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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Smelting Iron with the Vikings

I recently had the opportunity to take part in a medieval-style iron smelt organized by Hurstwic, a locally based but internationally active group that reconstructs Viking Age culture. During the past year Hurstwic has been working to rediscover the Vikings’ techniques for extracting iron from iron ore. I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity for a hands-on experience of medieval ironworking. The techniques of smelting iron ore had a major impact on weapons and armor in the Middle Ages, and I have often spoken about ironsmelting in my work as a curator. But there’s nothing like hands-on to learn how something really works!

Jeffrey Forgeng (center) with Hurstwic members at the furnace.
It was a hot summer day, not the friendliest weather for tending an ironsmelting furnace. We all helped mix clay, sand, water and manure to build the furnace, and we took turns feeding iron ore and charcoal into the top of the furnace so that the flames could work their magic. Bit by bit, the heat converted the iron oxide into pure iron while melting out the silicates in the ore. There was a tense moment near the end of the smelt when the furnace cracked under the intense heat, but our expert Vikings patched it up quickly, and at the end of the day we were rewarded with a fine, workable mass of metallic iron.

Carefully adding ore and charcoal to the furnace.
I can guarantee I will never look at a medieval sword quite the same way again!

Have a look at the technology of Viking Age ironsmelting and learn more about Hurstwic.

--Jeffrey L. Forgeng
Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art

Don't miss our Arms and Armor Presentation "The Viking Age" on October 12th!

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