age?

Artist impression of a Hittite Chariot

Artist impression of a Hittite Chariot

A Hittite* sword housed at the Essen Museum. A rare specimen for it is fashioned with a bronze handle... and an iron blade! *The exact provenance and age of the weapon is unclear, but indications are it could be of Hittite age and origins.

A Hittite* sword housed at the Essen Museum. A uncommon specimen for it’s usual with a bronze deal with… and an iron blade! *The actual provenance and age of the weapon is unclear, however indications are it might be of Hittite age and origins.

​Well, that is how the story goes: the Hittites had been forward of their time and bore ‘superior’ iron weapons. The Hittites’ super-hard iron swords might chop by means of the soft-as-butter bronze swords of the Egyptians and Assyrians. They had been successfully ‘Bronze Age lightsabers’, making the Hittites nigh-on invincible on the battlefield.

Okay, it is a bit foolish, however I could not resist…

Wait a minute… invincible? The Hittites had been good, however not that good. They received many battles and wars however they misplaced a number of too. And this notion that having iron weapons meant on the spot superiority over bronze-armoured foes would not fairly sound correct. Metallurgy is not as black and white as that – good bronze is definitely more durable than many grades of iron.

But again to the authentic query: did the Hittites have iron weapons or not? Oh, if solely it was a sure or no reply 🙂

Steel your self for what follows (together with a couple of extra horrible puns)…

The irony of the Iron Age

Firstly, we should dispense with the notion that the Bronze Age was a time when everybody was utilizing bronze for all the things as a result of iron hadn’t been found but, and that on the day somebody did uncover it, everybody threw down their bronze instruments and took up the superior iron ones as a substitute.

Indeed, whereas our trendy classification of the Bronze Age (3300 BC – 1200 BC) and the Iron Age (1200 BC – 500 BC) as two distinct and contiguous epochs serves as a tidy strategy to organise historical past, it’s a large simplification. In reality, iron was ‘known’ to the world all all through the Bronze Age – i.e. earlier than, throughout and after the time of the Hittites – a reality underpinned by loads of epigraphic proof. For instance, Prof. Klaas Veenhof’s translations of Assyrian service provider texts from 1800 BC describe the existence of an historical iron commerce ongoing alongside that of copper and tin (the substances for bronze).

Prof. Veenhof’s work additionally permits us to deduce that iron was uncommon – extraordinarily so and, consequently, massively costly. Indeed, proof means that iron commanded a value upwards of forty instances that of silver!

The Iron of Heaven

Why was iron so costly? Well, the solely actual supply of pure iron was meteorites (effectively, almost-pure iron – meteorites are generally composed of iron-nickel). To the Bronze Age kings, this was generally known as ‘Iron of Heaven’ as a result of it fell from the skies in streaks of sunshine. It should have appeared magical to the ancients – due to the method it descended from the skies and for its magnetic properties.

Meteorite Iron - the 'Iron of Heaven'.

Meteorite Iron – the ‘Iron of Heaven’.

Bronze Age kings most well-liked their thrones to be embellished with this heavenly iron. Indeed, any objects crafted from this divine materials had been extremely sought-after – as evidenced by this letter from the Hittite King Hattusilis III r. 1267 BC – 1237 BC (our hero Hattu in Empires of Bronze) in response to a plea from an Assyrian King looking for an iron reward:

“In the matter of the good iron about which you wrote, good iron shouldn’t be at current accessible in my storehouse in Kizzuwadna. I have already advised you that it is a dangerous time for producing iron. They will likely be producing good iron, however they will not have completed but. I shall ship it to you after they have completed. At current I’m sending you an iron dagger-blade.”

An fascinating change, particularly the half about iron daggers. From this we all know that the blacksmiths of the Bronze Age – people revered and revered like excessive monks for his or her abilities on this unusual craft – had been able to working pure iron to vogue weapons. But given the shortage of meteorites, a Bronze Age king would have been fortunate to own just some such weapons – not fairly sufficient to arm the fifty thousand Hittite troopers!

Also, as talked about above, iron weapons should not robotically ‘superior’ to bronze ones. They can be, if produced effectively, however they’ll simply as simply be softer than bronze or too brittle to make use of in fight – in no way the Bronze Age lightsabers of fable.

How can iron be uncommon? It’s in every single place!

​But maintain on, how can iron be uncommon? Yes, meteorites are uncommon, however iron is available in one other way more ample type – ore. Iron ore is in every single place. Roughly 35% of the earth’s mass is iron. You can stroll by means of any subject or dig any backyard and discover chunks of iron ore or ironstone. Many of our hills and mountains are lined with ore too.

​And it was the identical again in the Bronze Age: 99.99% of the Earth’s floor iron was held captive inside rocky ore. Bronze Age texts do not use the phrase ‘ore’, however they generally speak of a ‘White Iron’ – taking a look at the picture, under, I can not assist however marvel if this was their title for ore?

Iron ore - the 'White Iron'?

Iron ore – the ‘White Iron’?

So why did not the Hitittes use ore to furnish their armies with iron weapons and armour? Well, they very probaby did work or a minimum of experiment with ore. Of the many tablets present in excavations of Hittite websites, a quantity element the whereabouts of ore-rich hills close to their cities, in order that they clearly thought of it of worth.

