Following the season finale of HBO’s epic ‘Game of Thrones’, Stefan Maeder, Director of Collections here at the Royal Armouries gives us a fascinating insight into the legendary traits of Valyrian steel and it’s real life parallel – Damascus Steel.
Damascus Steel, A Myth?
All attempts at “myth-busting” are doomed to fail when it comes to fantasy or fiction. On the other hand it is important to be aware of the degree to which even nowadays myths shape our perception of the past. Some myths have even found their way into modern materials science. One of those is the so-called “Damascus steel”, a term that has only the vaguest of connections to the Syrian capital and none whatsoever with a properly identifiable and distinguishable type of steel. “Spell-forging” on the other hand is something that should be envisaged not only, but also for the Germanic sphere between the 5th and 10th century AD. Oral traditions, compiled in written form between the 10th and 13th century in England, Iceland and continental Scandinavia, imply that swords were seen as animated and from a modern perspective, truly magical objects. The fact that Hjalmar Falk could isolate 176 sword-names from Old Norse literature is in itself a telling example.
“The ripples of a thousand foldings” attributed to Valyrian Steel in Game of Thrones again reflect a widespread misconception about Japanese sword-steel. By continuous folding over of an inhomogeneous block of iron/steel with itself the number of layers is doubled with each folding, resulting in an extremely condensed, i.e. homogenized, “puff pastry”-structure. To obtain “hundreds of thousands” of layers in a steel bar that could become a component of a sword-blade, less than ten foldings were necessary, when combining prefabricated blocks or “twigs” of iron/steel. Still it was not an impressive number of layers that was aimed for, rather a homogenous block of steel with desirable properties for its respective function as a sword-blade was paramount.
Depending on their function within and the construction of the blade, materials of different carbon-content were chosen for the tang, the core and the edges. The basic necessity to refine steel by repeated heating and folding over was by no means limited to Japan. Many metallographic analyses and an approach to polishing early medieval European swords in the traditional Japanese manner have proven that forge-refined sword-steels do not differ significantly neither in macro-, nor in micro- structure between East and West. However, ompletely different materials for blade-manufacture were used for Persian and Indian crucible-steels, still referred to by some as “true Damascus”, although a Syrian origin or connection still cannot be convincingly proven, even today. The manufacture and forging of a sword made of crucible-steel is an altogether different matter from creating a forge-refined blade. These distinctions may be irrelevant when it comes to fictional weapons, but research concerning the medieval manufacture of weapons in itself is an adventure not less exciting than any game of thrones. In conclusion Valyrian Steel is indeed a figurative composite made up of legends surrounding early medieval European swords, so-called “Damascus Steel” (Crucible steel/Wootz), and common mystifications of the manufacture and mechanical properties of Japanese swords.
(see Maeder: Damasconfusion and Nanowires – Comments on the basis of scientific research into a myth, so-called Damascus-Steel, http://schwertbruecken.de/english/starte.htm, click “Research”)
All photos by author with kind permission from Dr. Achim Weihrauch, swordsmith, Efringen-Kirchen, Germany.
Carolyne Larrington: Winter is coming – The Medieval World of Game of Thrones ( I.B.Tauris Co Ltd., UK, 2016).
Ewart Oakeshott: The Sword in the Age of Chivalry (Boydell Press, 1st ed., 1964).
Hilda Ellis Davidson: The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England (Boydell Press, 1st ed., 1962).