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Ancient blades - Live up to the hype?
#1
I would like to understand the lore out there that a long, long, long time ago swords and other blades were created being endowed with almost mystical qualities of durability and sharpness, far superior than anything that has since been forged.  You know the story.  Steel created from a secret iron ore vein in Outer Mongolia, sharpened with long lost secret sharpening techniques only known to long ago deceased Zen sharpening masters after sprinkling magic Zen dust about the place.
 
Blades so tough they would half an armored knight and a silk scarf falling through the air would cleave upon contact with the edge.
 
Umm…, really? 
 
To be clear, I know basically nothing about, and have done no research on ancient metallurgy, steel or swords.   Being totally clueless, I wonder if all you folks are as suspicious of the hype as I am.  Following is my reasoning and where I suspect the myth comes from.
 
I suspect that most blades made eons ago were utter crap, made from weak steel full of impurities that would perform poorly.  By chance, occasionally some iron of greater purity was found that made a better blade.  These blades became legendary because they were 20% better than the average local crap blades of the time.
 
Every so often some ore was discovered that contained other minerals such as chromium or vanadium, etc., that produced a “super” blade for the time.  These blades became legendary. 
 
Over time humans got better at production methods.  Better smelting and equipment to produce purer, stronger steel.  They discovered that steel could be folded and bashed repeatedly to remove impurities and how adding various minerals would improve quality. 
 
Now metallurgy is very well understood and steel formulations are produced with laboratory precision as though from a cook book.  Steel manufacturers know all about it.  Different minerals and chemicals can be added to steel formulations to produce steels that perform to predetermined specifications and requirements.  Are folks really claiming that any of the ancient blades can outperform modern super steels?  Really?
 
Has anyone tested the Rockwell hardness of these primordial blades?  Did they actually have some super hard blades that they could actually sharpen that didn’t chip? 
 
Then there is the whole sharpening mystique.  While I admit the ancient Zen master sharpeners may have had secret Zen sharpening dust to sprinkle about whilst inwardly droning in meditation “Namu Amida Butsu” and viewing the world through the third eye, I doubt they knew more about sharpening than many BESS Exchange members. 
 
Then there is the fact that these primordial sharpeners were working with stone knives and bear skins.  They didn’t have precision sharpening equipment.  No amazing assortment of belts with even coatings of about any type of abrasive from AO to diamonds in grits from 20 to 5,000 and finer. 
 
So these claims of mystically sharp ancient blades…  What does that even mean?  How sharp were they?  400?  200?  100?  50?  25? 10?   BESS Exchange members know what sharpness means and thanks to EOU can actually measure it. 
 
For whatever reason, knives and sharpening is ensconced in mysticism as though there is some secret to steel and the only way to learn how to sharpen is to spend a lifetime of self-deprivation in a monastery. 
 
Yet the myth of these old blades persists.  What is the RHC of these blades?  Do they chip?  How do they perform in SET tests? (I bet they roll like any other blades or worse). What is the BESS sharpness number?  Maybe I'm full of crap, it seems to me that this is quantifiable and we can dispel the myths.
 
What do you guys think?
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#2
I think your speculations are essentially correct; I’m sure there were some exceptional (for the time) blades and craftsmen, but the standards that they had to beat to be exceptional were low compared to what’s available today. I can’t find it right now, but there’s a youtube video where someone forged a replica of a famous sword using primitive/ancient methods, and it came out pretty good, but my guess is that it doesn’t compare well against modern low-end steels (as far as material is concerned, craftsmanship was incredible). One of the things that made that video interesting was that the project could fail at several points (not by fault of the craftsman), so there was a fair amount of luck involved, and the process lacked the precision and repeatability of modern equipment and techniques.
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#3
Mr. Steve!  Good to see you back again.  I’ve missed your commentary and especially your sense of humor which often gave me a chuckle. Wink

Anyway, I agree that the myth is explained when you say, “some exceptional (for the time) blades and craftsmen”, with “for the time” being the major consideration.  Obviously there was amazing craftsmanship (for the time), but as far as the steel quality goes I too doubt it can compare to modern day steel.

The thing that I don’t understand is the mysticism surrounding knives and sharpening.  Why does this continue to exist?  

I know it will never happen and nobody with an original Zen master sharpened ancient sword would ever do it, but I’d love to have one sent to EOU for testing.  Sadly, I suspect a lot of the magic and mysticism would be lost.  

