In the world of edged weapons, blades are often the point of lively discussions. There you will find agreement and disagreement on all related aspects of this collective category under debate. The most common argumentations are centered around the naming and defining of the items in question. This seems reasonable considering that edged weapons have such long, wide and diverse histories. Much physical ground has been covered through the historical ages of weapons and many cultures have added to the forms, the uses, and the names of the blades which have been developed. Whole nations, as well as independent thinkers, make claims of authenticity of design and origin for particularly interesting artifacts. One of the most phenomenal topics of discussion concerns a process which produces an equally phenomenal blade of unique lines, strengths, and durability. The word, “Damascus” has come to epitomize the immediate experience of awe and wonder which these blades command upon being perceived through the senses of those comprising the world of edged weapons.
Damascus is a great uniter and divider of blade communities. Be the members: smiths, collectors, antiquarians, or martial artists; they all have their own particular and personal take on the naming and defining of Damascus. The points at issue range from historical to process concerns; often presenting argumentation from diverse perspectives. This means that, as a lay-person of the subject, I must tread very carefully as I read. All sources seem to be equally convinced of their own collections of information and of their own digestive processes and conclusions. For the more diplomatic of experts, I detect an unspoken truce amongst themselves. It is as if they have agreed to disagree; acknowledging that this is not the moment in time for the claiming of hard and fast definitions of terms. All well and good for the experts, but, enormously confusing for the well-meaning novice. That leaves me little recourse than to trust my own mind, my own ability to think logically, and to develop my own concept of Damascus. I would encourage the reader of this essay to do the same. Take my words and the words of others and find for yourself where you stand in the amazing discussion of, what is perhaps, the most phenomenal steel the world has ever known.
My own particular process of discovery leads me to noting how histories and concepts have drawn their lines; which lines lead to nowhere, which lines cross the paths of other lines, and which paths have joined together to become one. In the end, I see one or more of many patterns which have been formed by events from the past and their indications for potential patterns projected into the future. I have chosen images of cartography to accompany this essay; partly because I love old maps and partly because they exemplify the wonderful world of lines. I have chosen the maps of India because India is the “Land of Wootz”.
With the introduction of the word “wootz”, we are brought directly into the discussion of the naming and defining of Damascus. Let me share a quote from two curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The words of Sophy Wills and Simon Metcalf explain their view of the naming and their orientation toward classifications in an article concerning the restoration of a Damascus Steel Blade in their collection. “This type of steel has been known in Europe by many names, most commonly as damascus steel, or more accurately as water crucible steel. From India and the Middle East the words wootz, pulad, and bulat have also been used. (The term wootz will be used during this article). Wootz has been prized throughout history as a high quality blade steel. It is thought to have originated in the Indian sub-continent early in the first millennium AD, but opinions differ as to the exact method of manufacture.” The authors briefly introduce the steel of these blades to us, saying that they are of High Carbon Steel which has been cast, “Skillfully forged to retain unusually large crystals of cementite (iron carbide) segregated in rows in a pearlite (iron carbide and iron) matrix.” These unique crystal structures are responsible for the hardness and toughness of the blades, as well as the pattern on the surface. Wootz patterns are likened to a swirling grain design and become enhanced as the finished blade receives an application of a weak acid etchant.
An Indian perspective can be read from the authors of the book “India’s Legendary ‘Wootz’ Steel: An Advanced Material Of The Ancient World”, Sharada Srinivasan and Srinivasa Ranganathan from the National Institute of Advanced Studies & the Indian Institute of Science (both in Bangalore). They tell us “Wootz is an anglicized version of the Kannada word ukku, Telugu hukku and Tamil and Malayalam urukku – meaning hardened steel… A distinction may be made between true Damascus blades in which the layered wavy light – and – dark pattern was an intrinsic property of etched wootz steel and pattern-welded Damascus blades in which patterns were created by welding layers of lower and higher carbon steel such as the Samurai swords of Japan.” Pattern-welded blades were sometimes mistaken for True Damascus blades. India made both True Damascus and Pattern-welded Damascus.
