ĀHAN, iron, from prehistory to the ethnographic present.
Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Ages. Prehistoric peoples first came into contact with metal-bearing ores in the Paleolithic period; from then into the Neolithic period iron ores, particularly hematite (red ocher), were used as pigments (D. Schmandt-Besserat, “Ocher in Prehistory: 3,000,000 Years of the Use of Iron Ores as Pigments,” in The Coming of the Age of Iron, ed. T. A. Wertime and J. D. Muhly, New Haven, 1980, pp. 127-50; for locations of known iron ore deposits in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and the Iranian Plateau see Figure 21; concerning iron ore deposits in Iran, see CENTO Symposium on Iron Ore, October 2-5, Isfahan, 1963; E. Diehl, “Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Erzfundstellen Irans,” Schweizerische Mineralogische und Petrographische Mitteilungen 24, 1944, pp. 351-58; C. Ebrahimzadeh, “Iron Ore Deposits in Iran,” Tahqiqat é eqtesadi 13 and 14, 1968, pp. 34-47; J. V. Harrison, “Minerals,” Camb. Hist. Iran I, pp. 496-99; G. Ladame, “Les ressources métallifères de l’Iran,” Schweizerische Mineralogische und Petrographische Mitteilungen 25, 1945, pp. 248-66; N. Taghizadeh and M. A. Mallakpour, Mineral Distribution Map of Iran, Tehran, 1976). The use of red ocher was especially common in the Near East during the Neolithic period from about the 9th to 6th millennium B.C. (S. J. Fiedel, Intra- and Inter-Cultural Variability in Mesolithic and Neolithic Mortuary Practices in the Near East, Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1979, p. 472). These ochers were encountered most frequently in deposits (gossans) overlying copper ore bodies which contained oxide and carbonate ores in the upper zones and sulfide ores lying deeper (A. Rosenfeld, The Inorganic Raw Materials of Antiquity, London, 1965, p. 134, fig. 27). At some point prior to the 3rd millennium B.C. miners had penetrated into the sulfide zone, where the primary ores of copper contained iron.
Bronze Age copper artifacts and copper smelting slags are frequently found to be magnetic (S. B. Cooke and S. E. Aschenbrenner, “The Occurrence of Metallic Iron in Ancient Copper,” Journal of Field Archaeology 2/3 1975, pp. 251-66; T. A. Wertime, “The Beginning of Metallurgy: A New Look,” Science 182/4115, 1973, pp. 875-87; N. J. Van der Merwe and D. H. Avery, “Pathways to Steel,” American Scientist 70/2, 1982, p. 146; J. A. Charles, “The Coming of Copper and Copper-Base Alloys and Iron: A Metallurgical Sequence,” in The Coming of the Age of Iron, pp. 174-75). Given the presence of iron as an impurity in copper smelting, the potential for metallic iron to have been reduced during this process was considerable (Wertime, “The Pyrotechnologic Background,” in The Coming of the Age of Iron, pp. 12-17; Van der Merwe and Avery, op. cit., pp. 146-49). Such accidental production of iron during copper smelting must have shown the way to consistent iron smelting. Bronze Age smelting sites often provided the proper set of conditions for such technological “accidents” to occur (V. C. Pigott, S. M. Howard, and S. M. Epstein, “Pyrotechnology and Culture Change at Bronze Age Tepe Hissar [Iran],” Proceedings of the Seminar on Early Pyrotechnology, Washington, in press; E. F. Schmidt, Excavations at Tepe Hissar,Damghan, Philadelphia, 1937, p. 208). While no metallic iron artifacts are as yet recorded from pre-Iron Age contexts on the Iranian plateau, the metallurgical stage was certainly set for iron’s appearance. So-called iron nodules from Sīalk, dated to the fifth millennium B.C. (J. C. Waldbaum, “The First Archaeological Appearance of Iron and the Transition to the Iron Age,” in The Coming of the Age of Iron, pp. 69-70), are most probably magnetite ore burnishing tools (Pigott, The Adoption of Iron in Western Iran in the Early First Millennium B.C.: An Archaeometallurgical Study, Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1981, p. 223).
