The invasion of AD 43 began the Romans’ settlement of Britain. The Romans brought with them a level of expertise that raised iron production in Britain from small localised sites to an enormous industry. Rome thrived on war and iron was vital to the Roman military establishment as well as to the civil population. In this pioneering work, David Sim combines current ideas of iron-making in Roman times with experimental archaeology.

The Roman Iron Industry in Britain stretches far beyond dry theory and metallurgy alone; it covers all the stages of this essential process, from prospecting to distribution, and describes the whole cycle of iron production. Photographs and line drawings illustrate the text well enough to allow keen readers to reproduce the artefacts for themselves. Fascinating to the general reader and all those with an interest in Roman history, this book is invaluable to students of archaeology and professional archaeologists alike. Dr David Sim is an archaeologist who has combined studies of the technology of the Roman Empire with his skills as a blacksmith.

 

The Roman Iron Industry in Britain

 

Dr David Sim is an archaeologist who has combined studies of the technology of the Roman Empire with his skills as a blacksmith to provide an interesting and insightful study of ancient iron production and is invaluable to students of archaeology and professional archaeologists alike.

It is arguable that Rome's success was largely due to its unparalleled expertise with iron which enabled the production of all manner of domestic, utilitarian and military artefacts. This detailed study of the iron industry, focusing primarily on Britain, uses both archaeological evidence and experimental work to highlight the enormous investment of time, labour and skill required in the production process. Sim outlines the various stages in the production process from prospecting and mining, to the preparation of the ore, fuel, smelting, and the production of artefacts, looking especially at those associated with the military: shield bosses, swords, arrows, chain mail, nails and so forth.

The book is divided into eight chapters, which do not simply follow a logical order of stages of production followed by how individual objects were made, but instead break up the narrative by adding historical information and types of objects produced. I find this to be an excellent way of keeping the reader interested, as the information is a little dry.

The first chapter provides an overview of the Roman iron industry in general, showing its value and importance in the ancient world, and is surprisingly interesting and insightful. Even after years of studying this period I had no idea just how important iron was.

The second chapter relates to the most important raw material necessary for the blacksmith- charcoal. It tells us about places and methods of charcoal production, discusses evidence for its manufacture, and explains its relevance for the iron industry.

The third chapter is on smelting, or turning the raw iron ore into a useful material.

The fourth chapter breaks up the monotony by looking at the blacksmith himself, his role and importance in society and his life.

With the next chapter we return to the technical aspects of bloomsmithing and barsmithing, creating and working billets of iron to make them ready to produce the finished products.

The following chapter moves onto artefact production, and is by far the longest section of the book, explaining the production of a wide variety of military and every day products.

The seventh chapter describes the uses and production of steel, which while very interesting is a little more based on the authors opinion, so needs to be considered carefully.

The final chapter discusses mechanical processing, specifically milling and uses of water power. This is an extremely interesting section as it brings together a lot of recent research into Roman water mills and mechanisms.

This is particularly useful as a sourcebook or a point for further research as it gives a different perspective to most archaeology books as it is based more on experimental archaeology, allowing us to understand production in a new way. The appendix gives a list of iron artifacts in British museums, thus providing excellent assistance for finding further information.

The book is excellently illustrated, with images, charts, schematics and colour prints to provide greater explanations and clarity with the actual processes of forging and artefact production, and allows a much greater understanding for the non-blacksmiths among us, and also makes it possible for the objects described to be reproduced. His explanations are very clear and easy to follow, and I feel I learnt a lot from this book.

As the authors experience has been with Roman Britain he keeps this as the focus , but the majority of the information could be applied to any part of the empire, so one should not be put off by thinking it is only relevant to England, while conversely if one is only interested in Britain it may be a little disappointing.

My only criticism with this book is that by looking at how things can and could have been made the author shows possible ways the Romans may have created other objects, however, he does not seem to realise that just because something was possible to the ancients does not mean they did it, consider all the historical changes that were provided by just making small modifications that appear obvious with hindsight, for example gunpowder was around for centuries before people turned it into a weapon.

 

Book: The Roman Iron Industry in Britain

Author: David Sim

Review by Joe Medhurst