Sabre is oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe

Researches doing a routine examination of a sabre in the collection of the Yaroslavl Museum in the Russian city of Yaroslavl 160 miles northeast of Moscow have discovered that the blade is the oldest crucible steel weapon ever found in Eastern Europe. The bent and broken sabre was unearthed in 2007 in the shadow of the Dormition Cathedral in the historic center of Yaroslavl. Originally built in 1215, the cathedral suffered a great deal of damage during the Russian Revolution and was demolished by the Soviets in 1937. It was reconstructed starting in 2004 and completed in time to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city in 2010.

Dr. Asya Engovatova from the RAS Institute of Archaeology led an archaeological excavation of the area which in 2007 found a mass grave of defenders and civilians killed when Mongol invaders under Batu Khan sacked and burned Yaroslavl in 1238. The grave held the skeletal remains of men, women, children, common household goods and jewelry. The sabre, missing its hilt and fittings, was one of several weapons found in the mass grave. Swords from the 12th and 13th centuries are very rare finds in Russia, and most of the ones that have been unearthed were discovered in warrior graves in southern Russia. Finding one in the archaeological layers of a city is even greater a rarity.

In March of this year, the Yaroslavl Sabre underwent metallographic analysis at the RAS Institute of Archaeology to find out more about its composition and internal structure. The blade was examined under a scanning electron microscope and using X-ray microphotography.

The metallographic methods used in the analysis revealed that the sword was made from crucible steel. The technology used to produce steel of this kind was first perfected in India, in the 1[st century] A.D. Artifacts crafted from such steel later begin to turn up in Central Asia. European sword makers appear to have known nothing of this technology. The techniques for making crucible steel were later lost and European steel makers reinvented it only at the end of the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages and thereafter, crucible steel was very expensive. It produces bladed weapons more exactly than any other material, conferring a combination of great strength and the ability to maintain sharpness throughout the length of the blade.

The only native metal available for swords in early medieval Europe was bloomery iron which was made by heating iron ore and charcoal in a furnace. This created an end-product replete with slag inclusions and only occasionally absorbed enough carbon to form steel. Crucible steel was made by placing pieces of iron and charcoal in a crucible and heating it until they combined to form a steel ingot. The ingots were then forged into hard, sharp blades at low temperatures.

According to ancient weapons expert Alan Williams, the only European swords forged at least in part from crucible steel known from this period were made in Germany between the 8th and 9th centuries and inscribed “ULFBERHT” (or variants thereof) on the blade. About 100 ULFBERHT swords have been found, mainly in Scandinavia and along the Baltic coast. Only a handful of them have the high-steel content indicating Central Asian crucible steel may have been used in their forging, but the ULFBERHT smiths didn’t have the know-how to forge this material to its ideal strength.

The Yaroslavl Sabre, on the other hand, is made entirely of crucible steel by highly skilled smiths. It was likely made in one of the Central Asian steel production centers that had been conquered by the Mongols before they invaded Russia. It was almost certainly a Mongol weapon, and must have belonged to a very wealthy, high-ranking Mongol warrior. That might explain its ignominious fate. Analysis of the blade revealed micro-cracks with metal in them cause by long exposure to burning. It seems the blade was deliberately heated to a high temperature so it could be bent and then was thrown into the mass grave.

Bending the enemy’s expensive and lethal sword may have had a ritual purpose to it, although any hope that it might curse away the Mongol conquest would prove futile. Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and the ruler of the Golden Horde, the northwest section of the Mongol Empire, and his 35,000 mounted cavalry cut a deadly swath through the splintered Kievan Rus in the last month of 1237 and early months of 1238, razing almost every major city including Moscow, Vladimir, Rostov and Kiev. Only Novgorod and Pskov would be spared destruction.

