"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
May 3, 2013
Steel and the Book of Mormon: A Few Thoughts
by Jeff Lindsay

I've had a number of people complain about the steel sword that Laban had in 600 B.C., allegedly long before steel would be invented. It's a topic I address in my LDSFAQ page on metals and the Book of Mormon. In exploring this topic, I found one more interesting tidbit in a scholarly book on ancient iron and steel.

At Google Books, you can preview Iron and Steel in Ancient Times by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald (Volume 29 of Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2005) to find interesting information on ancient steel. For example, on page 72, I found this:

In the Homerian epic the Odyssey we have an exceptional hint at the blacksmith's cunning treatment of steel, when Odysseus with his men blinded the one-eyed Cyclops Polythemus. "And as when a smith dips a great adze in cold water amid loud hissing to temper it--for therefrom comes the strength of iron--even so did his eye hiss round the stake of olive-wood" (Odyssey, 9. song: 391. translated by A.T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library).
The archaic period described in the Odyssean narrative is difficult to fit in time, since the Odyssey is a conglomerate of tales, first edited and issues as a total of 24 songs in the 4th century B.C. However, the general scarcity of iron and the common references to weapons of bronze point to the 8th or 7th centuries. No doubt, quench-hardening of steel as described in the epic had been well known for centuries before the poem was conceived. Hardening was, however, restricted to tools, particularly to knives, files, and chisels, only occasionally including a dagger, a sword or an axe.

Thus, the ancient book, The Odyssey, apparently refers to steel manufacturing that was known in the Mediterranean region well before the time of Lehi. Hardened steel was not common, though, and was used for only a few objects, including an occasional sword. A steel sword in Jerusalem in Nephi's day may indeed have been rare, but known, and thus it is entirely plausible for the Book of Mormon to mention a sword of a significant and wealthy military leader that was made of "the most precious steel" (1 Nephi 4:9). Not the whole sword, but the blade, where hard steel would be especially desirable.

I also recently read "The Heart of Steel: A Metallurgical Interpretation of Iron In Homer" (PDF file) by Ruth Russo of Whitman College. She gets into the details of the different forms of ironand apparently steel mentioned by Homer. This is a beautifully written scholarly examination of some intriguing details in Homer that illustrates the importance of steel in the ancient world, and points to the plausibility of a precious steel sword in Laban's day. Read the whole thing, please, but here is an interesting excerpt:

Steel
These iron treasures are so valuable that it is possible they depict not wrought iron, but carburized iron. In the case of the grizzled, gray objects, it seems unlikely, for another type of iron appears in the Homeric texts: aithôn sidêros--the gleaming or shining iron more resembling flashing steel. Athena adopts the guise of a sailor trading copper for "gleaming iron" (Od. 1:182). In the Iliad, Telemonian Ajax cuts down Simoisius with shining iron (4:485). "Gleaming iron" is brought to a feast, along with bronze, cattle, and slaves (7:472). Finally, Hector vows to fight Achilles, even if Achilles' rage be "burnished iron" (20:371). Aithôn sidêros has the appearance of steel and could be what is referred to by the formula "polukmêtos te sidêros" (hard wrought iron), since steel, while toilsome to produce, makes a far superior weapon than simple wrought iron. Archaeological evidence indicates that the advent of consistent, deliberate steeling of iron occurred by 1000 B.C.E., and that production of carburized iron objects increased rapidly after 900 B.C.E. (22). Thus it is likely that audiences hearing the Homeric poems at any time after the 9th C B.C.E. would be able to distinguish the three principal types of iron as well as, or better than, modern readers (23)....

