Updated: Jan 21, 2022
Everything You Need To Know About Ancient Damascus Steel Ancient Damascus steel was one of the hardest and most durable materials used in weaponry, mostly swords and knives. The famed steel was also used to make other objects but weapons, including arrowheads, are the primary reason why it has been known for over two millennia now. Ancient Damascus steel had unique physical characteristics. It had a distinct dark and wavy light or watery pattern. The steel was also known for a sustained sharp edge. The steel was flexible yet hard. Ancient Damascus steel was developed sometime in the Pre-Roman Iron Age. The steel turned out to be vastly superior to iron.
What is Ancient Damascus Steel? Damascus steel is so named for three reasons. It was mostly produced in the city of Damascus, the capital of Syria. The steel and weapons made from it were traded, sold or purchased in Damascus, so it was referred to as such by people across the Middle East, Ancient India and Africa. The third reason for the naming is the pattern found in the steel, which is quite similar to the damask fabric. It is not known if Syrians, Persians or Indians introduced the name. It is also not known precisely when and how the steel got its name. The original material is also known as cast Damascus steel. The material was made from wootz steel. This specific variant of steel was produced in India. Wootz steel was procured from India and used to forge swords and made other types of weapons. The exact procedure of making wootz steel is no longer known. According to experts, cast wootz steel was probably produced by melting iron and normal steel along with charcoal in a controlled setting where the atmosphere would have a steadily declining amount of oxygen. The highly control atmosphere allowed the steel and iron to absorb as much carbon as possible from the charcoal. The steady cooling of the resulting alloy led to a crystalline substance. This crystalline material contained carbide. Ancient Damascus steel was made from wootz steel and it was forged into swords among other weapons and objects. The specific environment needed to make wootz steel and the forging techniques to make Ancient Damascus steel are dauntingly challenging. No one alive today is aware of how to replicate the production techniques.
History of Ancient Damascus Steel There are a few facts about Ancient Damascus steel that should be mentioned at the outset. It was perhaps the strongest steel at the time but of course no match for contemporary materials. The high carbon steels that we find everywhere today are much stronger and more durable. It is also difficult to identify the actual timeline of when, where and how Ancient Damascus steel was first produced. The makers were secretive about the process, one of the reasons why it is still unclear how the steel was made. There are also many myths and legends about Ancient Damascus steel. Some may be reasonable claims but magical elements such as dragon blood being used in forging are possibly figments of imagination. The source material of Damascus steel was wootz. This type of steel was made in India. Most estimates infer that the wootz steel was made in India as early as the first or second century of the Early Iron Age. It should be noted that Iron Age in India has a different timeline. It predates the Roman Iron Age. The Bronze Age and Iron Age were collectively the Vedic Era in Ancient India. This Ancient Indian civilization predates the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Persians, Syrians and the rest of the Ancient Arab world did not know about wootz steel till around the first century. Indians had been making this type of steel for centuries before they started trading it with Persians and Syrians. Ancient Persians bought the wootz steel to the Middle East. The earliest known Ancient Damascus steel dates back to the first century. The steel became unprecedentedly popular. It was the most widely traded item to and from Damascus. The Europeans or Romans did not discover Ancient Damascus steel until the Crusades. Perhaps, they had got access to the secrets of the procedure but there is no record for posterity. The decline of Damascus steel and its eventual transformation into a lost art followed the unavailability of the source material. It was wootz steel that became unavailable, for reasons yet unknown. In the absence of the source material, other forms of steel became an obvious option and the art, knowledge and practice of producing Ancient Damascus steel were lost in due course of time. Damascus steel was first made in what was referred to as the Near East. Ingots of Wootz steel sourced from India and modern day Sri Lanka were forged into swords by expert smiths. The specialists came up with distinctive patterns, such as ladder, teardrop and flowing water. Ancient Damascus steel was tough, it did not shatter easily and it could hold a resilient and sharp edge. It could slice a piece of feather into two in midair and as efficiently behead a mortal when wielded by a pair of trained hands. Ancient Damascus steel remained popular from the third century throughout the Middle Age. Both wootz and Damascus steels were still being produced in the seventeenth century.