The Iron Age (ca. 1450/1350-600 B.C.). In the mid-second millennium B.C. Bronze Age culture in northwestern Iran is replaced by a new complex of traits, usually said to have been brought by Indo-Iranian tribes (T. C. Young, Jr., “The Iranian Migration into the Zagros,” Iran 5, 1967, p. 24; C. Burney and D. M. Lang, The People of the Hills, New York, 1972, p. 117; R. Ghirshman, L’Iran et la migration des Indo-Aryans et des Iraniens, Leiden, 1977). Increasing evidence shows that Bronze Age traditions persisted into the Iron Age and co-occurred with the new cultural configuration; among them was bronze working, whose practitioners, as indicated above, must have had a rudimentary working knowledge of iron smelting, but as yet little need or inclination to make use of it. Indigenous metalsmiths may have served recently arrived patrons and worked first in bronze during the Iron I period (ca. 1450/1350-1100 B.C.) and then in both bronze and iron during the Iron II period (ca. 1100-800/750 B.C.; Burney and Lang, op. cit.; P. R. S. Moorey, “Prehistoric Copper and Bronze Metallurgy in Western Iran,” Iran 7, 1969, p. 137).
During the earliest of these periods iron artifacts are scarce; only four pieces of iron have been excavated from secure late Iron I contexts: from Ḥasanlū V an iron ring; from Sīalk A a punch and a dagger; from Gīān I3 a dagger (Pigott, “The Question of the Presence of Iron in the Iron I Period in Western Iran,” in Mountains and Lowlands: Essays in the Archaeology of Greater Mesopotamia, ed. L. D. Levine and T. C. Young, Jr., Malibu, 1977, p. 227). A fifth iron artifact, an axe, the only such artifact from outside western Iran, has recently been brought to light at 14th century B.C. Haft Tapa in Ḵūzestān (E. Negahban, personal communication). Only in the 10th/9th century B.C. does iron suddenly appear geographically widespread across western Iran (Pigott, “The Iron Age in Western Iran,” in The Coming of the Age of Iron, pp. 417-61). Important Iron II sites concentrated in northwestern Iran include Dīnḵᵛāh, Ḥasanlū and Haftevān, while outside this region lies Tapa Sīalk (B) in central Iran. The largest excavated collection dating to this period comes from Ḥasanlū, where more than 2000 iron artifacts are associated with the destruction of the level IV citadel ca. 800 B.C. By Iron III (ca. 800/750-600 B.C.) emphasis is shifted to central western Iran and Lorestān, where iron now occurs with frequency. Although large quantities of iron from this period have not been excavated in northwestern Iran, Urartu prevailed there and is known to have been an iron producing empire in its own right (M. N. Van Loon, Urartian Art: Its Distinctive Traits in the Light of New Excavations, Istanbul, 1966, pp. 80-84; H. J. Kellner, “Eisen in Urartu,” Akten des VII. Internationalen Kongresses für iranische Kunst und Archäologie, Berlin, 1979, pp. 151-56).
Given the potential for iron-working knowledge among bronze smiths of western Iran prior to iron’s widespread adoption during the Iron II period, the motivation for its adoption is of interest. Clearly iron has an economic advantage over bronze; but this advantage is offset by the time and manpower needed to forge it into useful shapes (C. S. Smith, “The Techniques of the Luristan Smith,” in Science and Archaeology, ed. R. H. Brill, Cambridge, 1971, p. 51). In the form of a casehardened or a consistently carburized steel, iron has a clear technical superiority to cold-worked, ten percent tin-bronze. However, there is no analytical indication that true steel was intentionally being produced during the Iron Age in Iran, since artifacts are generally wrought iron or heterogeneously carburized, i.e., low carbon iron with zones of high carbon randomly distributed throughout the metal. Technologically, this iron was, at best, on par with the bronzes of the period and appears to have been comparable to iron from Assyria. Since iron could have provided no economic or technological advantages, the impetus for its adoption may have been provided by the region’s iron-using Assyrian neighbors. Iron first occurs en masse in Iran at a time when the Assyrians were beginning to make significant campaigns into the area. In a work on the “local style” of artistic craftsmanship at Ḥasanlū, I. Winter (“Perspective on the "Local Style" of Hasanlu IVB: A Study in Receptivity,” in Mountains and Lowlands, pp. 377-79) has argued for a process of emulation; people from western Iran may even have visited Assyria and upon their return sought to copy what they had seen. Iron was a high status material in the Assyrian empire; texts indicate that it was the Assyrian royalty and military who used it (R. Pleiner and J. K. Bjorkman, “The Assyrian Iron Age: The History of Iron in the Assyrian Civilization,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 118/3, 1974, pp. 286-88).
Whether as a function of this interaction with Assyria or concurrent with it, western Iran was in a period of great aesthetic development. At Iron II Ḥasanlū, for example, iron was only one variety of decorative material being experimented with, and it often occurred in unique bimetallic artifacts. C. S. Smith (“Art, Technology and Science: Notes on their Historical Interaction,” Technology and Culture 11, 1970, p. 501) has postulated that an aesthetically sensitive environment encouraged experimentation with metals as decorative materials. In western Iran bronzesmiths may have begun working iron as a decorative metal and then begun fashioning tools and weapons in it.
