The hard-edged blade with its woven patterns quivers and trembles; grasped with terrible sureness, it flashes into changing hues.
- excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon poem Elene. Translated by H.R. Ellis Davidson
A good sword is strong, flexible, and light. Lacking high-quality iron ore, Anglo-Saxon (and earlier) weapon-smiths devised the technique of pattern welding to impart desired flexibility and strength to their sword blades.
Simply put, pattern welding is the art of hammering together, and then twisting and re-hammering layers of iron (often of varying strengths) in a charcoal fire to add the one per cent of carbon critical to the blade's flexibility. A brittle blade is the sword of a dead man, for it is a sword that breaks under the stresses of combat.
Pattern welded swords show a distinct interwoven figuring in the steel that imparted an especial beauty and visual liveliness to the blade. Twisting, heating, and hammering drives the crystalline structure of the steel to form the wavy, watery pattern which the technique produces. Shaping and grinding the rough blade into finished shape reveals differing levels of the respective layers. Weapon-smiths further emphasized this figuring by acid etching. Amongst the materials weapon-smiths had at their disposal for this purpose were tannic acid, vinegar-produced acetic acid, urine (that indispensable by-product which found its way into so much early manufacture), sour beer, and various acidic fruit juices. Tannic acid would have given a blade a dramatic blue-black colouring, and helped protect it from rust.
At the end of the 5th century Cassiodorus described pattern welded sword made by the Teutonic Warni tribe:
The central part of their blades, cunningly hollowed out, appears to be grained with tiny snakes, and here such varied shadows play that you would believe the shining metal to be interwoven with many colours.
The snake-like pattern that so impressed Cassiodorus is caused by viewing the hammered, twisted layers of steel on edge, as it were. As in the excerpt from the poem Elene, in which the poet speaks of the blade's changing hues, Cassiodorus takes delight in the sword's "many colours."
The term "pattern welding" is a modern one, coined in 1947 by researcher Herbert Maryon upon examination of an Anglo-Saxon sword found in a heathen burial from Ely. It was he who also determined that inscriptions in sword blades were created by the insertion of narrow iron rods into the white-hot blade. After reheating the inlaid inscription would be hammered flush into the surface of the blade.
The process is an ancient one. The Celts as far back as the 8th century BCE may have made swords by pattern welding, and the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings used the technique extensively until the end of the 9th century CE. Because the intertwined and hammered layers of softer and harder iron had varying cutting ability, often an edge of high carbon steel was welded to the nearly completed blade, allowing a consistently sharp edge to be ground along the length of the sword. All of this was highly labour intensive, and the makers of pattern welded words were justly esteemed and rewarded in society. By the 10th century better, more consistent iron ore was obtainable via import in Britain, and furnace technology improved, making this laborious technique unnecessary - and swords the less glorious for it.
Yet practical knowledge of pattern welding in the West was not completely lost. In 1771, Jean Jacques Perret in his illustrated L'Art du Coutelier (The Art of the Cutler) describes in detail the making of pattern welded blades, praising them for their superior beauty and strength. He refers to such blades as "Damascus", a confusion which has persisted many centuries. True Damascus steel blades, gun stocks, and other objects with their beautiful figuring are not pattern welded, but instead forged from iron ore heated with carbon inside a closed crucible. "Damascus steel" forged from the cakes of steely, high-carbon-content iron called wootz likely originated in the Hyderabad region India and dates from between 200 BCE to 200 CE. The material spread both Eastward and Westward from there, with Romans importing the cakes for their own blade making.
In the 1950's Englishman John Anstee successfully duplicated the pattern welded technique used by Anglo-Saxon and Viking weapon-smiths. During the course of his research he found that due to the crystalline nature of iron, he could produce wavy patterns on the finished blade even without layering wrought iron and steel, but by simply twisting the heated metal. Such blades however lacked the most important qualities of pattern welding, its superior strength and flexibility. He was also able to determine that old blades exhibiting a herringbone pattern and those with curving patterns were not structurally different; rust had removed the curving pattern in some, leaving only the herringbone figuring.
For another essay on swords and how they were worn, see my The Anatomy of a Sword. Lee A Jones has a wonderfully illustrative essay called "The Serpent in the Sword" on his site which I highly recommend. For sword names, see my Giving Voice.
Interested in swords, and their importance to society? Hilda Ellis Davidson is a great expert, and her excellent book The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England is full of fascinating information, including complete details of John Anstee's recreation of pattern welding. A more recent work, covering all weaponry utilized by Anglo-Saxon warriors, is The English Warrior from Earliest Times to 1066 by Stephen Pollington ( Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996) a treasure trove of information about the men and their weapons. For more about Damascus iron work, see On Damascus Steel by Leo Figiel (The Print Center, NY 1991).
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