Mills of the last millennium

(forget about this one for a while)

According to Domesday Book there were already a baker's dozen water mills on the Wandle (or Hlidaburne to use its contem-porary name) at the close of the Old English period. Other water mills are also recorded from before the Norman Conquest, and one of them, at Tamworth, has been ruffling a few feathers on the internet recently.

The issue has been one of technology. The structure of the mill mechanism at Tamworth is, naturally, made mainly from wood. The archaeological report, however, makes mention of a steel shoe fitted to the wood where a vertical shaft met a horizontal one.

But, respond sceptics, could Anglo-Saxons make steel? Would they not be more likely to use hardened wood instead? Well, steel is basically an alloy of iron with relatively small amounts of carbon. The early English could make other alloys, such as bronze, so why not steel?

Besides, it's known that they did make steel - small quantities of the alloy have been found on the edges of iron swords, for instance. That they made steel is certain, even if they may not have deliberately set out to do so.

Sceptics: Ah, but even iron could only be made in small quantities, tiny nuggets, or nail-thin cylinders.

True, but iron could be beaten into larger volume pieces or sand-moulded into a cup to hold the foot of a wooden post. Maybe the iron could be encased in a thin skin of steel.

There are no details of Anglo-Saxon anvils (though it's known they existed). What were they made of if iron was only available in small volumes?

Sceptics: How about stone? There's evidence that was used for anvils.

Well, yes, there is. But, although there are no details of Old English metal anvils, contemporary Norse smiths are known to have used them - fairly small cubes of metal which could be packed up and carried away when the itinerant smith moved on.

Sceptics: And even if the Old English could make decent sized chunks of steel, wouldn't they have used it for expensive, up-market products like swords or helmets, rather than humble mills?

But you're forgetting one thing.

Sceptics: What?

The archaeologists analysed what they found and they found steel.

Which is roughly where the matter stands at the moment.

Now, I'm no metallurgist. I know who I think is winning the argument, but I can't be sure I'm right.

Perhaps there's someone out there with specialist knowledge who can throw light on the subject?

Stephen Ashcroft.

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