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Pioneering Metallurgy: the origins of iron and steel making in the Southern Indian subcontinent

The early development of ferrous metallurgy, in particular high-carbon steel technologies, in South Asia is recognised as a significant milestone in the global history of science and technology. This is epitomised by popular and often romantic histories surrounding wootz or crucible steel, the raw material of edged weapons across Asia and the Islamic world. In many ways crucible steel is the holy grail of pre-modern ferrous metallurgy. Not only has it given us the legends of the swords of Damascus and the realities of weapons-grade carbon steel as one of the elements of proselytising Early Islam, but it also fed the acquisitive gathering of technological knowledge from newly conquered colonies by western scientists, industrialists and entrepreneurs. Michael Faraday, David Mushet and Henry Wilkinson are among those who recognised the nature of this material and sought to recreate it in Europe at the opening of the Industrial Revolution. In more recent history, analysing the microstructural properties of crucible steel was a driving force in the development of the field of metallography. And yet more recently, the identification of carbon nanotubes as the potential explanation for the properties and watered appearance of crucible steels has aroused new scientific interest.

However, despite early-modern scientific interest, for much of the 20th century the subject area has been largely addressed from an historical rather than archaeological perspective. The UKIERI-funded project, Pioneering Metallurgy: the origins of steel-making in southern Indian sub-continent, lead by Dr Gill Juleff with colleagues in Bangalore, India, Dr Sharada Srinivasan and Prof S. Ranganathan of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, hope to redress this imbalance through the specific study of the archaeological record of a region of northern Andhra Pradesh.

In 2010 the project conducted a six-week field survey to examine a remote landscape once known for its extensive iron and steel industry. Based in the small town of Dharmapuri on the banks of the Godaveri river, a team of 12 UK and Indian students and researchers located and recorded sites in the districts of Karimnagar, Adilabad, Warangal and Nizamabad. Around 250 locations were recorded and subsequent analysis of the data and the large body of technological debris (primarily slag) collected in the field has led to the creation of a database of sites integrated with GIS-based landscape evidence. In November 2011 the project hosted an international dissemination seminar in Bangalore at which it presented its Pioneering Metallurgy Interim Report describing the work and progress of the research.

The project has also helped to create new links between The University of Exeter and the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) which has led to initiatives such as the 2012 Royal Society India-UK Scientific Seminar in Indian iron and steel – developing interdisciplinary applications in archaeometallurgy and geospatial archaeology