SRUK/CERU Pint of Knowledge talk by Marc Gener-Moret

Last 23 of October at the Panton Arms, Dr. Marc Gener-Moret, Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Fellow in residence, presented a talk based on his work on the archaeometallurgy and functional analysis of swords as one of the SRUK/CERU‘s Pint of Knowledge talks.

Swords and their wielders hold an undeniable fascination. From ancient, and no so ancient, tales and narratives to modern films and series, these shiny bits of metal have captured our imagination in their sharp outlines. But what is behind them? When and where do they appear? How are they made and used? WHY are they the way they are? In this talk we will see how a combination of materials science, archaeology, history, anthropology and experimentation can help us answer these questions and many more: the technological processes behind the making of a sword, the Science and the Art behind their use. We will discuss their symbolism and their nature, and will try to understand a bit better these objects as well as what they say about the times and places that produced them… and about us.

Marc started his talk reminding us of that swords are world-spread objects that can exist in a myriad of shapes and styles. However, they all share a general trait: they are weapon of war, made purposefully for humans to defend from and attack other humans. Also, as a general rule (there ARE exceptions), they are made of metal, and, in fact — Marc explained — those two characteristics are not unrelated.

Marc gave us a brief introduction to the particularities of steel — as a metal of choice for swords for the purposes of this talk — from the perspective of Materials Science. He explained how the mechanical properties of steel, the alloy of iron and carbon, presented an opportunity for past societies in searching for a “sweet spot” of toughness and hardness. A good sword must have enough toughness (the ability of a material to absorb energy without breaking) to withstand violent shocks both for offense and defense. Also, as a blade, it must have sufficient hardness (the resistance to localized plastic deformation), which allows it to cut into other, less hard, materials.

While iron on its own is quite tough, it is not hard enough. Think about how easy is to bend an iron nail. Adding very small amounts of carbon to iron and treating it may improve hardness significantly, though at the same time increases its fragility. Think of how very hard materials like ceramics and glass can be irreparably broken. The secret of making a good sword — Marc said — lays in great extent on the balance of this admixture.

Marc overviewed the general process of sword-making. He clarified that obtaining harder, yet more fragile, steel is done by applying extreme heating followed by quick cooling (quenching). He further discussed some solutions from around the world for getting the most of toughness and hardness in the same assemble. Those included tempering, pattern welding, Damascus steel, and the ingenious technique used for making the traditional Japanese sword (Nihon-to).

Towards the end of his talk, Marc played with a Conan the Barbarian reference:

With this reference, he remembered us that the steel is only as strong as the swordsman and the swordsmith behind it — something that archaeologists often forget while navigating the intricate story told by ancient artifacts and their materials. He proceeded to tell us briefly about the specific techniques necessary to use swords properly and how they have been developed, together with the artefacts themselves, throughout history. The information we can gather from the study of the objects – Marc concluded- cannot be fully contextualized without knowing not only HOW the objects were made but WHY they were made in a specific way, connecting the sword with the people who designed, made and used it.

Get to know more about Marc in this interview and his institutional profile in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

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