The last organized resistance to the invasion was at the Battle of the Siti River on March 4th, 1238. The Russian forces were led by Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir, who had survived the levelling of his capital to raise an army. Fighting by his side were three of his nephews, one of whom was Prince Vsyevolod Konstantinovich, the first independent ruler of the Principality of Yaroslavl. The Russians were annhilated. Yuri and two of his nephews were killed on the battlefield. The third, Vasilko, Prince of Rostov, was taken prisoner and only lived long enough to call Mongol general Subutai “a dark kingdom of vileness” before Subutai had his throat slit. After that, all Russian states submitted to Mongol rule ushering in two centuries of Mongol domination of modern-day-Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

12 thoughts on “Sabre is oldest crucible steel weapon in Eastern Europe

  1. “a dark kingdom of vileness.” Love that; he was defiant and brave to the end!
    I must be rather ignorant; I always thought that iron and steel were completely separate metals, and never knew that one was made from the other.

  2. Yeah, good article, but are we talking about ‘damascus steel’ ? – Arguably, ‘steel’ is basically iron with essential additives that provide certain features, and with different additives really a wide subset of features can be achieved, i.e. there are hundreds of different steels available.

    There are unwanted additives that need to be avoided, or must be ‘processed away’. One option here is the ‘damascus’ method, even though I am not an expert. Quality, however, seems to be determined by things like ‘composition’, ‘purity’, ‘processing’ and ‘treatment’ (i.e. of goods).

    To give an example, I can hardly believe that there are no pattern-welded pre-13th century ‘Ancient Roman’, ‘Greek’, ‘Thracian’ -or whatever- goods/ weapons in Eastern Europe. Back then, maybe their steel compositions were just too good 😀

  3. There is a confusion to ‘damascus’.

    The way the Indians made the crucible steel resulted in high and low concentrations of carbon due to the lumps of charcoal and all ingredients not dissolving completely.

    So the smiths folded the metal often enough to get rid of those variations, and thus the ‘damascus’ pattern of the blades.

    The Japanese and Europeans had to fold their blades very often in order to beat out as much slag as possible. The heating/reheating reduced carbon content, therefore lower quality of cutting edge and less steel strength. That didn’t necessarily/usually produce a pattern.

    (Case hardening came along in there somewhere, must have been used to put carbon back in, but I haven’t looked at that.)

    Modern ‘damascus’ intentionally folds different kinds of metal to produce many different pattern, and that can be an advantage in strength/edge (but not much, I think), it is mostly for the beauty, uniqueness.

    Youtube has a ton of stuff discussing all this, including some real experts.

  4. Subutai looked indeed like some ‘dark prince of vileness’, kicking in your front door at any time, and possibly being difficult to negotiate with. They might have had their reasons to make him General 😮

  5. A bit of clarification regarding iron and steel. All steel is iron but not all iron is steel. The main characteristic of steel is the amount of carbon included in the metal. This gives it the ability to be hardened and tempered.

    When you quench high carbon steel and cool it quickly it becomes very hard but also brittle. That is a serious problem for a weapon that will have to survive heavy impacts. So, the hardened metal is gradually heated to a certain point depending on the eventual use. This is judged by oxidation colors. If you have ever seen colors caused by heat on a piece of steel (often seen when grinding a piece of metal) you have seen how the tempering process is controlled. Each color represents a specific temperature. A blue color is about where many weapons and springs are tempered to. This retains some of the hardness but retains a springy property.

    Pattern welded (“Damascus”) blades were manufactured in northern Europe in the early middle ages because steel was particularly rare. It was welded together with iron to add steel like qualities to the weapon without having to have a 100% steel blade. This also resulted in patterns when treated with an acid which could be used decoratively. Both ancient and modern pattern welding can produce some amazing patterns.

    Once steel became more available/cheaper pattern welded blades fell out of use an the weapons in the later middle ages were all steel.

  6. Just a note of something that I learned about a year ago when idly watching a documentary about the Ulfberht weapons:

    The ones that have the marking +ULFBERH+T are the real ones with the high-carbon/low-slag content. There are a number of weapons that have +ULFBERHT+ or other similar markings where the T is inside the crosses, and these have all been found to be medium-carbon/high-slag weapons, and so represent one of the earliest examples of brand name knock-off.

    …just in case someone wanted to make certain to accessorize with both a genuine Prada handbag and a genuine +ULFBERH+T sword. 😉 Keep the Foakleys and the +ULFBERHT+s off the battlefield.

