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Seax Question

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   The broken back seax has always been one of my favorite blades. It is in my opinion both brutal and elegant, aesthetically pleasing and perfectly functional. I have always wondered about the evolution of the design. Why that shape? Was the design influenced by the raw materials, the tools, the armour it was intended to be used against or some more mundane cutting chore? My google fu is not legendary but I have worded my searches many different ways and haven't come across a definitive answer. I have read dozens of academic papers and some of the speculation has been, 1) it was such a simple design to forge that it required no great skill and therefore many people could make a seax even if they weren't fully proficient smiths. I reject this idea personally because the grave finds from the period I'm interested in range from crude to exquisite. Clearly at least some of them were made by very talented smiths. 2) The long, slender point was designed to pop the rivets in chain mail. This one has more merit but I see it as a possible side effect of the design more than a driving force because any slender point would do the same, even if the point wasn't dropped as in the broken back design. 3) It was purely aesthetic, what was visually pleasing in a particular region. I don't have anything empirical to dispute this but it seems pretty weak to me.

   Experimental Archeology has examined my question in depth and the above mentioned reasons are the only ones I can find relative to the specific design. So my question is this... Has anyone here ever read or heard that the reason for the design of the Seax was "edge quenching"? The shape certainly lends itself to edge quenching as the full length of the cutting edge including the point can be hardened while leaving the spine soft. Assuming a laminated construction quenching a wrought iron spine may not have been an issue as only the higher carbon bit welded to the cutting edge would harden anyway. My idea may be entirely influenced by modern materials but I still wonder if anyone has any knowledge of historical evidence for edge quenching in the Viking or Saxon timeline.

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This question has been getting asked since someone decided to research the things. Seax being an old OLD English word meaning "knife." That general profile is as ancient as there are examples though the "Broken Back" seax seems to be larger with more dramatic drop in the spine, think chopper more so than slicer or sticker.

If you haven't seen me say this before here it is AGAIN. I'm not a bladesmith guy but since I took on Theo's collaboration Seax I've spent hours looking for pictures of artifacts and modern reproductions and read till my eyes reversed in my skull. The basic profile of the Seax is common from the Steps of Russia to N. Africa and even regional profiles follow the general shape. Straight edge with the spine taking a straight angled (drop?) to the point at some point in it's length. Most seaxs seem to be good utility sizes say 2"-6" blades though they appear to have been made: bush whacker,  hatchet, meat cleaver, weapon, heroic legendary weapon sizes.

The one Theo sent me would fit in the "long Seax" category, 12.25" blade with the last 4.5" angled to the point and 17" OA. 1.25" at it's widest. I'm thinking it looks a LOT like a almost short sword just right for slipping into the chinks in plate armor. 

I can't see an edge quench as being a very good treatment as it'd leave the tip without any resilience and fragile. The end angle tapers in thickness as well making it really thin for the last 1/2" - 3/4". 

I think the academic minds working the issue are trying too hard to find a "reason". With the general profile so prevalent there has to be one. Logic tells me it can't be cultural, too many wildly varying cultures were making the things for millennia, yeah there are bronze Seaxes so. . . Anyway, there has to be a reason that makes that THE  most economical shape maybe: less waste metal, less time and effort, less skill. ?

Frosty The Lucky.

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Personal, non-academic supposition: convergent evolution of many different smiths thinking, "Hey, this looks cool!"

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As most of the early warriors would not be wearing mail; so many "mail popping" short blades seams to be a bit of a stretch...

Your comment about edge quenching not being a factor as the body of the blade would be generally soft is spot on though; one of the methods of  catagorizing early knife blades is by how the high C section was added on, (butt weld, lap weld, insert weld, reverse insert weld, etc...)

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Thank You all for the replies. Frosty, I agree that the distal taper which produces the fine point would at least require further tempering if an edge quench were used. Because I love this simple geometric shape so much I want there to be some magical esoteric hidden meaning behind the design but it really may have been as simple as "that looks cool" or it was easy to make.

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I would speculate a combination of trial and error based on the available tools and materials of the day, coupled with aesthetics. 

It was a shape that held up well to daily use and abuse and was easy to make. 

If you look at other viking age finds such as clothing, tools, buildings, etc, they tend to be fairly simple in design using a little material as possible, and then decorated with carvings for aesthetics rather than time spent on a fancy form to begin with. 

Most of the everyday weapons would just be farm tools such as the axe (with the exception of the select rich and powerful few), so it was probably a design of a similar nature that worked as a general utility knife with a few iterations to also function as a weapon. 

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Possibly just a monkey see monkey do thing?  A generally known functional blade design passed down and on to others. Others encountered it liked it and copied it. 

 

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Reading National Geographic on the Vikings it appears they were travelling both farther and earlier than we had previously thought.

Another group that were widespread in Europe would be the celts.

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I read a short article on them (vikings) today that made an interesting point about their way of life, with the majority of the population living in remote farms, with settlements rarely exceeding 15 houses. 

As a result of this way of life, most households would do their own iron work rather than relying on a blacksmith.

Larger and more skilled items would be traded, but simple items would be done on the farm. 

There was a reference cited for this part, so I'll have to obtain a copy and do more reading on the topic. 

It would however support the simplicity and 'monkey see monkey do' approach a suggested above. 