For the perspective of an American archeologist, I look to K.Kris Hirst. Hirst has a history of 25 years as a working archeologist and is one of America’s most valued spokeswomen for the field of Archeology. In 2017, she wrote an article in which she explored “the 2,400 year old crucible process of steel making”. She mentions that the term “wootz” first appeared in English during the late 18th century. It was named by the metallurgists who were trying to identify the contents of Damascus steel blades. “The word wootz may have been a mis-transcription by scholar Helenes Scott of “utsa”, the word for fountain in Sanskrit; “ukku”, the word for steel in the Indian language Kannada, and/or “urukuku” (to make molden) in old Tamil. However, what wootz refers [to] today is not what the 18th-century European metallurgists thought it was… Damascus, Wootz, and patternweld are all names given to different types of steels and blades. Basically, the idea is that two or more steel alloys are forged/cast together through various methods to give the wavy artistic pattern that comes from such a layering process.”
From these three sources we have gathered a multitude of names: Damascus Steel, Wootz Steel, Water Crucible Steel, Pulad, Bulat, Urukku, Ukku, Hukku, Pattern-welded Damascus Steel, and True Damascus Steel. Each set of authors have indicated that a number of these terms share in their definitions and others may be considered as belonging to different categories having their own unique qualities and values. The shared values seem to be that they are: high quality blades, made of high carbon steel, producing a remarkable hardness and toughness, and exhibiting a visible pattern upon the surface of the blade itself. The differences of composition and production of these blades is where the Defining Lines of Damascus have been drawn and redrawn so often and by so many, that it becomes a tangled ball which needs a bit of unwinding to understand clearly.
The unwinding can begin with a quick review of the world’s basic shared iron production processes. The pre-modern iron production processes were: Bloomery, Blast Furnace, and Crucible Iron.
The Bloomery process had been in use in Europe since around 900 BCE. Iron ore is heated with charcoal. Then, the heat is reduced to form a solid “Bloom” which is composed of iron and slag. Bloomery iron has a low carbon content: 0.04%. This makes Wrought Iron.
The Blast Furnace is a Chinese technology first seen in the 11th century CE. This process produces higher temperatures than those of the Bloomery process. The reduction process is also greater. Cast Iron is made from using a blast furnace. It has a carbon level of 2-4%; and is very brittle.
Crucible Iron is made by combining Bloomery Iron and a Carbon-Rich material in crucibles. The Crucibles are sealed, heated for days, reaching temperatures of 1300-1400 Centigrade. This process absorbs the carbon and the mixture liquifies; allowing the complete separation of slag to occur. The end product is a Wootz Cake which has been cooled down very slowly.
The cakes made in India, and later Sri Lanka and Persia, were then exported to the Middle East to be manufactured into arms. In places like Damascus in Syria, impressive blades showing watered-silk (damask-like) patterns were made from these Wootz Cakes. In the modern defining of Wootz, Hirst refers to these cakes being “hypereutectoid”: hypereutectoid meaning that they have a carbon content between 0.8% and 2%. Hypereutectoid Steel is composed of pearlite plus a-ferrite (pearlite & cementite). The achievement of this result is particular to the manufacturing process of using a sealed heated crucible. The process introduces high levels of carbon into the iron ore; producing a carbon content between 1.3 – 2% per weight.
Peter Dekker, on his Mandarin Mansion website, gives a short explanation of the forging process of the Wootz Cakes into blades. “In order to retain their structure, wootz ingots had to be forged out to shape in relatively low temperatures, much lower than normal forging, or the steel would turn into a homogenous mass of high carbon steel. To smiths not familiar with the process involved, even having access to wootz billets was of limited use. Those who were “in the know” carefully guarded the secrets of their trade, and they enjoyed elevated status. Some of the best Indian and Persian wootz smiths ended up working for foreign courts.” Peter’s words bring us to the history of the manufacturing and commerce of the wootz steel blades which would become known throughout the world as Damascus Steel. It is a story which begins in India and tells of the world’s leader in producing high grade steel.
The great “Age of Wootz Steel” came forth from the iron-making culture of India around 1100 CE. Its roots have been discovered to run at least as deep as the 5th century BCE in Tamil Nadu. There archeologists have recovered crucibles and metal particles of wootz. There are many archaeological sites in India with similar finds for very early periods in history. Hirst explains the archeological findings with her readers; “Molecular investigation of an iron cake and tools from Junnar in Deccan province and dating to the Satavahana dynasty (350 BC-AD 136) is clear evidence that crucible technology was widespread in India by this period.” Artifacts from from crucibles, such as awls and chisels are amongst the oldest found from these sites. They were tools and benefited greatly by the hardness and toughness of wootz steel. “The crucible steel process promotes those characteristics by attaining long-range structural homogeneity and inclusion-free conditions.” As early as these dates for Wootz at these sites are, the origin of wootz technique is most likely in the state of Karnataka. There a carbon ring was found dating between 800 – 440 BCE; and this may well be determined to be of wootz steel.
