Iron

Iron figurine from 10 North Street, Cromford, Derbyshire

There are three main types of iron that should be considered: wrought, cast and steel. Wrought Iron has a melting point of 1535 degrees C so it comes out of the furnace solid and is worked solid. It is hammered into shape and forms a tough finished product. It is good for tools and swords. It has less than 0.3 per cent carbon content. Cast Iron comes out of the furnace molten and is poured into moulds to make its shape. It is brittle so it does not produce good tools or edged weapons. Often it is used for decorative objects. It has more than 2 per cent carbon. These two forms are dependent on the type of ore available, high-carbon ores will not make good wrought iron. Chinese ores, for example, are useful only for cast iron, which is why there is so much decorative Chinese ironwork. Steel is a combination of iron and the right amount of carbon – between 0.3 and 2 percent – which makes it particularly tough and flexible. It is capable of holding an edge and is therefore very useful for tools and weapons. It is, however, very difficult to manufacture and involves “cooking” the iron and carbon together for many hours at more than 1100 degrees C.

The “Three Age” history of the introduction of iron in Europe is unique and not reflected anywhere else in the world. In southern Africa, for example, there never was a Bronze Age and the first metal to be used was iron. In North America native copper was hammered into shapes but was never smelted. In Europe the Iron Age followed the Bronze Age but there was no distinct line between the two. Iron was merely an additional metal. It is difficult to form into complex shapes, unlike bronze, and it corrodes easily so it was not a suitable material for all uses. By the 2nd millennium BCE a few iron items were in circulation, such as pins and awls but around 1100 BCE the metal took off in a big way. It appeared throughout the near east, Europe and Britain almost simultaneously.

There are two sources of iron – meteoric iron that is extremely rare and can be identified by its high nickel content, and iron ores. It appears as oxides and sulphides; both are commonly available. Iron ore is rarely pure so there are almost always other constituents in any iron item. Unfortunately it is impossible to assign chemical “signatures” to European ores because they vary so much, so the inclusions are not useful for sourcing raw materials used in archaeological artefacts.

Thanks to Prof Elizabeth Slater, head of department at the University of Liverpool school of archaeology for clear lectures on artefacts and materials. J M Cronyn’s Elements of Archaeological Conservation has also been consulted.

Arbor Low

Arbor Low, Derbyshire is a prehistoric henge monument, that is, it consists of a circle of stones set inside a circular ditch with a bank enclosing the complete structure. It is unclear what henges were used for but it seems likely that whatever went on there was designed to be seen only by a few chosen people. The bank around the monument would have made it impossible to see activities within the stone circle from outside. Perhaps observers sat on the inner side of the bank, but it would still have been available to only a restricted few.

The site is a Neolithic one, built around 5,000 years ago from locally quarried limestone. Superimposed on it is a burial mound dating from the Bronze Age, which was excavated in the 19th century and found to contain two urn burials. The stones would orginally have been upright but they are all now fallen over. There are a number of entrances to the circle that show as gaps in the bank and there is some evidence that a processional way might once have led from the south because there is a linear earthwork close to the southern entrance. About 250 metres away on a horizon to the south west is another Bronze Age burial mound called Gib Hill. It too lies over an earlier monument, a Neolithic long barrow that probably pre-dates the circle.

Arbor Low stands on private land behind a farm at the top of a fairly steep hill. The view from the site is extremely dramatic as it is possible to see for a very long way. Whoever built the site must either have wanted the mound to be visible from a great distance or to be able to see anyone approaching it.

Búkolla and the Boy

(This tale was told by tour guide Hafsteinn during a coach trip round the Golden Circle in Iceland at Christmas 2004. A version of it can also be found in Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales by May and Hallberg Hallmundsson, first published 1987 by Iceland Review, Reykjavik)

Once upon a time, as all stories start, there was a peasant and his wife who lived on the Thingvellir plain. They were not very rich but they had a very strong and beautiful cow, whose name was Búkolla because that is a good name for cows in Iceland. Now Búkolla was their pride and joy. They also had a son but they did not love him so much.

One day Búkolla went missing and the peasant and his wife were beside themselves with worry. They said to the boy: “You had better go and find the cow and don’t come back until you do. If you cannot find her, don’t come back at all.”  They gave him some food and two pairs of shoes, because his own were made of fish skin and were not good for walking, and he set off across the plain to look for the cow.

