Thursday, January 31, 2008

"for smashing skulls, iron is best"

Thus Winston Churchill, in his very wonderful History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Never has a Nobel Prize been better awarded.

At this point [- 400 BC] the march of invention brought a new factor upon the [British] scene. Iron was dug and forged. Men armed with iron entered Britain from the continent and killed the men of bronze. At this point we can plainly recognize across the vanished millenniums a fellow- being. A biped capable of slaying another with iron is evidently to modem eyes a man and a brother. It cannot be doubted that for smashing skulls, whether long-headed or round, iron is best.

Not so, says a Mr Morris (Robert Morris ?) from the Korea Advanced Institute for Some Technology We Don't Do Any More In Britain.

Winston Churchill was individually responsible for a measurable fraction of the history of his own age and was, perhaps as a consequence, an unusually perceptive commentator the histories of others. But in this passage he is wrong. I do not refer to his social psychology, which I am not competent to judge. He is wrong in his metallurgy. Recent research has shown that the iron that appeared in Britain at the end of the Late Bronze Age was, in fact, inferior in its mechanical properties to the bronze that preceded it. Since iron is also less dense than bronze, this metal was in every respect less suitable for smashing skulls, whether long-headed (Nordic) or round (Mediterranean) ...

... there are at least two competing theories that attempt to explain why the ancient British replaced bronze with iron that was mechanically inferior to it. The first suggests that the motive was necessity, the second that it was a misguided sense of opportunity. I will briefly describe both, since they are case studies in motives for materials selection that are applicable today.

The necessity theory begins from the observation that bronze could not be made in Britain, since the island lacks copper ore (bronze is an alloy of copper and tin). In the period around 400 BC trade patterns in Western Europe were significantly disrupted; commercial contact between the British isles and the continent declined precipitously. A probable cause is the establishment of Greek colonies along the Mediterranean coast in which provided better market. According to this theory the British were simply unable to obtain good bronze in quantity, and were therefore forced to turn to iron, which as locally available. Since they were somewhat backward in the metallurgical arts, their Iron was of inferior quality, but it was the best metal they could get.

The opportunity theory is based on the suggestion that by about 400 BC it had begun to sink in to the backward British that the more developed nations of the world had moved from bronze to iron some centuries before. Both the Greeks and the Persians, who led the major leagues in head-bashing at the time, had well developed metallurgical industries. They manufactured iron weapons and implements that were far superior to the best that could readily be made of bronze. This theory suggests that the ancient British moved to iron for exactly the same reason several underdeveloped nations of the present era have squandered huge resources constructing and maintaining integrated steel works: the super- powers made iron, and, by heaven, they would make it too. That their iron was inferior to the bronze they had been using was beside the point, if they noticed at all.

The opportunity theory has less hard evidence to recommend it. But it has a certain appeal. If it is true then, in Churchill's words, "we can plainly recognize across the vanished millenniums a fellow-being".


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post and indeed article by Mr. Morris. One has to cast a wry smile at his last paragraph.

Anonymous said...

The ancient British were not under a common government and therefore wouldn't have made a collective decision so it seems far more likely it was necessity. Most of them wouldn't have had a clue what was going on in Greece.

However its also possible that some experts in metallurgy were living in Britain (possibly fleeing the continent) and that a few of the 'elite' of the day did have better weapons yet it took a long time for the new technology to be understood by the wider population.

Anonymous said...

The 'lack of copper ore' theory can't be true. There was a huge Bronze Age copper mine on the Great Orm at Llandudno. I spent a summer working there and I think it was also featured on the BBC 'Coast' series. Since tin was also available from Cornwall, I doubt whether the prehistoric Britons would have lacked access to the raw materials for bronze-making.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and in the neighbourhood of that North Welsh copper mine the people are disproportionately of (ancient) Iberian descent, showing the source of the entrepreneurs and workers who first opened it up.

Anonymous said...

Most bronze in Britain came from Switzerland.
As for the choice of iron over bronze I had read that it was down to iron being easier to repair, beat back into shape and sharpen.

Anonymous said...

Copper may have been available on the British mainland but transport by boat may well have been quicker.

So, a copper mine in Wales would have been great for people in that locale but hundreds of miles away, on the coast of Kent for example, bronze from elsewhere might have been cheaper and easier. If that supply were cut off substituting iron rather than local copper might have made sense.