Archaeological sites in the Mediterranean show evidence of centuries of experimentation with iron during the era of merging of the Homeric texts, resulting eventually in a "broadly based iron economy" (30) with highly skilled artisans. The high regard given to such artisans is implied in two Homeric scenes in which royal or divine metal workers bring the tools of ironworking to fashion precious metals (7). In Odyssey 3:432-435, Nestor's goldsmith assembles hammer, anvil, and tongs to gild the horns of a sacrificial ox, when simply wrapping the horns with gold leaf would do. In Iliad 18:468-477, Hephaestus fashions Achilles' arms and armor out of gold, bronze, and tin, using impressive but superfluous ironworking tools. If the association of ironworking with royal sacrifice and divine artistry is intentional, the honor given to ironworking in these passages is due to recognition of the exceedingly useful nature of steel, the wondrous technology of its production, or both. Certainly, the association of ironworking with religious ritual is not confined to the Homeric poems. The location of 10th C B.C.E. iron artifacts from Taanach, in Palestine, suggests that smithing or repair of iron objects had a sacred dimension (12), resulting perhaps from some mystical understanding of the metal or from the simple desire of those in power to control a lucrative product.

The ancients in Nephi's day had the ability to carburize iron, but that does not mean that iron or steel was commonly available. The steel of Laban's sword was "most precious," clearly not a commodity item. In fact, subsequent appearances of iron in the Book of Mormon rate it with precious metals and riches rather than treating it as an ordinary material, as if metallurgical skills were largely lost in Nephite culture sometime after Nephi's era.

Indeed, the mystical and sacred aspects of iron working and steel, discussed by Ruth Russo in more detail in her article cited above, and its rare and precious nature in Nephi's day, are consistent with the sword of Laban being a sacred artifact and with the precious nature of iron in the Book of Mormon. It seems that this would not be something Joseph Smith would have derived from his environment in the 1800s.

Another excellent work on the history of iron and steel in ancient times comes from Cleyton Cramer in the essay, "What Caused The Iron Age?." He reviews the precious nature of iron during the Bronze Age and shows that it was used largely for precious ornamentation, including ceremonial tools and weapons, before the rise of the Iron Age, and later became more utilitarian while bronze still dominated. Here is one excerpt:

The development of steel, of course, made iron production essential. Indeed, 1200 BC is a commonly accepted date not only for the start of the Iron Age, but also for the discovery of carburization of iron. While the location of this discovery remains uncertain, it appears that in the Hittite kingdom, a blacksmith discovered how to make steel by heating iron in contact with carbon. But the production of steel was probably quite random at first. Throughout the eastern Mediterranean area in the first two centuries of the Iron Age, iron weapons appear alongside bronze weapons, with no evidence that iron provided any military advantage over bronze weapons.

Cramer interprets evidence from archaeological finds to point to a copper shortage as the driving force that led to the iron age and the need for further development of steel as a metal equivalent or superior to bronze for utilitarian purposes. But there should be no question that carburized iron or steel, perhaps accidentally discovered, not well understood, and thus particularly valuable when it turned out well, was known in Laban's day and was used in precious artifacts such as ceremonial weapons.

Incidentally, a photo of a gold-hilted sword with a blade made of meteoric iron is available in Volume 3 of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under the article, "Sword of Laban." The sword comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who died in 1325 B.C., over 700 years before Nephi saw the sword of Laban. For more information on the ancient use of iron and steel prior to Nephi's time, see Oleg D. Sherby and Jeffrey Wadsworth, "Damascus Steels," Scientific American 252 (February 1985): 112-20; J. P. Lepre, The Egyptian Pyramids: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990), 245; Immanuel Velikovsky, Ramses II and His Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 222-37.

Another useful paper on ancient steel is "Steel in Ancient Greece and Rome" by E.A. Ginzel, 1995. Ginzel argues that early forms of steel were known and made by the ancients, though not well understood.

