I have seen the following claim a couple of times before (all in Russian popular science type sources). However, I was never able to find historical OR scientific/technology research directly backing the claims up.

The claim was that old time blacksmiths used specific flowers/plants in their work process that were, at the time, considered magic/ritual; but later on have proven to provide material benefit by introducing doping elements like tungsten/molybdenum into their iron.

I wasn't able to find any references, though tungsten specifically is highly unlikely to have been the case as it is not known to be contained in any biologicals except some rare bacteria. Molybdenum seems to have been doped in by Japanese sword-makers by means of Molybdenum-rich sand, based on some info on the Wiki.

Is there any research supporting or refuting such claims?


I'm not sure about magic/ritual uses, and I'm not sure anyone could answer the 'why' someone tried something (until, at least, the scientific method) but there is evidence for seemingly random - but evidently useful - ingredients in metal work.

For example, cupellation, a technique for refining silver used in Roman period through to the 17th Century CE included a hearth lined with bone ash, a porous material that would absorb the molten oxidised metals (eg. copper).

Sadly, it looks like rare materials such as molybdenum were not widely used (including Japan) until an industrial process for formation/extraction was developed in the 18th century. However, in the process of creating a carbon steel, ingredients such as graphite were used which could contain the material.

Until then, it was probably dumb luck to find that a material had a hardening (or other characteristic) quality - if these pioneering blacksmiths even knew what they were doing. Certainly the spirit of experimentation with processes and alloys had led from copper through tin, bronze, iron and steel.

In terms of the 17th century CE Japanese example, perhaps it would be better to look at the reasons for this possible experimentation, namely the poor iron deposits on the Japanese islands and the need to work this into harder metals.

American Iron and Steel Institute (1948) Steel Facts, Volumes 88-141

Söderberg, A (2011) Eyvind Skáldaspillir’s silver – refining and standards in pre-monetary economies in the light of finds from Sigtuna and Gotland

  • Oh, I definitely don't imply that it was NOT dumb luck if they discovered that some technique worked (without realizing that the reason for it working was doping). Question is, DID they or did they not have known techniques that (a) are known to have been used consistently and (b) can be explain as "this worked because it doped the metal with this microelement". – DVK Feb 17 '14 at 17:27

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