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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Metallurgical analysis of 9th century Moravian sword

Metallurgical analysis of 9th century Moravian sword

photo by blueviking63

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After finishing the Razor Edged series (Parts One, Two and Three), I’ve had a number of requests to post more analysis of European swords.  Fortunately, I’ve come across some treasure troves of academic research, so I’ll be able to provide this.

Today we’ll start with this details of this paper on the metallurgical analysis of a 9th century sword, buried with a powerful Moravian noble:

Metallography of the 9th century sword of a great Moravian Nobleman buried in Mikulčice (grave N0.580): Hosek Jiri, Kosta Jiri

The blade was found in a tomb in the remains of a large church in the medieval fortress of Mikulčice, near the modern town of Mikulčice in Czech Republic.  The prominent position of the tomb identified the deceased as one of the great lords of the region.

That the deceased was wealthy and powerful can be seen by quality of the fitting and other weapons he was buried with.  These included:

“Belts of the sword garniture were provided with silver loop fitting, buckle and belt chape; the war knife has a half-round gilded silver fitting (pommel), a pattern-welded blade and is sheeted in a
scabbard with a metallic fitting.”

The images below shows the location of the fortress, small scenes from the church, as well as the knife, sword and fittings.

Grave location and goods

Image from source paper


Image from source paper

The obviously heavily rusted and eroded blade made checking for the quality of the edge steel very difficult; however, its very state of decay allowed investigators to test for surface and core hardness ratings in several places.  Most of the original wood and textile coverings (wooden sheath originally covered in leather with a textile interior, wood handle covered with textile, and a (missing) pommel, presumed to be bone or similar material which has eroded) are either gone or in very poor condition.  The researchers used the sword typology of Alfred Geibig, and class this blade as a Type Two;  there are markings on the blade which may be crosses, but the decayed state makes absolute identification impossible.  Age of the blade is estimated by the surroundings in which it was recovered, the other items in the grave being verified as to age.

While not pattern-welded, the researchers found a slightly harder steel edge had been welded onto the blade’s core

In testing, the sword was examined under microscope, elements of the blade were tested for hardness (Vickers Scale), and small pieces were examined under electron microscope.

Examination results

Many of the results are highly technical, but in keeping with our system of comparison used our article:  Razor Edged 3:  Comparing metallurgy of special medieval swords, we will focus on carbon content, non-steel inclusions and waste in the metal of the sword, its hardness ratings and the dominating microstructures of the steel.

Carbon Percentage:  0.7 % (a high rating indicating sophisticated steel production)

Dominating edge microstructures: The cutting edge consisted of a relatively coarse perlite formation, with the core steel consisting of even coarser perlite structures mixed with ferrite (iron)

Inclusions: Fairly high levels of slag inclusions are found throughout the blade.  Electron microscope scans detected signs of cold forging, as well as multiple quenches, with approximately one-third the length of the blade — from the tip back — having received more quenching.  The level of inclusions found suggests the material was folded into the blade during forging.

Hardness: Where testing on the edge was possible, hardness ratings of 273 ± 21 (Vickers, 26 on Rockwell C scale) were found.  The interior hardness was rated 215 ± 14 (Vickers, 15 on the Rockwell C scale).

When compared the to results from the swords appearing in the Razor Edge 3 article, this blade was shown to consist of a much softer steel, both core and edge, however, the researchers concluded the blade was of excellent quality for its time period, as shown in their summation.

The researcher’s final summation:

The blade has a steel core with welded-on steel cutting edges. The blade construction most likely consisted in butt-welding-on of edge rods onto the piled core with subsequent final forming and in the place of  sampling rather rapid cooling (although not quenching yet at least in the preserved part of the cutting edge). The core bears several layers which could be formed either by mutual welding of several sheets either by multi-bending and welding of one semi-product; it could be also a combination of both approaches. The core is just a little less carbon steel then the cutting edges. The piece of iron in the corrosion does not relate to the blade itself; it is most likely a remnant of some iron part of the original scabbard. The sword is of very good or even excellent quality.

At the end of the paper there is an excellent discussion — too long to quote here — on whether this blade was influenced by the Ulfberht smiths, and how its creation may have been influenced by design trends of the time.

I highly recommend you access the paper and have a look.

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