While most ancient works of iron or steel are not likely to survive because of corrosion, one recent well-preserved find of an ancient iron sword from the Middle East is reported by Avraham Eitan, "BAR Interviews Avraham Eitan: Antiquities Director Confronts Problems and Controversies," interview by Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 (1986): 30-38, as discussed in the new book, Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999. A large iron sword, three feet long and about three inches wide was excavated at Vered Jericho (a place near Jericho in Israel). It has a bronze haft with a wooden grip. The strata from which the sword was excavated dates to the late seventh century BC. This sword is unlike the shorter daggers that are normally depicted in art from this part of the world. It provides evidence that iron (steel?) swords of large size were known in Nephi's day. (See also William J. Adams Jr., Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1993, pp. 194-195.)
Ancient iron often had carbon levels around 0.05% to 1%, especially when it was in contact with charcoal during manufacturing. That is consistent with typical definitions of carbon steel (an iron-carbon alloy with about 0.05 to 2% carbon), so it may be appropriate to call such iron "steel"--especially if it has been carburized or otherwise treated to increase its strength. But iron or low-carbon steel rusts easily and is rarely preserved for archeologists to find. And for a long time, it was known but rare or precious, and thus unlikely to be left lying around for easy discovery centuries later. This contributes to the many gaps in our understanding of metals in the ancient world. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence now of steel making before Laban's time that his ownership of a sword with a blade of "the most precious steel" should no longer be a sticking point for those exploring the Book of Mormon. In light of what we know now, it's a subtle statement of great plausibility--the kind of thing that now has to be discounted as just a lucky guess.

The reference to steel "smelted" from a hill by the very ancient Jaredites in the Book of Mormon is probably a reference to meteoric iron, which was known and prized by the Olmecs in the Americas. Meteoric iron is an alloy typically high in nickel content that some experts classify as "steel." Iron elsewhere in the Book of Mormon appears to be a precious metal whose knowledge presumably was brought to the Americas by the early Nephites but became a lost technology--something that happens far more frequently in history than you might think. We would be glad to encounter Mesoamerican finds of iron artifacts someday, but since they were rare and since Mesoamerica has the kind of climate where precious ancient iron wouldn't last long, the chances of such a find cannot be high if, in fact, the Book of Mormon describes real people and real events on a small part of this continent.

Regarding the possibility that meteoric iron alloys could be properly called steel, Robert J. Forbes in Metallurgy in Antiquity: A Notebook for Archaeologists and Technologists (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1950, p. 402, as cited by John L. Sorenson, "A New Evaluation of the Smithsonian Institution 'Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon,'" FARMS Paper SOR-93, Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1993, p. 17) lists it as "a type of steel" and its presence in Mesoamerica is well known (3 references given by Sorenson, 1993, p. 18). I verified this at the Georgia Tech library, where I found the Handbook of Iron Meteorites(2 vols.) by Dr. Vagn F. Buchwald, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975. Nickel-iron alloys appear very common in meteorites. Further, I found several examples of meteoric metals that the author compared to man-made steel listed in Volume 2, including haxonite from Canyon Diablo in Arizona (p. 393), a face-centered cubic carbide related to tool steels and stainless steels; kamacite from Tucson, with similarities to hypo-eutectoid steels (p. 1243); and metal from the Kamkas mass (South Africa, I believe) whose structure "is reminiscent of commercial ferritic stainless steel" (p. 1387).

A mechanical engineering dictionary offers this information on "nickel steel":

NICKEL STEEL. Steel containing nickel as the predominant alloying element. The first nickel steel produced in the United States was made in 1890 by adding 3% nickel in a Bessemer converter. The first nickel-steel armor plate, with 3.5% nickel, was known as Harveyized steel. Small amounts of nickel steel, however, had been used since ancient times, coming from meteoric iron. The nickel iron of meteorites, known in mineralogy as taenite, contains about 26% nickel.

Nickel added to carbon steel increases the strength, elastic limit, hardness, and toughness. It narrows the hardening range but lowers the critical range of steel, reducing danger of warpage and cracking, and balances the intensive deep-hardening effect of chromium. The nickel steels are also of finer structure than ordinary steels, and the nickel retards grain growth. When the percentage of nickel is high, the steel is very resistant to corrosion.

The point is that at least some meteoric metals can be called steel with technical accuracy, and could certainly be called steel by ancient peoples or modern translators, who might easily call a broad range of iron alloys "steel." Though speculative, I suggest that it may be one of several reasons not to abandon the Book of Mormon over apparent problems involving mentions of metals in Book of Mormon times.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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