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This meeting explored the various roles that metals have taken in warfare through the ages.

Metallurgy in warfare: A spur to innovation and development

HMS Annual Conference 2014

8th June

Organised by Tom Birch and Eddie Birch

The scope of this HMS autumn conference was to encompass the various roles that metals have taken in warfare through the ages. The main themes were: the development of metallurgy arising from military needs, the developments in military organisation arising from metallurgical innovation, and the developments in metal and metal artefact production arising from the urgencies of war. After an evening and a day of talks there were trips to two museums; the Museum of Army Flying and the Tank Museum at Bovington


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This year’s Annual Conference was held in the historic city of Salisbury. The theme was Metallurgy in Warfare, a fascinating topic but with an additional poignancy on this, the centenary year of the World War I. Metallurgy has always been at the vanguard of advances in warfare and this was aptly demonstrated by the extremely diverse topics on offer.

Friday evening started with a session on Ancient warfare and hand-to-hand combat. Andrea Dolfini’s “Bronze Age combat: An experimental approach,” possibly one of the most interesting sounding research topics out there, compared use-marks and damage recorded during simulated combat using traditionally made Bronze Age weapons, to archaeological examples. They matched bent swords from flat of the blade parrying to ancient weapons, and noted the surprising efficacy of beaten bronze shields.

Following the Bronze Age theme, Barry Molloy’s “Avant garde? A techno-social perspective on the birth of the sword in the Bronze Age” (read by Tom Birch) dealt with the development of sword technology highlighting the need for very highly skilled casting; single pours, and the need to reduce casting errors, particularly at the junction between blade and handle to stop breakage. Off topic, but brilliant none-the-less, “Två 1800-talsbruk,” a 1920’s film of a 19th century charcoal blast and refinery furnace in Sweden recording the process from ore to finished bar iron, loaned by the Swedish Archive Centre and commentary by Tim Smith. This film was a remarkable historical record encapsulating not only the metallurgical process but a long lost way of life. Of interested was the use of horse drawn sledges for charcoal alongside trains for the ore; hand charging the blast furnace; operation of a Lancashire hearth; water driven tilt hammers for billet and bar production; protective clothing of no more than a leather apron and wooden clogs. The final paper of the day, David Edge’s ‘Damascus’ watered steel: pretty lethal… or just pretty?’ discussed modern methods in the identification of damascus steels, detailed study of objects from the Wallace Collection showed that Damascus steel was used only for bits of the object that could be seen with little attempt to make use of its superior material properties.

Saturday morning began with a session on Firearms and Artillery, Chris McKay explained the process of gun casting in 18th century Woolwich, identifying little known techniques, as illustrated in “The Art of Gunfounding” by Carel de Beer. This was followed by Jean-Marie Welter “The Keller brothers; gun casters to Louis XIV” who commented on the many difficulties of producing cannons with reproducible compositions and microstructures despite the technological advancement in casting, this explained the relatively high failure rates in cannons. Kay Smith’s paper “Breaking the mould” discussed the drivers of cannon innovation; the change from casting breach up to muzzle up around the late 16th century in an aim to reduce casting defects and stop failure in the breach area during use; and how changes to gun powder production and cannonballs affected cannon design.

The second session, Technology, Organisation and Production began with a very interesting talk by Janice Li on “Metallurgy and China’s First Empire: Bronze weapons for the Qin Terracotta Army.” This paper used a combination of SEM for compositional and visual analysis, as well as metric analysis, to understand the production of the thousands of bronze objects used for the warriors, concluding that completed objects were made at individual workshops using standardised components and not by assembly line methods. Also recognised were hand and rotary polishing marks. A great example of how scientific methods can inform on past technologies and organisational choices. The second paper, “Persian crucible steel production: Chāhak tradition,” Rahil Alipour combined medieval manuscripts and compositional analysis of crucibles to investigate the processes of crucible steel production in medieval period Persia, sharing new insights into this important industry. This session ended with Tom Birch “Supplying the Havor lance: towards standardised war gear in Iron Age Scandinavia”.

The research centred around the astounding survival of thousands of iron weapons from lake depositions in southern Scandinavia, using metric and morphometric analysis of over 120 lances coupled with compositional analysis, a picture was presented of a highly standardised lance design with centrally controlled production that used iron from across Scandinavia.

Modern Warfare was the topic of the final session, beginning with Margaret Birch’s presentation of the WWI war work of Major General William Huskisson as the Assistant Inspector of Steel, Bombs and Mines division, giving an insight into the organisation of war production. The day ended with an enjoyable presentation by Eddie Birch, “Liberty Ships: winning the logistics war,” the design was based on the British designed Empire Ships; simple, versatile, modular and of a completely welded construction. While slow, they were quick to build, reliable and with 2700 built in 5 years, they made a significant contribution to the war effort, many of which continued to have long post-war lives owing to their versatility.

The conference ended with an enjoyable conference dinner at the Red Lion, and on the Sunday trips were organised to two local museums; the first was to The Museum of Army Flying which preserves a unique collection of military aviation history including historic fixed wing and rotary wing aircrafts. The second to the The Tank Museum at Bovington, the birth place of [tank warfare] in World War One, 6 halls exhibited an impressive collection of 300 vehicles which covered all major wars of the 20th century, including the first tank ever made, a feared German Tiger, and the modern Challenger 2.

Overall this was an informative and much enjoyed conference, with possibly one of the widest ranges of topics seen at a HMS conference, from Bronze Age swords and Iron Age lances, to cannons and WWII ships. This conference showed how archaeo-metallurgical techniques coupled with historical and archaeological approaches continue to enlighten us on past metallurgy, and how innovation in metal usage and production shaped the world we live in.

Written by Matt Phelps and Rahil Alipour for The Crucible 87
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