Might also explain the whole small anvil approach if it's just for small easy to make items made from the bog iron taken from their land 

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I like this explanation. I've always suspected that the small anvil in addition to being an economical use of resources was also advantageous for its portability. A two pound hammer and a two to four pound anvil isn't out of line with what can be carried in a shoulder bag or sea chest. It has probably always been that way to some degree in rural areas. Every farmer wasn't a blacksmith in 19thc rural America but based on the numbers that survive it sure looks like most of them had an anvil and portable forge.

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Of course you have to smelt bog iron as it's an ore not a metal!  But that ties into the very interesting exception to the general rule that blacksmith would not smelt their own iron.  Cases are know where remote Norse farms would smelt and forge their own iron---which is maybe why they were able to do that in  Newfoundland!

When I got an early style anvil from Steve Parker at Quad-State on year I was walking back to my campsite with it calling it "my precious..." Jymm Hoffman ran over wanting to know where I had gotten it as it was spot on for what would have been used at the French and Indian War Fort he's forged at.  (Mine weighs around 25 pounds IIRC)

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Going off topic a bit here, but any thoughts on the evolution of tongs? 

Big stone as an anvil, another stone tied to a stick for a hammer, you've got an iron bloom heating up... How do you move and work it? Bone or antler? 

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bone or antler could be used to roll/wrangle a hot bloom onto a stone anvil but if I had to do it once the first thing I would make with my newly wrought iron would be tongs!

Thomas, one subject of interest turned up in my recent searches was the slag heaps in Iceland left by the early settlers. Based on the mounds of slag they left they were producing tonnage in the first hundred or so years of settlement.

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Well "Egyptian Metalworking and Tools" shows tongs in use in the 1400's  BC (Tomb of Vizier Rekhmire) more of a tweezer type than the ones we are familiar with.

As for smelting in Iceland:  I would bet that heavy iron was not a popular trade item when having to be shipped in open boats in the North Atlantic. (But iron tools and weapons would be needed.)

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I have no doubt that metalworking tongs are an ancient invention, it was more of a curiosity around who invented the first pair, and what was used to help hold hot metal to make the first pair. 

Not like you could pop into the local steel yard and get some round stock or a shape close to the desired dimensions 

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A couple of sticks work well enough in the abscence of a decent set of tongs, I suppose a set of cast bronze tongs could have been used but I've no eidence for such.

It seems that when folks ponder on the design of a blade such as the seax, they tend to look at it primaraly as a weapon. While this may be true of the more elaborate, expensive examples, the majority where everyday tools and therefore part at least of it's design would be dictaded by the tasks it was expected to undertake. skinning game and fish, butchering meat, whitling a spoon, cutting ones hair or shaving the beard, levering shelfish open, and the list goes on, but popping the rivets on chainmail would have been one of those things it rarely if ever was expected to do. What a dayly working tool like a knife does require is regular sharpening. Not by a skilled bladesmith but by the user, there is merit in a usefull point to a knife, if this is produced via a broken back, then the resulting reasonably straight cutting edge is a far simpler sharpening affair on what ever smooth stone was at hand. I know I find sharpening of upcurved knife tips more problematic than the main straight section.

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All good points Smoggy. I believe it was most likely a combination of more mundane factors that influenced the design. When an everyday object has such a long run and spread over such a large geographic area it makes me want to ponder the reasons behind its success no matter what they may be. The ease of sharpening the straight edge goes higher on the list than rivet popping in my estimation!

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note green sticks work MUCH better as tongs than anything bronze!  Copper alloys transmit heat too fast!

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Thomas I played around with whitetail antler handling small pieces of stock at forging temp this afternoon and it held up surprisingly well..I imagine reindeer antler would work fine to move a bloom a short distance onto a stone anvil in a situation where the "tongs/lifting hooks" wouldn't have to be in prolonged contact with the bloom once hammering started. Maybe just use them to roll or reposition the bloom as needed. However, if I had a nice big beefy pair of bronze tongs I would find a work around for warm reigns to avoid smelling the burnt antler!

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I don't recall ever finding a length of copper bar I could hold in my hand and still be able to forge the end that was in the fire...(OTOH my titanium tongs work well; I'm not saying it was Aliens but it was aliens...!) 

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The only bronze tools I've ever actually worked with were non sparking hammers, never any kind of hot work. I didn't know the heat transfer was that drastic. Now I wonder how they handled crucibles for bronze and copper before iron tongs were around.

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Wet green saplings, replacing as needed , shown on numerous Egyptian tomb wall paintings also stones or blocks of wood held in the hands according to "Egyptian Metalworking and Tools"

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I've used a split sapling as tongs around the camp fire. Split them almost to the end and use twine or wire to prevent the split running out and making two sticks. A small twig or stick in front of the wrapping makes them spring open so you don't have to use two hands. Green willow or alder works okay for a while, birch less so and aspen not so.

I'm really enjoying this thread, it's making me think about the whats and whys of the Seax profile. I'm thinking like most practical tools they're an example of "form following function."

Frosty The Lucky.

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Now we just need that fellow on youtube who has been building the mud huts and so on to catch up to the iron age, and perhaps we can get a working example of what works and what was easy to design using limited resources.

Shaping and sharpening a flattish blade design was probably easier to do on a grinding stone than a complex shape. As it blunted and wore down, the tip would be easy to keep pointy for whatever purpose it was designed for just by sharpening a straight line.

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Remember too folks that the rotary grind stone shows up at the end of the seax period so they were working with flat stones.

("Cathedral Forge and Waterwheel",  Gies & Gies)

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