Metallographic analysis of artifacts from Ḥasanlū dating to ca. 800 B.C. shows them to be unsophisticated products of a technology in transition, one in which bronzesmiths are probably working the iron as well. Iron at Ḥasanlū is generally a low-carbon, heterogeneously carburized “steel” (Pigott, The Adoption of Iron, pp. 229-67). Bimetallic artifacts are common at the site and certain iron artifacts were worked as if they were bronze, including repoussé iron plaques. By Iron III the two metals, bronze and iron, were increasingly differentiated in use, with bronze being used more decoratively and iron more functionally.
The large quantities of iron which appeared so abruptly in Iron II and III suggest that it was mass produced; in fact, the difficulties inherent in the production process mean that iron has to be mass produced to make its production worthwhile. The technological process involved in its smelting and forging indicates some sort of permanent production organization, a key characteristic of industrialized production (S. Udy, “Pre-Industrial Forms of Organized Work,” in Cultural and Social Anthropology, ed. P. B. Hammond, New York, 1964, p. 115). Careful organization and coordination of the various technological operations were necessary; these included mining, charcoal-making, and smelting, as well as the labor of highly skilled specialists. A review of the archeological evidence associated with the first significant use of iron in western Iran suggests that the appropriate socio-political conditions for such organization were present, especially at the site of Ḥasanlū (Pigott, The Adoption of Iron, pp. 202-77).
Around 800 B.C. the Urartians took Ḥasanlū, and the northern trade route was closed to the Assyrians, who were in a period of decline which lasted until about 750 B.C.; but as their empire once again expanded, they developed a strong presence in central western Iran, again perhaps facilitating emulation and exchange. Lorestān was the locale of a burst of iron production in the Iron III period with the iron coming predominantly from isolated cemeteries. Characterizing iron production in this region are a unique group of iron daggers bearing animal or human heads on their pommels (A. France-Lanord, “Le fer en Iran au premier millénaire avant Jésus-Christ,” Revue d’Histoire et de la Métallurgie 1, 1969, pp. 75-126; Smith, “The Techniques”).
The Achaemenid period (6th to 3rd centuries B.C.). The Achaemenid Empire was the heir apparent to the adoption of iron and the technological innovation which ensued in the first half of the first millennium B.C. In fact, among the multitudinous forces at work in the formation of the empire, it is tempting to find at least one related to technology: the need to control vital natural resources (see S. C. Brown, Kinship to Kingship: Archaeological and Historical Studies in the Neo-Assyrian Zagros, Ph.D. dissertation, department of Near Eastern studies, University of Toronto, 1979, pp. 286, 288), such as ore deposits (iron in particular), not to mention the need to organize production on an industrial scale. But little research, technological or socio-cultural, has been done on any aspect of Achaemenid iron technology. It is known that iron was put to a wider variety of uses in the Achaemenid period than it was during the Iron I-III periods, though many artifact shapes remain unchanged. Persepolis alone makes this clear; one of the few sites of the period which has been extensively excavated, it has yielded many types of iron weapons, armor scale, and implements, such as saws, plowshares, and knives (E. F. Schmidt, “The Treasury of Persepolis and Other Discoveries in the Homeland of the Achaemenians,” Oriental Institute Communications 21, 1939, pp. 45, 47-48, 83). Persepolis reliefs attest to the presence of a particular type of iron short sword of probably Scythian origin, the akinakes, which hangs from the belt of soldiers depicted. Another common Achaemenid use of iron is the clamp for joining massive stone masonry and statuary. Molten lead was poured over these hour-glass shaped clamps to fix them in position (R. Pleiner, “The Beginnings of the Iron Age in Ancient Persia,” Annals of the Naprsték Museum 6, Prague, 1969, pp. 35-36). Tons of iron were used in this manner, testifying to its availability and its mass production. It may have been far easier for the Achaemenids to make their massive masonry and statuary because they used tools fashioned from the hardest iron available. However, no evidence has yet been presented which suggests that Achaemenid blacksmiths consistently produced a true steel. Analyses by Pleiner of an iron clamp from Persepolis (ibid., fig. 11, no. 4-6) and by Smith of an Achaemenid-type dagger (“The Techniques,” p. 43) both suggest that the iron was quite like the heterogeneously carburized metal from earlier Iron Age phases. One might apply the term mild steel to such artifacts, but without connotations of an understanding of how to consistently manufacture quality steel.
