Submitted by Ok-Goose-6320 t3_10lqhja in history

Someone insists smelting iron wasn't invented until about the Roman era. There's various evidence that contradicts this, but nothing particularly primary or conclusive I could find.

His claim is that a lot of the iron works that existed were not smelted, but natural blooms of iron that were found (for example, from meteorites) and forged/wrought into shape. This appears to have been true at some point, the Hittites did go to trouble collecting large iron blooms. But there was also a record I recall reading of them getting iron from a people who had very iron-rich sand.... so it seems the only possibility is it was smelted? Don't know where that article I read is, anymore... so I was hoping someone more knowledgeable might be able to help me understand the early development of iron.

For example, one argument that was made, was that when iron smelting becomes possible... why wouldn't it rapidly replace bronze? Iron is more abundant and better than bronze, it seems. So that always confused me with evidence of iron smelting possibly a thousand years before iron became common. Was it a very flawed iron smelting, which improved over time?



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War_Hymn t1_j5zvvsu wrote

As far as I'm aware, there's written/archeological evidence of iron smelting was being practiced in Anatolia (modern-Turkey) by at least 1200 BCE, with suspected smelted-iron artifacts dating back to ~2000 BCE. It's relatively easy to tell smelted iron apart from meteoritic iron. Meteoritic iron will almost always contain a large portion of nickel or cobalt in it, while smelted iron usually contains embedded siliceous slag - both can be discerned through chemical or microscopic analysis.

Here's a good write up on the subject by Dr Nathaniel Erb-Satullo (specialist in Western/Near East archeology, Archeological Science - Cranfield University, Department of Anthropology - Harvard University):

>one argument that was made, was that when iron smelting becomes possible... why wouldn't it rapidly replace bronze?

Smelting iron was a much more complicated process than smelting copper or tin. In the early days, iron was never fully melted - the furnaces they had at the time just weren't hot enough - which makes it harder to reduce the ore and remove impurities.

Instead, when pre-modern ironworkers smelted iron what they were actually doing was burning off the oxygen/sulfur/etc. locking the iron in the ore minerals, usually by heating them in a carbon-rich environment of a charcoal furnace (oxygen will rather bond with carbon instead of iron). The temperature of these reactions happen at a much lower temperature than the melting point of elemental iron (700-1200'C vs 1500'C). Certain "fluxes", like siliceous minerals or limestone, further lower or aid the ore reduction reaction or process.

Early iron smelters had to figure out several problems (all without the aid of modern chemistry knowledge), namely how run their furnace to optimize iron production. Too little draft air, the furnace doesn't get hot enough for reduction to happen. Too much draft air, excess air cools the furnace or re-oxidizes the iron. Furnace runs too hot, the iron starts sucking up carbon too fast and transforms into useless pig iron. Etc.

Being a complicated process, it was also easier to keep secret by those that did figure it out. Since early iron smelters had a vested interest in maintaining a monopoly on producing this very useful and valuable material (at one point in history, iron was worth as much as gold in weight), they didn't just share their knowledge and craft with anyone. Hence, most early iron production seem to have been conducted and exclusive to a small group related to the Hittites in Anatolia for most of the late bronze age. The Late Bronze Age collapse likely caused this small group of secretive iron smelters to migrate and proliferate the technology to the rest of the Old World, as we start seeing common use of iron by 900-800 BCE.


Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j601jza wrote

Thanks for this great summary, War Hymn. Good to see you.


Just as an aside to you, I've been pondering an idea for if the Hopewell culture developed bronze metallurgy, which is how I got into this subject. From what I understand, it's a similar issue for them, that they couldn't get the fires hot enough to make a proper bronze cast, despite having copper and tin, so their axes were used more as money than as weapons or tools (though they saw limited use in those roles, it seems).

Thought I'd mention, since you said you found worldbuilding interesting. Thanks again for clearing this up.


