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Find pushes back birth of Europe's steel hardware to about 3,000 years ago

Iberians were using heavy metal on hard rock way before it was cool

It's time to update the history books again. A group of researchers in Germany have shown that steel tools were being used in the Iberian peninsula at least as long ago as 900 BCE – far earlier than it was believed knowledge of the metal alloy had made its way to the region.

The team, led by University of Freiburg archaeologist Ralph Araque Gonzalez, base their claims on geochemical and metallographic analyses – and some good old fashioned experimental archaeology. They demonstrated that a series of engravings on stone pillars found in the region from the late Bronze Age could only have been made with tools made from proper steel, and it was most likely developed locally.

According to the team's paper on the research, the final bronze age (FBA) in the Iberian peninsula lasted from around 1200–800 BCE, and the early iron age (EIA) lasted roughly 200 years after that. Despite that commonly accepted timeline, the team said a series of engraved steles identified as from the FBA/EIA and examined as part of the study were mostly made of extremely hard rock – similar to quartzite.

As part of the experimental phase of the study, the team brought in a professional stonemason. They were given various types of stone used to carve FBA/EIA steles, as well as stone, bronze and steel tools – the latter based on a metallurgical analysis of a FBA tool from the Alentejo region of Portugal.

That tool – which the paper describes as "long ignored" – was the key. Metallurgical analysis determined it contained enough carbon to be considered steel. It was also the only tool strong enough to make a mark in the hardest quartzite-like stone used to carve some FBA/EIA steles.


The Iberian steel chisel, making its experimental replica, and using it to engrave – Click to enlarge

"This is extremely hard rock that cannot be worked with bronze or stone tools, but only with tempered steel," Araque Gonzalez explained.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

According to the University of Freiburg, up until recently it was believed the ability to create steel – an alloy of iron and carbon – only became widespread in Europe with the expansion of the Roman Empire. 

Rome didn't extend its control to the Iberian peninsula until around 218 BCE – nearly 700 years after the creation of the steel chisel found in Portugal that was replicated for the study. And it likely didn't gain control of the region where the chisel was created for another century.

But evidence of steel tools in Iberia hundreds of years earlier raises a question: how did they get there? Based on where the tool was found, and the context in which it was discovered, Araque Gonzalez concluded that the Romans probably had nothing to do with it. 

That's not to say these ingenious Iberians achieved a global first - the oldest discovered piece of steel is around 900 years older than the Iberian chisel and was found in Turkey in 2000. India also saw the creation of its own form of high-carbon iron in the form of wootz steel, a form of crucible steel that was invented sometime in the last millennium BCE, and China was producing its own as well. Now it appears Spain discovered the technique independently too.

Regardless of who made it first, that's not the point: The bottom line is that steel was being used in Western Europe without any external influence bringing it to the region, and during the final Bronze Age, no less.

"Iron metallurgy including the production and tempering of steel were probably indigenous developments of decentralized small communities in Iberia, and not due to the influence of later colonization processes," Araque Gonzalez hypothesized. 

The team's findings, Araque Gonzalez suggested, could have consequences for the study of other FBA/EIA stone carvings made on similarly hard surfaces, which he said can be found all over the world. 

"The people of the Final Bronze Age in Iberia were capable of tempering steel. Otherwise they would not have been able to work the pillars," Araque Gonzalez said. And if they were doing it, who knows where else steel was being used well before the established timeline? ®

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