Arabic culture had begun to introduce Wootz Steel from India around 300 BCE. They brought the Wootz Cakes to Damascus. It is unsure where and how the Arabs learned the salient points of forging this steel. “Apparently, the minds behind this technological development understood how combining various metals would create weapons of increased strength over those made of pure steel”.- knifeinformer.com. With this comment I would like to point out that in my sourcing of information, most articles failed to mention that India had been making their own incredible weapons from Wootz for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Often, the readings gave me the impression that the Arabs were the first to exploit the properties of Wootz by producing the Damascus Swords. They were most definitely not the first. However, the blades from the Middle East were the blades to be introduced to the Europeans. And, that has made all the difference. In the meantime, there is a period which fits between the beginning of Wootz export to the Middle East and the notable period of the Crusades. Hirst continues to follow her original line of time for her readers; tracing the knowledge which the world had acquired of wootz. Early Greek and Roman accounts confirm that these civilizations were well aware that the crucible process was from India. “In the first century AD, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder’s Natural History mentions the importation of iron from Seres, which may refer to the southern Indian kingdom of Cheras.” In the 3rd century CE the Greek alchemist, Zosimos, wrote of Indians making steel for high-quality swords by “melting” the steel.
Leaving antiquity, we now finally travel in time into the well-established Middle Ages; deep within the Holy Wars called the Crusades (1095 – 1291 CE). European invaders came into contact with the swords made of Wootz Steel and found out for themselves that the swords were far superior to their own. European blacksmiths set their own crusade into motion; that of replicating the effects of the Islamic swords. What they came up with was the further development of the Pattern-Welding of the Celts (6th century BCE): alternating layers of steel and iron as they added folding and twisting techniques during the forging process. The Europeans returning from the Crusades never reproduced what is now called the True Damascus Steel swords. Pattern-Welding would continue to develop under the Vikings in 11th century CE and the Japanese in 13th century CE; and has reached new heights as a true art in modern times. Hirst explains why it was so difficult for the Europeans to succeed in their efforts to make Damascus Blades. “In middle age technology, steel for swords or other objects was typically obtained through the bloomery process, which required heating the raw ore with charcoal to create a solid product, known as a “bloom” of combined iron and slag. In Europe, the iron was separated from the slag by heating the bloom to at least 1200 degrees Centigrade, which liquified it and separated out the impurities. But in the damascus steel process, the bloomery pieces were placed into crucibles with carbon-bearing material and heated for a period of several days, until the steel formed a liquid at 1300 – 1400 degrees. If the process does not go right, the steel forms plates of cementite, a phase of iron which is hopelessly fragile. Islamic metallurgists were able to control for inherent fragility and forge the raw materials into fighting weapons. Damascus steel’s patterned surface appears only after an extremely slow cooling process: these technological improvements were not known to European blacksmiths.”
The original Damascus swords are of high carbon: giving them their fine edge and durability. If the carbon content is too low, it produces wrought iron; being too soft. If the carbon content is too high, it produces cast iron; being too brittle. Hirst tells us that the control of carbon was at the core of the creation of the Damascus Blades. “Although European blacksmiths and metallurgists who attempted to make their own blades did eventually overcome the problems inherent in a high-carbon content, they could not explain how ancient Syrian blacksmiths achieved the filigreed surface and quality of the finished product. Scanning electron microscopy has identified a series of known purposeful additions to Wootz steel, such as the bark of Cassia auriculata (also used in tanning animal hides) and the leaves of Calotropis gigantea (a milkweed). Spectroscopy of wootz has also identified tiny amounts of vanadium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel., and some rare elements such as phosphorus, sulphur and silicon, traces of which presumably came from the mines.”