War_Hymn t1_j618kz2 wrote

I mean, it would had been a boast for them technologically as copper/bronze tools would had been very useful for agriculture and craft tools, and they probably could had a good supply of it trading with nearby tribes in the Keweenaw Peninsula (Michigan) where immense deposits of native copper and copper ore are found.

But in the grand scheme of things, I don't think it would had matter. The Mayans, Incans, and other players down south had access to copper/bronze metalworking/smelting technology, but they used it mostly for ornamentation and jewelry. It didn't replace their dominant stone or non-metal tools/weapons. And even if it did, metal tools won't had stop them from falling victim to epidemic diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis introduced by European newcomers, which ultimately what weakened and compromised the stronger states and societies of the New World to a point where the Europeans could subjugate/replace them with ease. The Mississippian cultures fell apart from these diseases before Europeans could even wage war against them.


Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j62s89y wrote

AFAIK, the Mexica peoples had the same issue, only making a limited number of axes a bit before European contact, never working out a good bronze industry. Presumably because their fires weren't hot enough to reliably cast high quality bronze. Probably similar to the iron industry during the bronze age, where they were more like rare, magical weapons. Developing a proper bronze industry would likely make a big difference, being a huge economical advantage.

With the Mississippi, current estimate is they collapsed before Columbus even set foot on Cuba, so European diseases don't seem to be the cause. A bronze industry at some point in their history could probably turn that around. It could even be an inciting incident, causing them to resort to war with a material advantage, creating a riverine empire.


It may not change things much in the grand scheme of things, but they may also put up a much tougher fight against European incursion and lead to an interesting story. Especially since I'm thinking of incorporating other alternate history elements.

Wondered if you'd be interested in discussing it further.


War_Hymn t1_j646hrz wrote

I don't see how having bronze tools or weapons would had protect them from germs that they had little immunity to. Before the Spanish even stepped foot in the Incan Empire, smallpox and other Old World diseases had already spread via regional trade network and killed millions of their subjects (including the Incan emperor himself). The reduction in population and the political turmoil it caused was enough to weaken this powerful state to a point where a couple hundred Spanish conquistadors was able to conquer it.

Even if they managed to kill every European they laid eyes on, these diseases would had eventually depleted their population and weaken their political/economic systems enough that the next wave of Europeans would eventually succeed in taking over.

>Presumably because their fires weren't hot enough to reliably cast high quality bronze.

Except they were casting copper or arsenic bronze (they never figured out tin-bronze) before the Europeans arrived. They just didn't have a lot of copper deposits, so stone tools were more economical and widespread.


Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j65l8vw wrote

The Inca still had countless warriors, 80K of them directly with king Atahualpa (though he only had 5,000 unarmed men when he was captured). It took many years of fighting to subdue the Inca despite great providence. It certainly wasn't a boring war.

All the same, I do have some ideas for alternate history regarding disease.


West Mexican art has been found with large amounts of tin in it, though as I said I'm not sure what the quality was like for a tool. If you make an art object, it's fine for it to have air-bubbles and defects you can smooth away at the surface level, but a tool is liable to break. I wouldn't expect availability to be the problem, since the Americas is one of the most abundant sources of copper on Earth. The Zapotec were well known for their copper deposits, and Mexico became one of the greatest producers of copper later on. Tin was also available.

Apparently, copper and bronze smelting was only coming into its own around the 15th century, just before Europeans arrived. If so, it may be that there just wasn't time to develop a bronze industry. It's also plausible the overly high tin, 23%, in that find may've been intentional, to reduce the necessary temperature.


Apparently the Tarascan may've used bronze weapons, and even breastplates, against the Aztecs. Also, despite there being no iron forges, apparently some Aztec chiefs had daggers made of meteoric iron:

So I guess the Tarascan had gotten a healthy bronze age empire going, and were ahead of the others. Perhaps they had factors helping them get ahead.