  7. Mongols archived so much and killed a lot lol but at the end of the day they were very successful with their warfare techniques and brought many new profound ideas.Yaroslavl war with the mongols show the force and brutality of what mongols were really made of. “The grave held the skeletal remains of men, women, children, common household goods and jewelry.”

  8. So some clarification regarding iron and steel. All steel is iron but not all iron is steel. The main characteristic of steel is the amount of carbon included in the metal.This gives it the ability to be hardened and tempered with (so said my brilliant teacher).When you quench high carbon steel and cool it quickly it becomes very hard but also brittle. That is a serious problem for a weapon that will have to survive heavy impacts.

  9. Hi,
    Gotland is the probable importer of crucible steel and manufacturer of the high quality genuine Ulfberht swords. I interpret the sword’s inscription as follows:

    + = greek cross
    vl = sword master’s initials, possible founder of smithy
    f = fecit
    berh = smithy, St Bjerges, Vallstena, Gotland, Sweden
    + = greek cross
    t = hedonistic symbol, probably reprsenting the war god Tyr

    More “Viking” Period arabic silver coins have been found on Gotland than anywhere else in the world, including the Arab world. Gotlandic “varangians” had extensive trade relations with the Kalifate from at least 750 to 1055, when the Seldjuks closed down relations with the West. Gotland imported bars of crucible steel from Bagdad and/or Damascus. The Gotlanders also imported aspherically grinded, nearly perfect, crystal lenses, and probably also advanced navigational equipment, from the Kalifate.

    “VL FBERH” is the trade mark of the Gutland Government arms smithy at St. Bjerges, Vallstena, Gotland. This smithy may have been founded by the 6th century legendary finnish prince and master smith Valand. Valand may well have been be the smith behind the famous 6th century weaponry found at St. Bjerges, Gotland, Sweden, Vendel, Uppland, Sweden and Sutton Hoo, UK. Valand’s reknown as a smith was so great that a legendary saga was written about him (The Lay of Völund). Hence, the smithy’s initials were retained in St Bjerges’ exclusive trade mark”vl fberh” (Valand fecit Berg).

    From about 700 AD influential Gotlanders were Christianized from Constantinople (orthodox, hence the greek cross), and took active part in the Christianisation of Scandinavia on the side of the Karolingian Franks against primarily Denmark, Gotland’s primary contestant for power in Viking Period and Mideaval Scandinavia. Gotland was an independent nation until 1361, when it was brutally subdued by Denmark. The greek cross is later also found on Gotland’s national symbol (the lamb/weder, 13th century) and on its first coins (issued in 1142). Crucible ulfberht’s Gotlandic origin is also illustrated by the sparsity of crucible ulfberhts found in Denmark and Northern England (Northumbria, Danelaw). Genuine Ulfberhts are typically found only in Gotland’s sphere of influence, Norway, Sweden, Baltics, Finland, the trade rout to Constantinople through present day Russia and in Southern (anglo-saxon) England.

    On the reverse side of the genuine Ulfberhts are the different smiths’ insignia. I may have identified one consisting of two counterposed V:s placed on top of each other, as the family insignia of the Gotlandic van der Smede family (known from the 14th century). Van der Smede literary means “he who is from the smitty”. Van der Smede family members later became prominent Hanseatic leaders. Hence, it is likely that the van der Smede family were varangian trade network leaders already during the Viking Period.

    Few contemporaneous pictures are found of Ulfberht swords. However, the Gotlandic picture stones are littered with them. Probably, all Gotlandic elite warriors, so-called Wardjas (Watchmen), were equipped with crucible Ulfberhts. However, only exported Ulfberhts were given the costly trade mark. Crucible steel weapons have been found on two places on Gotland, one species in Fardheim (an axe) and one in St Bjerges (sword).

    Best regards

    Claes Wahl

  10. In your article, you mention that the last organized resistance to the Mongols was in 1238. Kiev defended itself in 1240, 2 years after you claim resistance for the most part ceased. Kiev was wiped from the face of the earth for its defiance.

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