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Vikings' bleeding-edge tech came from Afghanistan

Bouncing-bomb boffins probe ancient weapons trade

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Boffins at the UK's famous National Physical Laboratory (NPL) - birthplace of the Dambusters' bouncing bomb and perhaps the internet - say they have used an electron microscope to analyse Viking swords. In a surprise twist, it turns out that the old-time Scandinavian pests, many of whom moved to England to become our ancestors, actually imported their best steel from Afghanistan.

"Sword making in Viking times was important work," says Dr Alan Williams, a top archaeometallurgist at the Wallace Collection, a London-based museum of objets d'art which has a massive array of old arms and armour.

"On their travels, the Vikings were keen to pick up any innovative new means of improving their sword-making, but until now we haven't known where they have sourced some of their materials. The results from NPL confirm for the first time that the material analysed was brought by the Vikings from the Middle East to the Baltic area – and thrown new light on an important trade route that was in use until the 11th Century."

It seems that tiny samples of metal from Viking swords obtained by the Wallace Collection were analysed using the NPL's scanning electron microscope. According to the NPL:

The results showed that the swords were made of imperfectly melted steel - consisting of a mixture of iron and carbonaceous materials heated together to give high-carbon steel. NPL's results match descriptions of ancient sword making in Herat (now in Afghanistan) described by ninth century Arab philosopher and writer Al-Kindi. This links to a known Viking trade route down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Iran ... until now it was not known that Vikings had brought crucible steel back to Scandinavia and integrated ancient Arab steelmaking methods with their own swordsmithing.

High-carbon crucible steel made for a particularly hard, sharp sword - quite literally bleeding edge technology around the turn of the first millennium. Back in those days, however, such steel was only available in the advanced civilisations of India and Central Asia. Ignorant barbarian northerners like the Vikings and the old-time Britons (at the time being mostly driven into Wales by the various ancestors of the modern English) couldn't aspire to make such advanced kit themselves. But they could and did import it, according to the Wallace Collection and the NPL.

Other handy bits of research by the boffins of the NPL have included early testing of Barnes Wallis' famous dambusting bouncing bomb during WWII, development of the first accurate atomic clock in 1955, and - it says here (pdf) - "development of packet switched networking", which "provided a much needed steer to the development of the US Arpanet, which would evolve into the internet we know today". ®

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