Wootz steel was amongst the finest in the world. It is the metal that was used to fashion weapons such as the famous Damascus blades of the Middle Ages. However, Wootz steel dates back much further than the Medieval period. The technology originated in ancient India millennia before many other cultures ever found out about it.
This is a type of crucible steel, i.e. a type of steel produced by melting the raw materials in a crucible. Due to its high quality, Wootz steel was traded all over the ancient and Medieval world, including Europe, the Middle East, and China. The qualities of Wootz steel were well-suited to making weapons.
It has been claimed that ‘Wootz’ is in fact a corruption of ‘ukku’, the word for steel in many South Indian languages. This word only entered the English language towards the end of the 18th century, when Europeans first began learning about the way this steel was produced. It is known that by then the Indians were already producing Wootz steel for over two millennia.
Whilst it is unclear as to when exactly Wootz steel was first produced in India, the earliest known literary reference to steel produced by the ancient Indians can be found in the records of Alexander the Great’s campaign there. This campaign took place towards the end of the 4th century BC, and the Greek ruler is reported to have been presented with 100 talents of Indian steel. There is also archaeological evidence for the production of steel in ancient India. This is evident, for instance, in the site of Kodumanal, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Archaeologists discovered an iron and steel industrial center dated to the Chera Dynasty (established round the 3rd century BC) at that site.
A sword maker of Damascus, Syria. Circa 1900. ( Public Domain )
The technique for producing Wootz steel was a closely guarded secret amongst the metallurgists of India for a very long time. Thus, the Indians had monopoly over the production and export of this highly-desired metal. The steel produced in India was exported in the form of ingots and reached such places as the Roman world in the west and China in the East.
‘Forging of Damascus Steel in Solingen.’ (NearEMPTiness/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
It is believed that during the Medieval period, Wootz steel was exported to the Middle East, where it was fashioned into the famed Damascus blades. Thanks to the Crusaders, who encountered Muslim warriors wielding this high-quality blade, the fame of the Damascus blade spread to Europe as well.
At that point of time, nothing produced in Europe could match the quality of India’s Wootz steel, and India continued to be the leading nation for steel production in the following centuries. During the late 17th century, for example, Wootz steel was being produced at almost an industrial scale, as tens of thousands of steel ingots were being shipped from the Coromandel Coast to Persia.
A modern Damascus sword by Nylund Knives, Finland. (Sami Länsipaltta/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
It was only around the beginning of the 19th century that Europeans finally gained some idea as to how Wootz steel was being produced. European travelers to India, such as Francis Buchanan, Benjamin Heyne, and Henry Wesley Volsey, recorded in their accounts that the Indians were producing Wootz steel using a crucible process.
The crucible process is one of the three main types of iron manufacture used during the pre-modern period, the other two being the bloomery and the blast furnace. The crucible process involves the placement of an iron source, such as bloomery iron or wrought iron, and carbon-rich materials, such as wood chips, into a clay crucible.
Damascus steel sword blade. (albertstraub/ CC BY 2.0 )
This vessel is then closed and heated over a period of several days at a temperature of between 1300 °C and 1400 °C. As a result of this, the carbon is absorbed by the iron, lowering its melting point, and causing it to liquefy. This addition of carbon to iron (which is between 1% and 2%) also imparts certain qualities, such as high ductility, high impact strength, and reduced brittleness, to the new product. Needless to say, these are desirable qualities for the making of blades. After a slow cooling process, the Wootz cakes were ready to be exported, and to be fashioned into blades.
It was only during the 20th century, after decades of experimentation, that the science behind the production of Wootz steel was understood. Indeed, it may be said that the metallurgists of ancient India were, technologically speaking, way ahead of their time.