But working with ore would have been tough. The downside with ore is separating the pure iron from the rock and minerals. To extract the iron, it must be smelted out. This entails heating up the ore till the metallic softens and the chemical compounds round it start to interrupt aside. So how may the Bronze Age blacksmiths have achieved this?

The charcoal bloomery

The dominant metallurgical gadget of the Bronze Age was the charcoal fireplace pit, or ‘bloomery’. This consisted of a cupola-shaped pit, crammed with charcoal and wooden. Pits reminiscent of these had been greater than satisfactory for reaching temperatures excessive sufficient to completely smelt copper and tin – the elements of bronze. But to smelt iron? Not really easy.

A bloomery might solely attain temperatures excessive sufficient to show iron ore into ‘bloom’ – a porous, spongey chunk of slag (the waste matter of stone and different impurities) and iron. A skilful Bronze Age smith may effectively have labored out that by repeatedly reheating this bloom to steadily soften away the slag, and laboriously hammering the product in-between heatings with the intention to drive out the impurities, a close-to-pure iron generally known as ‘wrought iron’ might end result – broadly comparable with bronze by way of hardness, however once more, not the ‘lightsabers’ of legend.

A charcoal 'bloomery'.

A charcoal ‘bloomery’.

The melting factors of metals vs the hardness of the ensuing metallic. Note the place of tin & copper vs iron. While a bloomery can produce a effervescent crucible of liquid bronze, an extra 400 levels Celsius is required to liquidise iron.

The place to begin for producing increased high quality iron, stronger than bronze, is to completely smelt the iron from the ore. To do that, far more warmth is required…

The blast furnace

​The ‘blast’ in ‘blast furnace’ refers to the combustion air being ‘pressured’ or equipped above atmospheric strain.
At the daybreak of iron-working, the earliest of those blast furnaces would have been unrecognisable in comparison with the modern-day behemoths, though the ideas would have been the identical: a blast furnace would have utilised bellows and chimneys to attain a lot increased temperatures than charcoal bloomeries – sizzling sufficient to actually smelt iron and launch it from ore.

A modern blast furnace.

A contemporary blast furnace.

A prototype furnace. Note the chimney and the bellows to feed the fire with oxygen.

A prototype furnace. Note the chimney and the bellows to feed the fireplace with oxygen.

Scholars are extraordinarily uncertain that furnace expertise was found throughout the time of the Hittites. The argument goes that if the secret of ore-smelting had been ‘cracked’ by the Hittites, why is there no artefactual proof? No Bronze-Age period smelting furnace has been present in the historical Near East (the oldest surviving iron-smelting furnace dates from round 500 BC and was present in the Austrian Alps) and there may be an absence even of the indelible, tell-tale environmental markers which one would look forward to finding close by any long-lost blast advanced – reminiscent of slag heaps.

But as the saying goes: absence of proof shouldn’t be proof of absence. Why would the Hittites have taken the bother to catalogue the location of the ore-rich hills close to their cities if ore was not of some curiosity to them?

And let’s look once more at the historical letter from the Hittite king:

“In the matter of the good iron about which you wrote, good iron shouldn’t be at current accessible in my storehouse in Kizzuwadna. I have already advised you that it is a dangerous time for producing iron. They will likely be producing good iron, however they will not have completed but. I shall ship it to you after they have completed. At current I’m sending you an iron dagger-blade.”

​​What was this ‘Good Iron’? It sounds prefer it was of a better commonplace than the interim-offered dagger blade, however in what respects?
Well here is the principle: might this ‘Good Iron’ have been the earliest outputs of Iron Age technological breakthroughs? Ultra-pure iron correctly smelted from plentiful ore? Worked to be more durable than bronze but not brittle? The very first cases of metal manufacturing, even?

So… Bronze Age lightsabers?

So can we reply the authentic query about the Hittites – did they have these ‘Bronze Age lightsabers’ or not?

There is just one factor we will say with any certainty: the Hittites definitely by no means had a military geared up all through with iron weapons that had been of some magical power.

But the chances are:

And there’s a chance that:

  • they may simply have unlocked the furnace expertise required to completely smelt iron from ore, albeit almost certainly on a small and exploratory scale. They could even have experimented with hardening methods reminiscent of quenching, carburisation and strip-welding – early steps on the highway to the manufacturing of super-hard metal.

Even in the event that they did obtain some type of proto-steel, all of it occurred too late to equip their regiments in opposition to the storm that was to return: a storm that blew the Hittite Empire and lots of different nice powers into the dusts of historical past in a calamitous interval generally known as the Bronze Age Collapse.

The 'Bronze Age Collapse' - another kettle of worms

The ‘Bronze Age Collapse’ – one other kettle of worms

From the ashes – submit 1200 BC – new civilisations steadily arose and iron-working with them. Were the Hittites chargeable for triggering this shift earlier than their demise? Well, simply as many imagine that the Renaissance was catalysed by the westwards flight of students from Constantinople (after they realised it was doomed to fall to the Ottoman Turks) in 1453, maybe when the Hittite blacksmiths fled their previous Anatolian cities throughout the dying throes of the Bronze Age, they could simply have taken the recently-discovered secrets and techniques of their craft with them into the wider world…

Hope you loved the learn! Let me know what you suppose – go away a remark under or get in contact, I’d be delighted to listen to from you. And for those who fancy a very good learn set in the Bronze Age, why not seize a replica of Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar?


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