He managed to overcome the hesitation of the funding organizations by arguing that swords are witnesses to the artistic handwork and technological development of their time. “Sword blades have always represented the high-point of iron and steel technology in every era.”
It turned out to be more difficult, however, to obtain swords to study. Archaeologists and restorers were unwilling to part with their treasures, for they believed that the kantei method would damage them. But Maeder managed to reassure them in this respect too. “When grinding and polishing using the Japanese technique less than half a millimeter of corroded material is removed from the surface,” he says. And he has yet another argument if favor of the kantei method. “There is surely no other archaeological artifact better suited to being reground than a sword blade!” He finally persuaded the National Archaeological Museum in Stuttgart to lend him three alemannic swords dating from the 6th to 8th centuries AD, which he took with him back to Japan.
New glitter on old blades
Maeder was thrilled by the texture and hardening of the alemannic swords. “The blades had a complex structure with the highest quality of handwork.” The swordsmiths of yesteryear had combined steels of different qualities in one blade, hardened to different intensities and the result was a real work of art.
A roman spatha from the 4th century AD provided Maeder with the greatest surprise. This sword, the oldest European item studied so far, is made of the finest refined iron, refined meaning that the slag, charcoal and gases have been removed from the iron. In making the sword the iron was folded to create a structure consisting of innumerable layers. The more refined the iron, the more layers it is possible to create. The sword expert’s analyses delivered an unexpected triumph. “Europe in early times was by no means backward in terms of the art of sword making,” say Maeder. “It is therefore not true that our swords were made of poorly refined iron. Without using the kantei polishing technique it was not possible to see that European swords were made with far more than just a dozen or so layers,” he adds. Exactly how many layers Japanese and European swords have is a question that Maeder wants to look into in collaboration with Empa.
Daniela Wenger, Analytical Chemistry, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Marianne Senn, Center for Cultural Property Analytics, Phone +41 44 823 4131, email@example.com