The exact composition and procedures from making Damascus Blades has been lost to the unrecorded annals of history. This is the second mystery which shrouds the blades and has caused a search for the “Holy Grail” of Wootz Steel and Damascus Swords. To understand how this knowledge was lost, researchers in India blame the British. It seems that India, also, desires to understand how the knowledge of centuries could disappear from their own sub-continent. Sharada Srinivasan and Srinivasa Ranganathan have concerned themselves with this historical phenomenon. In their book, Chapter 5 addresses the period of Indian metallurgic industry history between the 16th and 19th century CE. “…wootz steel was made by crucible processes over a fairly semi-industrial enterprise with shipments of tens of thousands of wootz ingots being sent to places such as Persia. India was not only known during this period for its mastery in making the raw material of steel, but was also highly reputed for its swordsmithy as exemplified by accounts of the unsurpassed excellence of a swordsmith of Thanjavur… The swords and armour making cottage industries died after the arrival of the British in India and imports of iron and steel from England displaced the high quality indigenous steel made by skilled people in India. The Indian artisans’ skills in several fields, indigenous technology and workmanship all disappeared after the event of British rule.” This did not happen overnight. It happened during the second half of the 1800s, at time of great struggle for Indian autonomy. As such, Wootz Steel took and takes on a higher value for India than the meer ore from which it was made. “The fabled ‘Sword of Tipu Sultan’ is an Indian artifact which is not only a testimony to Indian skills in ferrous metallurgy, but has also captured the public imagination as an incandescent symbol of Indian resistance to colonial British rule. Wootz steel can also be seen as a leitmotif for the Indian freedom struggle against the British. The British set about destroying scores of wootz blades.”
Whatever the cause of the loss of Wootz ingots and the resulting loss of Damascus Steel forging methods, a hundred years would pass before the scientific community would cross their professional lines of scholarly knowledge and join forces to solve the riddles of Wootz. However, as progress was being made toward understanding the science behind the blade, there was an equal progress of linguistic confusion developing in the world around it. Today Wootz is fairly well understood, as well as is the process of making Damascus Blades. The irony being that blacksmiths and antiquarians have all developed their own preferences for the use of naming and defining the subject at hand. In a shared conversation, Sebastian Drost explained, “I think when you ask four smiths you get four answers on what is named what and why. Wootz is very different from layered and you need layered steel to make pattern welded steel…”. Peter Dekker responded with a laugh of recognition in his reply to Bas, “And four more answers when you ask collectors of antiques.” How have things come to being a linguistic free-for-all in the Land of Wootz? Before I give my personal answer to that question, let us move into the age of modern Wootz research.
Our Indian authors are quick to point out the part which Wootz has played in the development of metallurgic science. “It [wootz steel] played a pivotal role in spurring developments in 19th century metallography and metallurgy. The best-known scientists of the time as Michael Faraday, Jean Robert Breant and Paul Anossoff investigated and characterized it. In fact, in many ways, this phase paved the way for the spectacular materials revolution, which is associated with the twentieth century indirectly leading to the development of alloy steels.” By the early 20th century, Wootz Steel and Damascus Swords had dropped from investigative interest as scientist moved on to more pressing matters for applying their sciences. It was in the second half of the 20th century that Cyril Stanley Smith (Chief metallurgist for the Manhattan Project) would bring the focus of imagination back to Wootz. He did this by writing a well-received book, published in, 1960, which included the somehow forgotten information that Wootz ingots had come from India. A scientific paper followed in 1963, in which the history of metallurgy was the topic. “…he describes Damascus steel knives as one of the four outstanding achievements in metallurgical history.” This, John Verhoeven, tells his own readers in the 2016 article “John Verhoeven: Mystery of Damascus Steel Swords Unveiled”. Verhoeven states that during this period, very little information about Wootz was still known. Scientists knew that the ingots made in India were small; about the size of a hockey puck. They also knew that these Wootz Cakes were forged into blades; but Verhoeven writes that there was still something very important which no one could explain. “The mystery was why did the resulting blades have such well aligned sheets of carbide particles.”
With the discussion once again being of interest to metallurgists, a slow stream of investigation began to flow. In 1980, Stanford J. Wadsworth and O.D. Sherby claimed to have solved the mystery of how to make Wootz steel. They wrote their recipe and others were encouraged to reproduce their results. Smith took exception to their theories and in 1983 disputed their claim. In that same year, W.M. Yater completed a literature review; comprised mostly from British observers during the early 1800s. He, too, verified that Wootz Steel Cakes were made in India. Verhoeven’s own interest was focused on how small steel ingots solidified. His research spanned more than a decade; culminating is an hypothesis on how surface patterns might form on blades. In his article for the University of Iowa, he describes the steps taken on the long road of scientific investigation leading up to his current hypothesis. In 1989, Verhoeven included a blacksmith from Florida, Al Pendray. Together they experimented with a number of materials and blades; adjusting and fine tuning the content of the experiments as they went. Verhoeven explains the inherited knowledge from which they could lay a foundation of inquiry, “Damascus steels were first analyzed in the 1920s and their chemical composition was well known. We had further analysis done on a few genuine Damascus blades which produced similar results. In addition to the iron and carbon the blades contain low levels of Mn, Sulfur, S, Phosphorus, P, and Silicon, Si.”
