Splendours of the Subcontinent: Sword

The latest blog in this series linked to the forthcoming Splendours of the Subcontinent exhibition has been written by Simon Metcalf, who is the Queen’s Armourer with the Royal Collection Trust. He writes:

The craftsmanship and technology used to produce the steel of the weapons in Splendours of the Subcontinent can be examined for both its artistic beauty and the skill of its production. Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon and when heat treated it can be made much harder and tougher than iron. Craftsmen of the past may not have had the advantage of modern science, but by trial, observation and skill they were able to develop sophisticated methods for making steel.

Watered Crucible Steel sword presented to the Prince of Wales Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

The steel technology developed in the Indian subcontinent from about the fifth century A.D is remarkable.Steel was produced with a  high carbon content of around 1.2% – 1.8 % , much higher than European swordsmiths achieved until the around the18th century.

The steel was produced in crucibles where iron ore, with traces of other elements, were melted with carbon rich materials like leaves. After careful cooling, the ingots were skilfully forged into swords and armour. A bi-product of the process was the formation of unusually large crystals of steel called cementite. Bladesmiths learnt how to acid etch the surface of blades to reveal these crystals in beautiful patterns which produced effects like rippling water or silk. Often called ‘Damascus steel’, named after the  city where it was traded, watered crucible steel became famous for its sharpness and beauty. The patterns on the blade made it easier for customers to see what the quality of the blade was. A talwar (sword) presented to the Prince of Wales by Mangal Singh, Maharaja of Alwar, is one of the many examples of this type of steel which will be on display in Splendours of the Subcontinent.

Detail of hilt Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
Inlaid into the blade ‘In the service of Albert Edward Prince of Wales’ Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
‘Muhammad Ibrahim’ inlaid into the blade in gold Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

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