A traditional blacksmith works steel in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan iron smelting industry

Dr Gill Juleff

Dr Gill Juleff's Samanalawewa Archaeological Project began with field surveys and ethnographic surveys of traditional iron-working communities in a 10 x 10 km area of jungle and isolated villages that had not been explored (archaeologically) before. It progressed to a series of excavations that focussed on evidence for a first millennium AD iron smelting industry (represented by over 80 sites) that was based on unconventional wind-powered furnaces of unique design.

As there was no precedent for such a technology, the archaeological reconstruction was greeted with intense scepticism from the archaeo-metallurgical community and it took a series of successful experimental smelts in replica furnaces in 1994 to establish this as a new, aerodynamic, principle of smelting technology. Not only did the experiments demonstrate the furnace operation they also produced, in addition to the expected low-carbon 'bloomery' iron, high-carbon steel of a quality comparable with the steels used in early Islamic weaponry, notably famed 'Damascus' steel swords.

A summary of the project was published in the scientific journal Nature in 1996 and was widely reported in the international press, including the The Times, Die Zeit, Le Monde, New York Times, and Science journals - Discover rated it one of the top 100 scientific discoveries of 1996. The full results of the project were publish in book form in 1998 (<i>Early Iron and Steel in Sri Lanka</i>, KAVA (Kommission für Allgemeine und Vergleichende Archäologie) Philipp Von Zabern, Mainz).

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