Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Steel Among the Nephites?

 “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance” (2 Nephi 5:15)
Where did Nephi get the knowledge to work with iron, copper, brass, and steel? Contrary to common belief, Iron was in use during the so-called Bronze Age, and much earlier than scientists thought.
Left: Hittite Chariots with iron wheels; Right: Hittite king and accompanying troops
Hittite iron-wheeled charioteers were a formidable force, having some forty teams of horses in the battle of Salatiwara in the 18th century B.C., and in the 13th century conquered the whole of Syria. As they gained dominion over Mesopotamia, their battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C. was likely the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving some five thousand chariots.
Although belonging to the Bronze Age (4000-1200 B.C.), the Hittites were considered the forerunners of the Iron Age (1200-550 B.C.) by hundreds of years, developing the manufacture of iron artifacts from as early as the 14th century BC, when letters to foreign rulers reveal the latter's demand for iron goods.
Ferrous metallurgy (steel) began in the 5th millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia, made from meteoritic iron-nickel. By the 2nd millennium B.C. iron was being produced from iron ores. During the Iron Age, the best tools and weapons were obviously made from steel, particularly alloys which were produced with a carbon content between approximately 0.30% and 1.2% by weight. Alloys with less carbon than this, such as wrought iron, cannot be heat-treated to a significant degree and will consequently be of low hardness, while a higher carbon content creates an extremely hard but brittle material that cannot be annealed, tempered, or otherwise softened.
Steel weapons and tools were nearly the same weight as those of bronze, but stronger. However, steel was difficult to produce with the methods available, and alloys that were easier to make, such as wrought iron, were more common in lower-priced goods. Many techniques have been used to create steel; Mediterranean ones differ dramatically from African ones, for example. Sometimes the final product is all steel, sometimes techniques like case hardening or forge welding were used to make cutting edges stronger.
The problem over determining when steel was used depends upon what objects are being discussed. High-end iron, mixed with carbon, for hardened steel weapons, are claimed to be as early as the 4th century B.C. The pre-Roman Falcata sword was produced in the Iberian Peninsula, the Chinese had quench-hardened steel from 400 B.C. onward, and their creation of steel by melting together wrought iron with cast iron that gained an ultimate product of a carbon-intermediate steel was achieved by the first century A.D. Meanwhile, in India, case-hardened steel was developed in 4th century B.C., and was being exported to the Arab World early in that century, though steel production in that area dates to between 500 and 400 B.C. Wootz steel, also known as Damascus steel, dates to as early as the 5th century B.C. in China.
Although the ancient Egyptians did not discover how to produce iron from its ores, they already had a word for “iron” in Predynastic times (4th millennium B.C.), which was based on their use and working of meteoric iron biЗ n pt, meaning “metal of the sky” (= Coptic benipe), and this remained their word for “iron, steel,” throughout Egyptian history. According to Lucas & Harris, based on the Brinell hardness of actual artifacts, steel was first produced in Egypt by carburizing of iron no earlier than 1200 B.C., and by carburizing and quenching no earlier than 900 B.C., although the artifacts could have been imports from Western Asia, where Hittites had been making steel since at least the mid-2nd millennium B.C., or earlier.  
There is also a nickle-steel battle-axe from Ugarit with bronze hilt decorated with gold, dated to about 1450-1350 B.C., very much like the one found dating to 2000 B.C. in a grave in Hattic Alaca Höyük (Hittite Empire central Turkey).
There are a number of iron gifts (including steel) which were received by Egyptians at that early period (14th century B.C.), including a steel-bladed dagger presented to Amenhotep III by King Tushratta of Mitanni. The spectacular steel-bladed and gold-hilted dagger found in King Tut’s 18th dynasty (14th century B.C.) tomb is not only of the same type as the sword described for Laban (I Nephi 4:9) nearly a millennium later, but may also have been an import.
Iron smelting and iron working in Egypt came into its own during the 22nd (10th century B.C.) to the 26th dynasties, and was as common as bronze by the 26th dynasty (664 - 525 B.C.)–contemporary with Lehi and Nephi.  And Petrie found furnaces and iron working in Palestine (Gerar) even earlier, from the 20th to 22nd dynasties
The Hebrew word for “iron, steel” is barzel (Gen 4:22, Lev 26:19, Num 31:22, Deut 3:11, 4:20, 8:9, 28:48, Josh 17:16, Prov 27:17), and is the basis for the name or metonym of Barzillai “Iron-man/ Steel-man,” possibly due to his origin in Gilead (in Manasseh) where the best iron ores were to be found–at a time when the Philistine monopoly on iron and steel weapons was being quickly eroded (I Sam 13:19-21, 17:7, II Kings 24;14, I Chron 22:3, II Chron 2:7).  Robert Coughenour even argues that Barzillai “was David’s chief metallurgist.”  
A steel short-sword (blade 12-16 inches long) with ivory hilt and bronze rivets was found at Philistine Ekron (Tel Miqne). The first actual steel implement known from Palestine, however, is an eleventh century B.C. pick from Upper Galilean Har Adir (near Nazareth).
The so-called “Iron Age” in which all this took place should, according to Robert Maddin, have been called the “Steel Age" (Coughenour, “Iron,” in P. Achtemeier, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, pp423-424.)
During the 9th century B.C., Israelites apparently were restricted from or dependent upon the Philistines for iron tools (1 Samuel 13:19–22), attempts to maintain such a monopoly over technologies such as iron metallurgy inevitably gave way through the process of cultural diffusion.
Gordon C. Thomasson in The November/December 2005 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review reports that a steel short-sword (16 inch blade) with ivory hilt and bronze rivets was found at Philistine Ekron (Tel Miqne) during an excavation by Seymour Gitin, director of the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, Ernest Frerichs, the Albright president, and Trude Dothan, from Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. The article contains a summary of the final reports of excavation work at biblical Ekron, which is located about 20 miles south of Jerusalem, and was a major city during the 12th and 11th centuries B.C. when the Philistines were the chief adversary of Israel, as well as the conquerors of the Canaanite cities of the southern coastal plain. Ekron was last destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 604 B.C., about the time Lehi left Jerusalem. In addition, the first steel implement known in Palestine is an 11th century B.C. pick from Upper Galilean Har Adir (near Nazareth).
All of this shows that carbonized iron was fashioned into steel blades during Lehi’s lifetime and predates the Book of Mormon record. Whether Laban’s sword was made in Egypt as some think, or made in the area of Jerusalem through the Philistine knowledge of ferros metallurgy and steel production, is not known, but what is known is that the steel sword that Nephi described existed in Jerusalem in 600 B.C. As he told us: “I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9).

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