He walked and walked and eventually became tired so he sat down on a rock to rest. He ate some food and he changed his shoes and then he shouted: “Búkolla, Búkolla! If you can hear me, please moo!” And far away in the very distance he heard the sound: “Moo!” of the precious Búkolla. So he walked towards the sound.

He walked and walked and again became tired so he sat down on a rock to rest. He ate some more food and changed his shoes and then he shouted: “Búkolla, Búkolla! If you can hear me, please moo!” And slightly closer he heard the sound: “Moo!” of the precious Búkolla. So he walked towards the sound.

He walked and walked and again became tired so he sat down again on a rock to rest. He ate some more food and changed his shoes again and then he shouted: “Búkolla, Búkolla! If you can hear me, please moo!” And this time, right under his feet, he heard the sound: “Moo!” of the precious Búkolla.  And he called out: “Búkolla, where are you?” and the cow replied, because this is a fairy tale and animals can talk in fairy tales: “I’m in a cave.”

So the boy searched and found the entrance to the cave and when he went in he immediately saw that it was the home of trolls. Búkolla was tied to the wall so the boy quickly undid the rope and led her outside but he had not gone far before he looked behind and saw two female trolls, a little one and a big one, following along.  He could see that the two trolls would soon catch them up so he said: “Búkolla, Búkolla. What shall we do?” And Búkolla said: “Pull a hair from my tail and place it on the ground.” This the boy did and Búkolla stood over the hair and said: “I cast this spell upon the hair that it should become a river so wide that only a bird of the air could cross it.” And immediately a huge, wide river appeared between the boy and the trolls.

The smaller troll was angry when she saw the river but the larger troll said: “Go back and fetch our father’s bull.” So the little one went and fetched the bull and the bigger one made it drink the river dry so that they could cross it.

The boy and Búkolla had not gone far again when he looked behind and saw the large troll and the small troll following along. He could see that the two trolls would soon catch them up so he said: “Búkolla, Búkolla. What shall we do?” And Búkolla said: “Pull a hair from my tail and place it on the ground.” This the boy did and Búkolla stood over the hair and said:  “I cast this spell upon the hair so that it should become a fire so hot that only a bird of the air could cross it.”  And immediately a hot line of fire appeared between the boy and the trolls.

The smaller troll was angry when she saw the fire but the larger troll said: “Go back and fetch our father’s bull.” So the little one went and fetched the bull and the bigger one made it piss on the fire so that it was put out and they could cross it.

The boy and Búkolla had not gone far again when he looked behind and saw the large troll and the small troll following along. He could see that the two trolls would soon catch them up so he said: “Búkolla, Búkolla. What shall we do?” And Búkolla said: “Pull a hair from my tail and place it on the ground.” This the boy did again and Búkolla stood over the hair and said:  “I cast this spell upon the hair so that it should become a mountain so high that only a bird of the air could cross it.”  And immediately a tall mountain appeared between the boy and the trolls.

The smaller troll was angry when she saw the mountain but the larger troll said: “Go back and fetch our father’s drill.” So the little one went and fetched the drill and the bigger one started to make a tunnel through the mountain and the two began to go through. But trolls are not very clever and they did not realise that the tunnel got narrower at the far end and the two soon became stuck. And when the sun came out it shone into the hole and turned the trolls to stone.  So there they are still today.

The boy and Búkolla got safely home where the peasant and his wife were delighted to see their cow. But they still didn’t care for the boy very much.

Eyam – the plague village

In 1665 a bolt of cloth was delivered from London to the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The cloth was damp, and it was infested with plague carrying fleas.

Within days residents were dying, and the village took the courageous decision to cut itself off from the rest of the world to prevent the disease from spreading.

By November the next year 260 of the villages had died – but no-one outside the village had contracted the plague.

Only one of the victim is buried in the churchyard – the vicar’s wife. The rest were buried around the village, in their gardens and away from the centre, in a bid to stop the disease from spreading.

The nursery rhyme Ring a Ring a Roses is believed to have been inspired by the plague. It describes the symptoms – red blisters and sneezing – and the posies of flowers that people carried to ward off the illness.  The perfume of flowers was believed to protect you from infection – just one of the strange ideas of the time.

Others included walnuts steeped in wine; barberries (fruit of the berberis) dried, powdered, then mixed with vinegar; or stripping the feathers from the tail of a pigeon and rubbing the bare skin on the red sores. The pigeon died in the process!