The Decline of Ancient Damascus Steel One has to know two historical facts, one each about the Ancient Arabian and Indian civilizations, to understand the decline of Damascus steel and how it became a lost art. The Arabs, mostly Persians, were secretive about most things they did. This was not unusual for civilizations of those times. Persians were good at documenting what they knew but they also effectively guarded their treasured knowledge. This is the primary reason why the forging techniques used for Ancient Damascus steel did not become common knowledge across civilizations. Ancient Indians, on the other hand, were not so secretive about their knowledge and techniques but they were not too interested in documenting everything. Ancient India and even through the latest centuries of the Middle and Medieval Ages had a tradition of oral history. Tales and lessons from history were passed down from one generation to another through oral renditions. This had an inherent problem of tales getting riddled with personal interpretations. This also led to a loss of proper transmission of knowledge. Damascus steel declined due to the shortage and eventual unavailability of wootz steel. Many factors have been identified as the reasons why wootz steel became unavailable. It is possible the techniques were lost due to the traditional of oral transmission of knowledge. The trade routes changed and many countries started to invest more in edibles and other materials, especially to and from India. The British colonized India and gradually clamped down on many indigenous industries. Wootz steel was an indigenous industry and trade in South India. There came a time in the seventeenth century when no one knew much about wootz steel. Without it, the Arabs could not make Damascus steel. The advent of firearms also led to the decline of both. Firearms essentially made swords and arrows irrelevant.
Qualities of Ancient Damascus Steel The qualities of Ancient Damascus steel were unique. The distinct characteristics were also among the reasons why the technique and practice were eventually lost. Damascus steel had impurities. Many modern metallurgists have said that the impurities were primarily due to the production method of wootz steel. These impurities made the resulting sword a superplastic but also resilient, hard and sharp. Other types of steel obtained from several regions in Asia did not have these impurities. Hence, the forging of a sword made of what should have been Damascus steel turned out to be something else. Vanadium and tungsten are two impurities that have been identified in Damascus steel. These impurities were found due to the manner in which iron or steel were smelted from the ores. If the ores did not have the key trace elements or if the smelting process eliminated them and hence made the resulting iron, steel or alloy free of such impurities, then the material obtained would not be wootz steel and hence the forging of Damascus steel is a nonstarter. Changes in production technique, inability to maintain the perfect atmosphere during smelting and forging, alterations in the compositions of the ores and the characteristics of the raw materials lead to the decline of Ancient Damascus steel.
Contemporary Understanding of Ancient Damascus Steel The world is yet to reproduce Ancient Damascus steel. Many archeologists expect to discover remnants of the past eras to get greater insights and some even expect to unearth the secret techniques by sheer chance. Attempts to reproduce the steel and other experimentations aside, we know much more about the history and evolution of Ancient Damascus steel today than ever before. Damascus steel was the preferred material for warriors, including conquerors and emperors like Alexander. The Crusaders used Ancient Damascus steel. Napoleon too had Damascus steel swords. In the late 1970s, two metallurgists in Stanford University deciphered some of the mysteries about the steel. Jeffrey Wadsworth and Oleg D. Sherby studied the steel, analyzed it extensively and drew a few inferences. The metallurgists were looking for a superplastic and found there already was one, dating back to the times predating Alexander the Great. The two experts said that Ancient Damascus steel was used for swords, armors and shields. They were also used to make knives, but not the ones that are used for household or domestic purposes. These knives were regal. They were just as good as ornaments or prized possessions as they were fitting as gifts. They could just as easily be used as small weapons. Large scale commercial or industrial use of Damascus steel is not known. Ancient Damascus steel had a high proportion of carbon content. Normal steel had a tiny fraction of one percent. Damascus steel had as much as two percent of carbon content. This is actually one of the basic requirements for a material to be even considered as a superplastic. Given what is known about the composition of wootz steel and how it may have been produced, the iron and steel absorbing the carbon from the charcoal lend credence to the inference that the carbon content in Damascus steel was higher than that in regular steel. One of the reasons why superplastic was such a sought after material is its ability to be transformed into distinct shapes and subsequently gears. Damascus steel was used to make armors. These armors were so intricate, flexible and yet strong that the warriors and mostly the higher ranked generals and royalties could be agile and protected at the same time during a battle. It should be noted that the Ancient Persians and Arabs in general were known for their superior weapons, mostly swords and armors. This had more to do with Damascus steel than anything else. There is some reason to believe that the Indian weapon urumi, which was and is an integral part of the ancient martial art form known as kalariyapayattu, may have been made using wootz steel. Urumi is a whip like weapon. But it is made of metal or alloy. Since wootz steel was flexible but strong, durable and could hold a sharp edge, it was a fitting material to make metal or alloy whips ranging from a hundred and twenty two to a hundred and sixty centimeters in length. There are references to such a weapon in Persia, Syria and much of the rest of the Arab world as well. The weapon originated in Ancient South India, also where wootz steel was produced. Ancient Damascus steel was not quenched in dragon blood. No magical medium was used in the forging. Ancient Arabs had figured out a way to forge wootz steel into formidable weapons. It is similar to how an iron pillar, made almost two millennia ago in India, has remained rustproof till date. Its resistance or immunity to corrosion baffles many, especially because material scientists and archeologists are still trying to understand how iron was extracted and processed in ancient times for the subsequently constructed pillar to have such physiological characteristics.