In 1992, Verhoeven wrote a paper about a new ingot 4191 from their experiments which they had made into a knife. The surface pattern was of high quality Damascus. The longitudinal section revealed that the aligned sheets of the carbide particles were producing the surface pattern. By 1995, the team was satisfied that they understood the secret of Wootz patterning. The presence of carbide forming elements, present in low levels in the starting charge, are responsible for the process. They identified Vanadium levels of 0.004% being sufficient in producing the desired result. In 1994 they made 8 batches using a charge of high purity Armco iron and Sorel iron. All ingots forged produced good patterns and showed internal aligned sheets of clustered particles. Verhoeven then formally hypothesized, “Carbide forming elements might enhance the formation of the aligned carbide particles”. He was able to identify 3 carbide forming elements in the good ingots used: Vanadium, Chromium, and Titanium.
In 1998 Verhoeven produced a paper reporting his experiments on 6 original Damascus Blades. All blades contained traces of Vanadium. “Subsequent to this study we did a systematic study where we supplied Al with buttons doped with the carbide forming elements, V, Cr, Niobium, Nb and Molybdenum, Mo. We found that low levels of all these elements produced alignment of the carbides during forging with V and Mo being most effective. Using electron probe microanalysis in an electron microscope we found that as expected the carbide forming elements segregate into iron carbides. This would make it more difficult for these carbides to dissolve during the high temperature portions of the forging cycles. And since they had segregated into aligned arrays on freezing could lead to the aligned carbide arrays formed on forging Damascus steels, just as Mn functions in the pearlite/ferrite banding of low carbon steels. This idea is the basis of the hypothesis presented in our 1996 paper as to why such low levels of carbides can lead to alignment of the carbides on the repeated heat/cool cycles of forging.”
Verhoeven seems to make perfect sense. I have no issues with his results nor with his interpretation of his research. It is no longer true that Wootz Steel production is a mere thing of the past. As far as I understand, there are others who have also been able to make modern-day Wootz Steel. The dilemma of today is in knowing how to tell the difference between steels and what to call each. Peter Dekker tells me that in the world of today, Wootz Steel is now referred to as “True Damascus”; and that “Mechanical Damascus” is the forging of layers which have resulted in a natural Damascus pattern. “Pattern-welded”, I understand is the forging of layers with the intent of producing a preconceived pattern on the blade. I would also add that True Damascus should be obtained through the Crucible Iron Process; because this seems to be crucial to providing the circumstances necessary for the chemical reactions required for making Wootz Steel. Steel formed from either the Bloomery or the Blast Furnace does not seem to be known for producing the carbon levels of Wootz; which is settled nicely between the low carbon of Wrought Iron and the high carbon of Cast Iron. That is what makes it “just right” for being used to make an edged weapon: not too soft and not too brittle. Understanding the natural pattern was necessary to get the ingredients right and to use as a control feedback on the process; it is a visible assessment of making distinctions.
And, in this day and age, making one’s own distinctions is important when it comes to evaluating a sword. You cannot just rely on the naming because the names are used so arbitrarily. We have now come to the point where I give my own novice assessment of why the names have become so arbitrary. I suspect it has to do with the direct or indirect effects of marketing. Whatever is highly desired in this world, gets marketed. When the object of desire is in short supply the economical laws of capitalism say that the price will increase. When the price increases, objects of lower quality will be passed off as being the object of desire. One of the main ways objects are misrepresented is by mis-using names. At the moment, if you go onto the Internet and do a quick search for Damascus Swords, you will be bombarded by offers. Unfortunately, these Damascus Swords have become so prevalent that they have kidnapped the term Damascus.
My suggestion is to get to know your blacksmith and get to know your antique arms dealer. Have enough conversations with them to know which terms they prefer and how they define those terms for themselves. The collective world of blacksmiths, metallurgists, antiquarians, historians, archaeologists, museum curators, and martial artists show no signs of coming to agreement about the words they use when it comes to: Wootz Steel, Damascus Steel, Pattern-Welded Steel, True Damascus Steel, Mechanical Damascus Steel, or Water Crucible Steel. In the meantime, why not follow the lines of your own investigations: see where they lead, how they cross, where they merge, the patterns they make. Experience your own mind and logic and decide how to make your own discriminations.