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Bog Iron -> Steel

My grandson asked me about iron age people who found iron in swamps and then used that material for weapons among other things.

This could be alternately called a bog, a mire, a marsh, or a swamp. It’s naturally wet land that remained wet over time and did not drain.

In wetlands, iron naturally accumulates into lumps as the bacteria in bogs oxidize trace amounts of iron. These naturally accumulating lumps of iron can be the size of a pebble, the size of a fist, or even far larger than that. Since it is iron and it is found in a bog, it is called but bog iron.

People were sent out and collect this valuable material for smithing. However, the resulting iron is impure and soft.

Bog iron was a primary source for iron in Scandanavia and it didn’t forge strong swords. To strengthen their swords, smiths of that era used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.

Smiths were something in between craftsman and magicians, in possession of secret, esoteric knowledge. In early Iron Age Scandinavia, just before the advent of the Viking Age, smiths discovered a ritual that enabled them to impart the steely strength of their ancestors and animals into their weapons.

Scandinavian smiths discovered that the bones of the dead could grant them an edge. Numerous forges scattered across Scandinavia contain the remains of animal and human bones — by incorporating the remains of the dead, their spirits could be transferred into a blade, making it stronger and more durable.

Incorporating bones into the smithing process did in fact make Scandinavian swords stronger, but it wasn’t magic — it was technology. What ancient smiths could not have realized is that they were in fact mixing their bog iron with carbon to make a rudimentary form of steel.

Carbon is present in all organic matter, and the same is true for bones. By burning bones in a low-oxygen environment, ancient smiths would have produced bone coal, much in the same way that burning wood in a low-oxygen environment makes charcoal. Researchers have conducted experiments that recreate the process of forging a sword using bog iron and bone coal; the carbon from the bones can penetrate up to 3 millimeters deep into bog iron, enough to significantly strengthen the sword.

Throughout the world’s ancient cultures, the forge was seen as female, and the smith was its metaphorical husband. Weaponry and tools were birthed from forges, rather than made. By using the bones, the “spirit” of animals or humans, Scandinavian smiths were, in a sense, making a new being. An ancient Scandinavian collection of poetry called the Poetic Edda describes many swords that had names, some of which even had what one might call a spirit — some could speak, sing, provide guidance, or cause misfortune to their wielder. While we can say with some confidence that Scandinavian blades weren’t excellent conversationalists, ancient smiths were, in a sense, filling them with life — that of a famous warrior, a powerful animal, or the wielder’s own deceased ancestors, and in doing so, they were making steel.


In About 1035 AD

Cnut the Great’s “North Sea Empire” around 1035 was what we would term a unified country, the people just had the same lord.

Orange was the core kingdom, brown were vassals and yellow were allies. Cnut appears to have been the last or second-to-last Scandinavian ruler of Britain (or at least England). He died in 1035, and by 1050 or so, England was ruled by Saxons and in 1066 their king, Harold Godwinson was killed at the Battle of Hastings by Normans (William) and the Normans ruled England from then on.

37 thoughts on “Swordcraft

  1. From what I remember Normans were more or less another round of the Vikings settling somewhere. Always found it fascinating how far the Scandinavians travelled, and conquered.
    Ancient people were not stupid by a long shot, we just have another 1000+ years to build on, and arguably aren’t anywhere near as brave or resourceful. Can you imagine most of today’s population giving up their latte to brave the unknown in a longship?

    Although I have to admit I can’t see myself doing it….

    1. I’d do it – or I sort of did in my youth. Going from Norway to Iceland to Greenland to Vineland (Canada) on a long ship isn’t something that I’d do today.

    2. Seem to remember reading on one site (could even have been here) that an earlier Viking expedition to North America settled an area, were driven out by Indians, and had a larger group sent later. An argument developed when a gal from the later group wanted to move into a place originally set up by the family of another family in the later group. The gal tried to settle the argument by killing the spokesman for the family group.
      She was a family member of the Viking leader, so he was caught in a dilemma.
      Law/custom said he had to punish her for this, and also said he had to support family members. So he announced the settlement would be abandoned and everyone had to go back to their native land.
      If this hadn’t happened, and the settlement succeeded, European influence and cultural exchange would have happened before the development of firearms.
      Who knows how that would have turned out – anyone know of good alternate-history writers that have tackled this one?

      1. The Vikings called the Indians ‘Skraelings’ which means ‘others’.

        Viking settlements in North America and Greenland were doomed by the Ice Age of the 1300’s.

  2. Shrewsbury (west of Birmingham, on the Welsh border) has a castle which was built from 1067, very soon after the Normans arrived – astonishing they had conquered and pacified the Britons right across the country so soon. So perhaps the Normans were better than the Vikings at settling down, rather than just destruction.

    1. Nobody was more ruthless than William. The saxons had only run Britain for a few years comparably (after Cnut) when William (Normans – French Vikings) arrived.

    2. I always thought that “Viking” was a job description, namely raiding and/or trading (depending on how strong the people you were visiting appeared to be), and that it was done not only out of a desire to go lookabout, but when it was a lean year farming-wise back home. IOW, settlement was not really the goal.

      The Normans however were of a different mindset entirely. Maybe descended from Norse stock, but looking to take and hold land as feudal lords, rather than men going a-viking to see the world and maybe pick up some souvenirs. I could be entirely off base on this, of course.

      1. Viking is a verb. You go viking.

        As to the Normans, you got it right. Go to an area, take control, marry into the populace, take over. Worked in Normandy, Sicily, Italy and in the Middle East. And England, Scotland (the lowlands and midlands,) Wales and Ireland. Parts of Brittany…

        1. That’s right. All Norse and Danes did not go Viking. They did migrate to France and Britain because they wanted better land to farm and a better climate, and oft-times they fought because they needed to. They were also Varangian Guards in Constantinople and moved heavily into Russia. Their DNA was spread throughout Europe and near-Asia.