Technologically speaking, the Achaemenids adhered to traditions established much earlier in the Iron Age in western Iran. However, what distinguishes their use of iron was not the technology but their apparent ability to organize its mass production. Texts found in the treasury at Persepolis record the wages paid to several hundred workers who were making iron doors (G. G. Cameron, Persepolis Treasury Tablets, Oriental Institute Publications 65, Chicago, 1948, pp. 115, 123, 189: 18.4, 23.3, 74.6). The production of the large amounts of metal necessary for these doors and the above mentioned clamps suggests an organized iron industry.
The Parthian and Sasanian period (ca. 250 B.C. to 642 A.D.). Excavated settlements and therefore excavated iron artifacts are not common from this period. Some iron artifacts, predominantly weaponry, are known from sites, including Āy Ḵānom in Afghanistan (P. Bernard, Fouilles d’Aï Khanoum I, Mémoires de la Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan 21, Paris, 1973, pp. 195-99), cemeteries in the Daylamān region of Gīlān (N. Egami, S. Fukai, and S. Masuda, Dailaman II, The Excavations at Noruzmahale and Khoramrud, Tokyo, 1966, pp. 10-12, 17-18, 53-57), and the Sasanian fortress at Qaṣr-e Abū Naṣr (S. V. Grancsay, “A Sasanian Chieftain’s Helmet,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art N.S. 21, 1963, p. 260). Archeologically, therefore, we have only scant indication of the availability and uses of iron during this time.
Certain indications suggest that iron had become readily available to various levels of society. Ghirshman (Iran, London, 1954, p. 187) suggested that the iron horseshoe originated in the second to first centuries B.C. J. W. Allan (Persian Metal Technology 700-1300 A.D., London, 1979, p. 68; cf. A. Tafazzoli, “A List of Trades and Crafts in the Sassanian Period,” Archeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran N.S. 7, 1974, pp. 193, 195) has referred to a possible indicator of iron’s availability in Sasanian times in Pahlavi texts, where four distinct terms for iron workers occur: āhangar “blacksmith, one who makes spades and axes in iron,” āhan-paykar “one who casts or moulds in iron,” čēlāngar “one who makes small ironware,” pōlāwad-paykar “one who works in steel.” He compares this diversity in the iron working profession to contemporary Iran where specific implements are often produced by certain workers, i.e., horseshoes by farriers, or knives by cutlery specialists (see Wulff, The Traditional Crafts of Persia, Cambridge, Mass., 1966, pp. 48-73).
Bimetallism, characteristic of the Iron II, III, and Achaemenid periods, continues to occur in Sasanian times. At least five bimetallic helmets from uncertain contexts are thought to be Sasanian on typological grounds; plates of iron, in some cases overlain with thin sheets of silver, are riveted to a bronze frame (Grancsay, “A Sasanian Cheftain’s Helmet,” p. 253). The technique shows that iron had to be made in small pieces and that it was difficult to weld these together into a mass from which a helmet could be wrought (ibid., p. 256). This technological problem had persisted from the Early Iron Age; the visual effect of contrasting the hues of wrought iron against those of bronze and the basic helmet form are also reminiscent of previous centuries.
A single evident innovation in iron working during this period relates to the manufacture of armor. Lamellar iron armor, derived from and essentially replacing the scale armor of the Early Iron Age, and mail armor were developed during this period in the Near East (ibid., p. 260). Fragments of lamellar armor were excavated at the Sasanian fortress of Qaṣr-e Abū Naṣr near Šīrāz (ibid.); a great Sasanian king and his horse are depicted in full armor in the rock reliefs at Ṭāq-e Bostān. Whether such armor was manufactured in Iran proper is not certain but possible (see Allan, Persian Metal Technology, pp. 95-99). Iron weaponry of the period has yet to be defined by the location of its manufacture, but discussions of its typology have been undertaken by J. F. Haskins (“Northern Origins of "Sasanian" Metalwork,” Artibus Asiae 15, 1952, pp. 255-64), Ghirshman (“Notes iraniennes XIII, trois épées sassanides,” Artibus Asiae 26, 1963, pp. 293-311), H. Nickel (“About the Sword of the Huns and the "Urepos" of the Steppes,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 7, 1973, pp. 131-42) and Allan (Persian Metal Technology, p. 87).