That said, I’m sure the magic and mysticism would survive.  Apparently it’s unassailable in this industry.  For whatever reason people just want to believe it.
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#4
The logical part of my brain tends to agree with you. However, I would not be so quick to dismiss the knowledge of the ancient ones. I live near Newark, Ohio, a major site for Hopewell mounds. On the basis of their size alone, these man made mounds are amazing. (The Great Pyramid could fit in the largest mound.) However, ancient Hopewell knowledge extends far beyond building. We are in awe of the equinox alignment of Stonehenge, yet the Hopewell understood 18 1/2 year lunar cycles. They built a sixty mile long straight road. Considering how many of our present day buildings are neither plumb, square, or level, who is primitive?

The Hopewell left no written language. Unlike Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Ohio is not considered a Land of Mystique. Nor do ancient Native Americans have the cultural draw to western culture that they would have had as possible lost tribes of Israel or unknown European explorers.

Our present day evolving knowledge is mind boggling. Our cultural appreciation sadly lags far behind. For every knife purchaser who would buy and treasure a wootz level knife, there are millions who would opt for the set of twenty four with shiny handles at the local discount store. Even in our new Mecca, Sydney, how many true believers forego the pleasures of owning a status automobile to collect wootz swords?

Our technology will only do what we want it to do. You tubes, like television or books, can broaden our knowledge or be the digital equivalent of comic books. With this exchange, we can post BESS readings almost instantaneously, which will be understood globally. What are the chances that I would ever have met Rupert, Mark, Grepper, Jan or Vadim (Wootz) without this exchange? 

Our modern technology is like the talents given to the servants in the Biblical parable. We can choose to bury them for safekeeping or allow them to grow.

Ken
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#5
Point well taken Mr. Ken.  I guess I should clarify that I don’t mean to dismiss or belittle in any way whatsoever the amazing achievements, talents or creations of craftsmen of yore.   Indeed our modern world is built upon their work, talent and discoveries.  I am astounded by what they were able to accomplish using basically only stone knives and bear skins.

What I question is the almost mystical qualities often attributed to, especially, old swords.  Even in documentaries I’ve seen there is the suggestion that these blades are like a one time gift from God, with durability and sharpness never again to be obtained by mere corporal beings.

They always speak to how these ancient blades were able to take an edge so sharp as to be legendary.  Additionally there is the suggestion that some dudes long ago knew some long lost secret sharpening method that produced edges so sharp that dust particles falling upon the edge would be cleaved.  Really?

Some of the old blades were indeed incredibly beautiful works, and probably, for their time, pretty sharp.   But the sharpness is unqualified and I have little doubt that many BESS Exchange members can produce blades with sharpness that would blow the old dudes away.  We have forum members that routinely produce well below sub 50 sharpness razor blades with diamond compound sharpened on glass surfaces.  I seriously doubt that any of the ancient blades ever approached these modern sharpness levels.

I would also suspect that some of the steel these guys came up with was pretty good.  I saw one TV documentary where metallurgical analysis showed the blades were actually somewhat fine grain steel, no doubt astounding for their time.  But now we can order off the ‘Net blades with about any hardness and super fine grains steel desired.

As an aside, as far as I know the sharpest modern edge is plasma polished diamond, followed by obsidian.

Anyway, the reason for this post was simply to evoke discussion about it’s title, “Ancient blades - Live up to the hype?”
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#6
Good topic Grepper. My most important takeaway from the video posted by smurfs in the "Wootz" thread was the amount of knowledge and number of processes utilized by our modern blade smith, in smelting good quality steel from iron ore. Our modern blade smith has the benefit of books, modern construction materials and machinery and not to mention - compressed gas. I'm impressed by the skills of the modern blade smith but stand in awe of those who, a thousand years ago and without benefit of "cook books", created the same product from the same materials. That alone is enough to make me doff my hat to the ancients. For me, it is not necessary to attribute any additional "miracle qualities" to the products they produced in order to stand in awe at the magnitude of their scientific achievements.
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#7
Ya damn greenhorns. I hate to keep bangi'n this drum, but no one seems to listen.Them's was unicorn horns with a little fairy dust thrown in for extrey hardness...
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#8
Glad to see you pile in here Mark - the chemistry you suggest is difficult to argue with but fairy dust is difficult to source.  Unicorns are plentiful but only just before dusk and right after happy hour. 

Here's one that you may be able to comment on as well - seems as if it was suggested in the smurfs video that the heating/folding/heating cycles employed by the ancients served to drive the impurities out of the steel. That struck a chord with me relative to old Japanese sword makers and their famous folding techniques. Was the quality of their steel poorer than today's so they learned to mitigate for that fact during the forging/forming process? What do you think?
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#9
I found the video that I was thinking of, it was posted in this forum by our own Ken S in the topic "Secrets of the Viking Sword." The link he gave was https://www.pbs.org/video/nova-secrets-viking-sword/, but for me that's showing as no longer available. I was able to purchase it, however, and it's as good as I remembered it to be (thanks Ken!). Definitely worth watching for one perspective on this subject.
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