[deleted] t1_j606sh0 wrote



War_Hymn t1_j614xq9 wrote

Yep, that's why I didn't directly say the Hittites had an iron monopoly (the development of iron smelting appears to have predate them), but some small group(s) related or associated with them seem to have had dominance in its production - as the majority of early smelted-iron archeological finds are located in Anatolia or nearby areas where the Hittite lived or had influence. Moreover, we don't see any evidence of iron smelting sites outside of Anatolia (usually hinted by the large presence of associated slag waste) until ~950 BCE, specifically a dated site in Jordan where large amounts of ferrous slag and furnace building material was found. 900-800 BCE we just see a huge jump in iron artifacts being made and used in the Eastern Mediterranean despite the technology existing for at least three centuries. So it seems those who did knew how to smelt iron at first did their best to restrict the spread of the technology.


Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j62sb7h wrote

Honestly, it does sound close to a monopoly, at that rate.


Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j60qzih wrote

Though the sources seem to feel Hatti had an advantage? Monopoly is going a bit far.


woahwoahwoahthere t1_j6358gb wrote

Hmm, I thought west Africa had iron smelting further back than that but there’s still some debate about it. Link to Wikipedia and their articles


War_Hymn t1_j64273l wrote

Earlier or not, I think there's good evidence that West Africans came up with iron smelting on their own.

Iron artifacts in WF appear earlier than in North or East Africa, which means they had figured out ironworking before the technology diffused to their neighbors from the Near East. Researchers have also noted that their processes and furnace design are quite different.

West African smiths also seemed unaware of the process of quench hardening until much later, despite having "steel" (iron with high enough carbon content to harden through quenching). Even up to the 19th century, many tribal smiths in West Africa were observed hardening the edges of iron/steel blades and tools by work hardening instead of quenching. In contrast, quenching and tempering techniques were widely used in the East Mediterranean by at least 800 BCE, and knowledge of the process seemed to have spread alongside general iron smelting when it diffused to other regions of Europe/Asia. Hence, the lack of quench hardening among the West African iron-working tradition is good evidence that iron smelting technology may not have diffused to them (at least not from the Near East), but independently developed.


kingofzdom t1_j5zrgte wrote

I completely forget where I read this, so apologies for this but

There's a region of Russia with iron-based red sand. It is theorized that this was where we got the first refined iron from as all you need to refine this red sand is a clay crucible and a particularly hot fire.

This red sand is only present in any significant quantity in this region of Russia, so until methods of getting refined iron from virgin ores became available it was extremely rare.

A similar thing happened with steel; humans knew how to make steel for thousands of years, it just wasn't practical to use for anything other than high-end weapons and tools until someone figured out how to mass produce it in the 19th century.


Chagrinnish t1_j60rufv wrote

The modern method of iron refining still uses a blast furnace. That amounts to filling a tall, cylindrical structure with layers of coal and iron, lighting it, and then blowing air into the bottom until molten iron starts leaking out. Of course it's a bit more elegant than that, but I don't think there's any large-scale production of iron anywhere in the world that simply cooks the iron in a crucible.

Primitive Technology has a good example of how it would be done in earlier times.


Constant_Count_9497 t1_j61s6z2 wrote

What exactly is the Roman Era they're referring to? Are they saying that romans invented Iron smelting?

I'd direct your research if you're willing towards ancient India and China. From my cursory investigation they were smelting iron before the founding Rome.

Edit- It also seems the person arguing that "blooming isn't really smelting" is arguing semantics. Since blooming is in fact a method of smelting


DontWakeTheInsomniac t1_j695pko wrote

Anyone claiming the Romans invented iron is hardly worth debating history with in fairness.


Constant_Count_9497 t1_j69bb9h wrote

I'm more confused with their idea about "blooming" because from what I can tell it's clearly an early smelting technique involving heating the ore to purify it while smashing it


DontWakeTheInsomniac t1_j6anjrr wrote

Yeah bloomeries were the earliest type of iron smelting furnaces (it's in the name!) so I don't understand it either.