The types of iron workers listed in Pahlavi texts suggest the possibility of certain technological innovations in iron production; two in particular are of interest. The āhan-paykar, who molds and casts iron, is an early indicator of the use, if not the smelting, of cast iron, not only in Iran but in the Near East generally, where the developmental history of cast iron technology is not at all clear. Presumably the fundamentals of such technology were introduced, conceivably through Iran, from China, where they had been pioneered in the mid-first millennium B.C. Also of special interest is the pōlāwad-paykar, he who works in steel. At issue here is whether or not Sasanian smiths were consistently producing a true steel, i.e., a wrought iron which had been purposefully case hardened and/or evenly carburized. Metallographic study of contemporary Roman iron artifacts shows that the Romans preferred an air-cooled steel of moderate and predictable hardness to a quenched steel of higher, but perhaps variable, hardness and increased brittleness (A. R. Williams, “Roman Arms and Armour: A Technical Note,” Journal of Archaeological Science 4/1, 1977, p. 77). Metallographic analyses of iron short-swords (France-Lanord, “La fer en Iran,” no. 8, pp. 113, 114; no. 14, pp. 120, 122-24; Smith, “The Techniques,” no. 101, pp. 34, 39, 42-43), which typologically could be of the Partho-Sasanian period in Iran (see Egami et al., Dailaman, pp. 10, 17-18), suggest that steel was often produced.
The lack of sufficient and reliable metallographic studies of Parthian and Sasanian iron leaves unclear the relationship between its technology and the development of damascene steel, which characterizes arms and armor manufacture in the Islamic period to follow. This unique type of steel was a major technological innovation and Iran played an important role in its production over the centuries. Circumstantial evidence suggests that a trade in a special steel, conceivably the ingots from which damascene steel was made, was underway in the Parthian and Sasanian period. Sometime after 115 A.D. the Parthians were importing iron (steel) from some point to the east; they called it Margian because it was routed through Marv (W. W. Tarn, CAH2, p. 598). The Romans were also involved in this trade (see Pliny, Natural History 34.15); they referred to their imported iron as ferrum sericum, since it was sent by a people known as the Seres commonly held to reside in China (W. H. Schoff, “The Eastern Iron Trade of the Roman Empire,” JAOS 35, 1915, pp. 224-25). An opposing opinion holds that the term Seres refers to the Cheras tribe of southern India (Malabar) (ibid., pp. 236-37); though tenuous, this view is of interest because the ingots used to forge damascene steel in Islamic Iran were actually imported from south central India (H. Maryon, “Pattern-welding and Damascening of Sword-blades—part 2, The Damascene Process,” Studies in Conservation 5, 1960, p. 53).
Laufer (Sino-Iranica, Chicago, 1919, p. 515) reports that pin-t’ie (iron) is mentioned as a product of both Sasanian Persia and of India by Chinese authors, and he implies that the term refers to damascene steel in all periods. Direct specific references to damascene steel first occur in texts dated to late Sasanian times, ca. 540 A.D. (Smith, A History of Metallography, Chicago, 1960, p. 14). It would seem, then, that the use of damascene steel in the Near East and Iran dates back at least to this period.
The Islamic period. Information on iron in Iran in this period is extensive (for a thorough survey, see Allan, Persian Metal Technology, pp. 66-100). In the early Islamic period Transoxiana and in particular Farḡāna were noted for production of arms and armor (ibid., pp. 66-67); of nearly comparable importance was Khorasan, where locally made as well as imported iron were employed. Herat, also a production center, is known to have exported cakes of steel for sword making elsewhere. By the 7th/13th century, northwestern Iranian iron production becomes prominent, probably due to the location of Mongol capitals in the region (ibid., p. 67).
Distinctive of the Islamic period is urban specialization: Arrowpoints were made in Damāvand, axes at Qūmes, scissors at Ray, and mirrors and incense burners in Hamadān. Thus, a number of iron workers were devoted exclusively to the production of specific types of tools, implements, and weapons, while, as in contemporary Iran, the blacksmith must have served everyday needs for commonplace iron products and repairs (ibid., pp. 67-68; see also Wulff, Traditional Crafts, pp. 48-52). Something of the blacksmith’s importance during the Islamic period may be inferred from Ferdawsī’s Šāh-nāma: Kāva, the blacksmith, revolts against Żaḥḥāk and fashions a banner from his leather apron (The Epic of the Kings, tr. R. Levy, London, 1967, p. 20).
