Finding the invisible smelt: using experimental archaeology to critically evaluate fieldwork methods applied to bloomery iron production remains

Abstract

Few critical evaluations of fieldwork methods applied to iron production and ironworking remains exist. This paper demonstrates how an experimental smelt can be a proxy for testing and evaluating methods used to detect, record and excavate a bloomery furnace and smithing hearth. In this investigation, a series of smelting and smithing experiments were recorded and compared to the results obtained from an archaeological analysis into their heavily disturbed remains (topographical survey, geophysical prospection, magnetic survey collection and excavation). Non-invasive techniques confirmed the presence of pyrotechnology. Invasive methods, however, highlighted the importance of examining micro-residues in providing a greater insight into the metallurgical activities that had taken place. The methods used and the results of the experiment are assessed in comparison to known archaeological examples from a Roman iron smelting complex in Hüttenberg (Austria) to demonstrate how a proxy can be effective in better understanding archaeological remains. Some of the broader issues relating to fieldwork methods and guidelines are also discussed.

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Acknowledgments

Many thanks are due to Horst Peter Polzer and Gerhild Polzer Musenbichler for their enthusiastic support, as well as providing the land, facilities and materials necessary for conducting the experimental smelting. We would like to thank friends from the local museum society Keltisches Noreia (based in the nearby village Noreia) for supplying the automated blowing machine, and to the project team members who participated in the experimental archaeology and archaeological fieldwork. Thanks also to the Austrian Science Fund for financing the interdisciplinary project on Ferrum Noricum (projects P20641-G02 and P20688-N19) in the course of which the experimental smelts and subseqent experimental fieldwork have been carried out. Thanks is also due to the wider archaeometallurgy community, where conversations and responses from many individuals has helped form the basis of this paper.

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Correspondence to Thomas Birch.

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Birch, T., Scholger, R., Walach, G. et al. Finding the invisible smelt: using experimental archaeology to critically evaluate fieldwork methods applied to bloomery iron production remains. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 7, 73–87 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-013-0141-8

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Keywords

  • Experimental archaeology
  • Archaeometallurgy
  • Archaeological methods
  • Geomagnetic prospection
  • Magnetic susceptibility
  • Micro-archaeology
  • Iron production
  • Ironworking
  • Furnace
  • Hearth