Dalga__ t1_j60g9zz wrote

Surely at the beginning of the Iron Age. Pretty sure the Assyrians were the first empire to “mass” produce iron.


series_hybrid t1_j61n8tr wrote

1324 BC was when King Tut was buried. his tomb has a steel dagger made from an iron meteorite.


19seventyfour t1_j609mgw wrote

Wasn't it discovered that an Egyptian Pharaoh had a dagger gorged from a meteorite? I may be mistaken.


NYR_LFC t1_j61v4wq wrote

If it's from a meteorite how is it smelted?


Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j62zb7l wrote

u/19seventyfour Discussed it more with the guy. General opinion is semi-iron-smelting was in place since the early bronze age. Not hot enough to properly melt off all the oxides and contaminants from the iron, and not in a properly oxygen-free environment to prevent more scale building up, and not with a reliably good system for carbonizing the iron. Also note that it generally wasn't hot enough to alloy the carbon to the iron to create steel (need like 1,700C for that), so the carbon would mostly serve as just another contaminant making it brittle.

Still, they apparently did extract iron from sands and ores this way since early in the bronze age, creating blooms of random quality. They could pound most of the scale out of, and could make the iron thicker to make up for issues of brittleness. This was hard work with no promise of quality, but eventually these factors improved until a proper iron age industry started.


This is actually related to meteorites, in that partial smelting is necessary to get rid of some of the contaminants, but it is a lot easier than working with terrestrial ores that are less rich in iron.


19seventyfour t1_j61wyhq wrote

I am not entirely sure. I thought it might be valid to op original question towards the earliest forms of iron smelting.


samrausch t1_j62ebql wrote

There are hundreds of examples of iron smelting with soft evidence dating back to well before the Romans. Those examples failed to produce usable iron and instead produced cotton candy in spite of the use of iron ore in the process.

Soft evidence. I'll be here all week folks. Tip your waitresses.


Uschnej t1_j6403bb wrote

There are widespread archaeological finds going back at least to 1200 BCE. Is that hard enough?

And iron did largely replace bronze, but mostly for economical reasons. It's only with steel you get a clear superiority over bronze.


GSilky t1_j6et07q wrote

Iron is not necessarily better than bronze, it's definitely easier to obtain, but bronze had many advantages to iron such as it's non-corrosive traits that made it necessary for sea faring cultures.

That being said, throughout the world iron had it's users as far back as 3000 BCE, and as we see in the near east, even further back.


[deleted] t1_j6hbjkx wrote



Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j6jdv7g wrote

A semi conductor tech? How does that work? Could you explain that, please?


I expect neither Anatolia nor CA could've produced a lot of high quality iron/steel, or else the iron age would've started. Iron was also noted to be very expensive, sometimes worth more than gold, through that era.

Late Hittites were accepting iron as tribute in minas, so it was treated like a precious metal. Possibly a way they were getting iron was as a byproduct of the bronze/copper industry, collected semi-smelted iron nuggets that were a defect in the copper ore.


[deleted] t1_j6jubp0 wrote



Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j6k0foc wrote

Err... generating power from pyramids? I thought it sounded that style.

Pyramids are decent lightning rods, like anything tall and pointy (and massive)... but there's no way to gather that power. Mountains also "generate a lot of power," but there's no way to harness that to a useful purpose, either.

The pyramids were tombs.


[deleted] t1_j6k7dyy wrote



Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j6kc81x wrote

? Yeah, because they were capped with gold and covered in limestone. They shined brilliantly as a result.

So it reflects sunlight, which can be used for power... but not in any useful or focused way.


[deleted] t1_j6kdwqi wrote



Ok-Goose-6320 OP t1_j6kj5rd wrote

Sounds like a religion more than a science.

I suggest you start a thread about the historicity of this, if you're so confident in it. Link me if you do decide to start one.