Information concerned with mining and smelting is less available than that on forging iron and its uses. Textual sources distinguish at least three basic types of the metal: šāborqān, which may refer to meteoritic, cast, or simply a hard variety of iron; narm-āhan, a soft variety; and fūlād, steel (Allan, Persian Metal Technology, pp. 71-75). Most of the information on the last relates to the production of damascene steel (fūlād-e ǰawhardār). The forging of the highest quality sword blades from this type of steel was the most important single technological innovation after Near Eastern iron workers learned to produce ordinary steel.
Damascene steel has a carbon content of somewhere between 1.2 and 2.0 percent and is characterized by specific surface markings referred to as “waterings” (ǰawhar; Plate XXXII, Plate XXXIII). Single castings, i.e., ingots (wootz cakes), are forged into blades, and then this surface patterning is revealed through the use of an acid etchant (zāǰ), most frequently iron sulfate (ibid., pp. 77, 81). The differential distribution of carbon in the steel, when etched, is highlighted on the surface. Damascene blades are known for their exceptional toughness and retention of cutting edge (J. Wadsworth and O. D. Sherby, “On the Bulat—Damascus Steels Revisited,” Progress in Materials Science 25, 1980, p. 37); the story is told that a curved damascene steel saber will slice through a silk handkerchief tossed in mid-air (Maryon, “Pattern-welding,” p. 54).
While it is recorded by Quintius Curtius (9.24) that Alexander the Great received 100 talents of Indian steel as tribute in 337 B.C. (R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology IX, 2nd ed., Leiden, 1972, p. 251), only the uniqueness of the gift may indicate that some special form of steel was involved. This incident is of some importance because India was the source for the cakes of special steel which Iranian swordsmiths of the Islamic period worked into the best damascene blades (Smith, History, p. 14). Maryon (“Pattern-welding,” p. 53) mentions that as early as the reign of Diocletian (A.D. 245-313), who founded arms factories at Damascus, Indian steel was being used to produce weaponry of considerable renown. The earliest clear references to damascene steel include descriptions by the poet Emroʾ al-Qays (d. ca. 550 A.D.) and a younger contemporary (Smith, History, p. 14). In Kermān in the 6th/12th century Marco Polo referred to damascene steel as ondanique; he saw workers there producing weapons and horsetrappings in iron, some presumably in damascene steel (Travels of Marco Polo, tr. R. Latham, New York, 1982, pp. 62, 69, 89). The modern Persian word for steel, fūlād, is closely related to the Mongol and Russian words for damascene steel, bolot and bulat respectively. With the British involvement in India beginning in the 17th century, the term wootz, which A. R. Zaky (“On Islamic Swords,” Studies in Islamic Art and Architecture in Honour of Professor K. A. C. Creswell, Cairo, 1965, p. 284) suggests is derived from the Telegana language of central India, came to denote the small cakes of steel produced in central India. The crystalline matrix of these wootz cakes yields the distinctive patterning of damascene steel; detailed discussions of the wootz smelting process are available (see Maryon, “Pattern-welding,” pp. 54-55; K. N. P. Rao, I. K. Mukherjee and A. K. Lahiri, “Some Observations on the Structure of Ancient Steel from South India and Its Mode of Production,” Bulletin of the Historical Metallurgy Group 4/1, 1970, pp. 12-17). One major wootz production site was Kona Samudram in the Nirmal district of the state of Hyderabad, central India (Maryon, “Pattern-welding,” pp. 53-54), where iron traders from Isfahan resided and oversaw the process (W. H. Schoff, “The Eastern Iron Trade of the Roman Empire,” JAOS 35, 1915, p. 235). Numerous production sites in central India accounted for the masses of wootz cakes traded to Iran in the Islamic period (J. Piaskowski, O Stali Damascenkiej, Warsaw, 1974, p. 334).
Many works refer to the excellence of damascene steel arms and armor produced in Iran and to central India as the major source of the steel. In his treatise on swords dated to the middle of the 3rd/9th century A.D. (“Al-Soyūf wa aǰnāsohā,” ed. ʿA. Zakī, Bulletin of the Faculty of Letters, Fouad I University 14/2, 1952, pp. 136), Kendī mentions that sword makers in Fārs use iron from Ceylon (sarandībī) or at least iron from the east brought by ship up the Gulf. The same treatise also refers to a type of Khorasani sword forged from sarandībī iron, which was distinguished by the use of tamarisk or oak charcoal in what was presumably the final processing after the cakes of steel had been received from abroad (Allan, Persian Metal Technology, pp. 69, 86). Furthermore, the implication here is that the steel (wootz cakes?) was being shipped from central and south India by sea through the Persian Gulf and on to Fārs, while other supplies of the Indian iron were arriving overland in Khorasan.