          1. Yep.

            And some of the most loyal followers of the French king by 920? Norman French. And then the feckless French Kings turned on them off and on and then wondered why the Normans started hating the French Kings.

            Idiots. (French Kings, not Normans.)

  3. Most of my weapons have names. I say most because for some reason I hadn’t thought to name my blades. Henceforth they shall be given he names.

    I wonder how it appears unknown whether Cnut was the last or second to last. After all, he had a kingdom and he had scribes.

    Completely off topic is a question I have not answer to. I figure the VM brain trust (TM) could answer.
    An online search where one types just a few lyrics of a half forgotten song yields the true name of the song. Why couldn’t I hum, sing, whistle a few bars and the magic electronic brain would identify the song?

      1. I name my important weapons after people who were important to me. I suspect you might as well at least in part.

  4. Rick, the SoundHound app allegedly responds to singing/humming/whistling. I say allegedly because I just tried and it couldn’t ID Baba O’Riley or Love Me Do…but maybe I’m a crappy singer.

    It does do a nice job of ID’ing songs on the radio/TV pretty reliably.


  5. The blacksmithing was fairly interesting. We watch a TV show called Forged in Fire quite often.

    Be safe and God bless.

      1. Doug Marcaida has weak, floppy wrists. Which is fine for a knife slasher, but his limp-wristed style has destroyed quite a few blades.

        Now, Dave Baker? That man knows how to use a long blade. Never moves the blade behind his head, rotates his hips correctly, and just has an awesome stance. (Mancrush engaged…)

        Love that show.

        Only problem is… why do Damascus? It’s pretty, but modern metals are sooooo far superior.

  6. Interesting segment on iron and the swords. The naming of weapons continued to include rifles for some, notably Davy Crockett’s “Betsy” and Bill Cody’s Lucretia Borgia.” Some still do though I’m not one of them. Maybe I should.

      1. I’ve always named my vehicles. For good or ill.

        Things have, well, the Japanese call them Kami or spirits. Things named have… presence, and if named appropriately (like cats and dogs) will respond better.

        Or so it seems.

    1. Full-time live-aboard since 2003, our ExpeditionVehicle is ‘RHINO EIGHT!’, latest in a long lineage of sturdy steeds.

  7. I guess those past century Scandinavian’s didn’t have The Fowch and CDC around to tell them to “believe the science”…but got there anyway.

    What’s in a name? I get it, almost like having an extra hand while in battle…but must be a good name…as MrsPaulM says, “Never name your horse “Widowmaker.”

    Oddly deflated this morning, spiritual discontent…like the coming tide of something far enough out we can’t see it yet. Maybe I’m just projecting. Regardless, I’d better get to naming my weapons.

    1. I wouldn’t name a horse Widowmaker either. I liked Hell-Bitch – horse in Lonesome Dove.

      1. But it’s a good one for the personal protection shotgun.

        The Vaquero just got a super secret Indian Warrior name…seemed fitting.

      2. I named a build for a long range gun “The Hell Bitch” simply because just about everything that could go wrong with the build, did, starting with the liars who built the action. Rhymes with “melby’s” if you want to know. But eventually all that got sorted out and a more dignified name was selected.

  8. This is going to be weird to lots of folks….

    I always thought that putting the universe together so that carbon strengthens iron into steel was a sign of brilliant design – not just intelligent. After all, primitives will discover fire. They’ll melt copper. Brass will be discovered and made. At some point they’ll try making fires hot enough to melt iron. What are they like to be burning? Wood or charcoal or some other source of carbon. Get enough carbon into it and they’ll notice it getting stronger.

    Iron is one the last products of a dying star. The universe is full of it. Carbon is one of the most abundant elements on earth. Let’s set it up so that when two of the most abundant things on the planet are put together they produce one of the most useful things on the planet: steel.

    It’s hard to ask for better.

    1. Highest binding energy, making for an extremely stable element. At the heat death of the universe Kipling will have been right once again: And Iron – Cold Iron – was master of it all

      Open question for the (alternate) historians: if early humans universally had the capacity to reliably generate the high temperatures to melt iron (thereby possibly obviating the Bronze Age), would that have arrested cultural development? What I’m asking is, would the trade routes developed to get tin (for making bronze) from remote places to major centers of civilization not have happened, or happened much later? Or would trade in other things made this conjecture moot?

      1. Not sure about that – humans have a strong travel urge. There was a trade route running through America before Europe showed up. They’ve found sea shells from Central America way up north(but not Alaska that I know of, but couldn’t resist the Johnny Horton pun).
        Then you have the ancient village that was populated with red/blond haired people uncovered in a region of China.
        As one scifi author said – our ancestors got around a lot.

  9. Smithing is STILL more art than science… They can do some amazing things, and some of the tech really hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

  10. Between adding bones to bog iron and the relative availability (in comparison to other places) of meteoric iron, the Scandinavians had some of the best iron, beating the Indians (dot) and the Middle Easterners and China and Japan.

    By the 13th Century, European iron and steel was far superior to any found elsewhere.

    1. Frankish steel, Milanese steel, etc. They all had slightly different reputations but those blades and later plate (often exchanged for slaves, gold, and other trade goods) morphed in their way into guns.

  11. A fair number of years ago I saw a video on bog iron.
    It may have been the History Channel?
    They went through the iron making process all the way from raking the bog iron from off of the bottom of a lake to the finished blade all using period techniques and appropriately dressed for the time.
    Very well done.

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