With the Tartar conquest of Syria in 801/1399, Tamerlane is said to have deported to Iran the skilled craftsmen he captured and set them to work in cities such as Isfahan and Samarqand. It is suggested that from this point onward Iran supplied itself as well as India and the west with the finest damascene arms and armor, though the steel ingots still originated in India (Maryon, “Pattern-welding,” p. 53).
While numerous Iranian swordsmiths are known from the 11th/17th century, perhaps the most famous Iranian damascene swords preserved today are those of Asadallāh of Isfahan, whose craftsmanship dates to the reign of Shah ʿAbbās, the Safavid (996-1038/1588-1629; S. V. Grancsay, “The New Galleries of Oriental Arms and Armor,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 16, 1958, p. 251; Zaky, “On Islamic Swords,” p. 286). Shah ʿAbbās is supposed to have told the Russian ambassador that good bulat is brought to Iran from India (N. T. Belaiew, “Damascene Steel,” Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute 97, 1918, p. 417). Isfahan remained an important production center until the 19th century (Zaky, “On Islamic Swords,” p. 283). Various early western travelers in 16th century Iran remarked on the fine steels encountered there. Chardin describes scimitars that “exceed all the Europeans can do” and mentions that the word “Damask” is employed by the Iranians to describe the work (ibid.). In fact, the adjective damascene is used in Persian to refer to swords as early as the 6th/12th century, in the Nowrūz-nāma, usually attributed to Ḵayyām (Deḵodā, s.v. demašqī).
The 19th century. Active production of damascene steel was maintained through the 19th century. The Russian P. A. Anosoff duplicated its production at his ironworks at Zlatoust in the Urals (J. Piaskowski, O Stali Damascenskiej, Warsaw, 1974, pp. 330-32). He had been a colonel in the Russian army during the occupation of the Emirate of Bokhara in the 1820s and in contact with Persian metalworkers. His paper “On the Bulat” (Gornyĭ Zhurnal, Petersburg, 1841; also in Annuaire du Journal des Mines en Russie, 1843) was a seminal contribution to the understanding of the technology of damascene production. Later Anosoff asked a Captain Massalski, also stationed in Bokhara, to investigate further the steel making there. He described a crucible steel making process in which three parts of old iron (nails, horseshoes, etc.) were mixed with one part finely broken up cast iron. The charged crucibles were covered with charcoal and the contents completely melted to a boiling state. Then 130-170 grams of silver were added to the molten mixture and covered and slow cooled for three days. Following cooling, the ingot (as much as 2.46 kg) was removed, cleaned and the damascene pattern was already visible in the metal. The ingot was hammer tested and then forged out into a blade, tempered in boiling hemp oil and etched with iron sulfate (Massalski, “Préparation de l’acier damassé en Perse,” Annuaire du Journal des Mines en Russie, 1841, pp. 297-308; see also Wulff, Traditional Crafts, pp. 8-9). Massalski confirms the existence, therefore, of a non-wootz using process of steel making in the production of damascene blades during the 19th century. How early such technology was developed is not known. In any case, wootz continued to be produced in central India in this period; 100 kg were sent via the East India Company to the inspector of assays at the Paris mint (Wulff, Traditional Crafts, p. 8).
Iron for other purposes was being mined and smelted from Iran’s sizeable ore reserves. Western interest in Iran’s mineral wealth brought an influx of foreign mining engineers, frequently into government service. James Robertson, a civil and mining engineer, became a major in the Iranian military and director of the shah’s ordnance works. He recorded the workings of iron mines and smelters in the Qarādāḡ mountains and provided a detailed picture of an indigenous industry now no longer active (“An Account of the Iron Mines of Caradogh, near Tabreez in Persia, and of the Method There Practiced for Producing Malleable Iron Directly from the Ore,” The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine, 1843, pp. 84-86). Robertson writes that the mining district showed signs of ancient working; he estimated some 570,000 tons of ore had been extracted at one mine in particular and that at present working rates (ca. 200 tons per year) at least 2,800 years had expired since the work first began. His estimate may have been accurate if, in fact, this mine was actively worked at the start of the first millennium B.C. when iron first appears en masse in Iran. He describes native smiths who produced a soft but tough iron superior to the Russian iron of the period. It was forged chiefly into
horseshoes and nails for use by city dwellers and Kurdish nomads alike. Local forests provided the necessary charcoal, mostly from coppice oak, i.e., oak that was systematically harvested in a manner that allowed regrowth. Processes of charcoal making are described, one of which produced charcoal primarily for iron smelting. The furnace was double chambered (furnace plus slag pit) with a chimney and was driven by a dual action bellows (see Wulff, Traditional Crafts, p. 51 for a picture of this type of bellows). A single smelting operation yielded about 13.6 kg of iron from about 27.3 kg of ore and about 40.9 kg of charcoal. About three to four smelts a day were conducted by a smith and his assistants. Robertson was impressed with the high yield of this Iranian bloomery process in comparison to English production of the period.
Robertson’s description is presumably quite typical of the 19th century localized iron smelting practices in Iran and may also be reminiscent of techniques of antiquity. The amount of foreign influence, European or Asian, in matters of smelting just prior to this period or during it has never been ascertained. Some eighty-five years after Robertson, the mining assessor E. Böhne described the operation of a blast furnace in Māzandarān blown by a water-wheel driven bellows (“Die Eisenindustrie Masenderans,” Stahl und Eisen 48 , 1928, pp. 1577-80). The bellows apparatus was known in China as well as in 15th century Italy (Wertime, “Asian Influences on European Metallurgy,” Technology and Culture 5, 1964, pp. 391-97).
The ethnographic present. The only study of contemporary ironworking in Iran was undertaken by H. Wulff (Traditional Crafts, pp. 48-73). He recorded some of the relevant Persian vocabulary and the basic tasks performed by blacksmiths (āhangar), nailsmiths (mīḵ-sāz), farriers (naʿlgar), cutters (kārd-sāz, čāqū-sāz, tīḡ-sāz), scissors makers (qeyčī-sāz), file cutters (sowhān-sāz, āǰ-kon), gunsmiths (tofang-sāz), balance makers (mīzān-sāz, tarāzū-sāz), locksmiths (qaffāl, qofl-sāz, kelīd-sāz) and steel fretworkers (šabaka-kār). The locksmith and his product (most often all or part in iron) have received some recent attention in a catalogue of a major collection of locks from Iran (P. Tanavoli and J. Wertime, Locks from Iran: Pre-Islamic to 20th Century, Washington, 1976). Shapes, mechanisms, and keys of a wide variety of locks, and the issues of origin, identification, and date are discussed.
The true blacksmith, of primary interest here, has received surprisingly little attention. P. H. T. Beckett (“Tools and Crafts in South Central Persia,” Man 57 , 1957, p. 147) describes a rudimentary forge and the operation of a bellows in the region of Kermān and comments on the resourceful use of scrap metal (e.g., automobile spring steel) and the skill in tempering. The blacksmiths produced pliers and files (copies of western designs), handsaws, sickles, adzes, shovels, picks, chains, door latches, nails, and horseshoes. One sickle type that can be hafted and used as a hoof trimmer is highly reminiscent of a type of iron blade from the Iron II, Ḥasanlū IV, ca. 800 B.C. citadel. This sort of long term typological and often technological conservatism makes Iran an important source of data relevant to the archeologist, anthropologist, and historian of technology alike.
In 1976 the present author spent a day working with a blacksmith in Dāmḡān (Plate XXXIV). The forge was almost identical to that depicted by Wulff (Traditional Crafts, p. 50, fig. 68) and much of the terminology recorded by Wulff is directly applicable to what was seen. The smith (farrier) produced almost exclusively horseshoes for export over the Alborz mountains to Māzandarān and iron tethering stakes for livestock. More than seventy years old, he could barely recollect having seen iron actually smelt from an ore and worked exclusively with scrap metal. Upon request he duplicated with apparent ease an arrowpoint, spearpoint, and dagger, the shapes of which are dictated by the skills of the smith and the malleability of the iron/steel under the hammer. Given 2,800 years to corrode, these weapons would not have been easily distinguished from the artifact assemblage at Iron Age Ḥasanlū.
See also R. H. Dyson, Jr., “Some Problems of Protohistoric Iran as Seen from Hasanlu,” JNES 24, 1965, pp. 195-97.
L. D. Levine, “East-West Trade in the Late Iron Age: A View from the Zagros,” in Le plateau iranien et l’Asie centrale des origines à la conquête islamique, Paris, 1977, pp. 176-91.
D. B. Weisberg, Guild Structure and Political Allegiance in Early Achaemenid Mesopotamia, New Haven, 1967, p. 103.
K. A. C. Creswell, A Bibliography of Arms and Armour in Islam, London, 1956, pp. 37-40, 71-79.
(V. C. Pigott)
Originally Published: December 15, 1984
Last Updated: July 28, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 6, pp. 624-633
V. C. Pigott, “Ahan,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/6, pp. 624-633; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ahan-iron (accessed on 16 March 2014).