Ancient Celtic Clans

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Times Union - April 26th, 2004

By BRUCE A. SCRUTON, Staff writer

First published: Monday, April 26, 2004

While Viking and Celt blacksmiths may have met in their time, it's for sure they didn't set up forges side by side on the banks of the Mohawk River.

Yet for a while Sunday, a Celtic forge was heating up iron right next to a glowing, rock-lined heap of charcoal kept burning by a Viking bellows. Just a few yards away came the high-pitched clang of hammer striking hot iron held to a large anvil.

The event was a gathering of members of the Capital District Blacksmiths' Association at the centuries-old Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction. While Dan Crowther hammered out a pin that will hold a Celtic cloak together, Dale Wood and Richard Simpson were working on a small Viking knife blade modern chefs would call "utilitarian."

The Viking camp was created by Wolves of Wodan Smithy, members of the CDBA who are interested in Norse culture. For the Celtic side, the Clans of Dagon[sic], did the setup. Actually, Crowther's wife, Sarah Ritchie-Crowther, owns Oak and Acorn Ancient Metal Crafts in Valley Falls. She also is president of CDBA.

At first glance, the two setups looked remarkably alike -- a small charcoal-fueled fire was superheated with twined bellows while the hot iron was hammered out on metal held on small logs. The bellows are in pairs -- one pushes air while the other draws it in. And that's not to mention it builds shoulder muscles on the young man, who sways as he alternates pushing and pulling.

Worked together, the bellows create a constant flow of air that goes to the base of the fire. Without the forced air, charcoal does not burn hot enough to heat the iron to the 1,500 Fahrenheit or more to make it workable.

The Celtic forge, as employed by Crowther, would have been used in Europe from about 500 B.C. to the time of Christ, and in Ireland until about 500 A.D. The Viking or Norse forge also was a small hole in the ground, but it was lined with rocks.

What couldn't be seen, Crowther explained, was the quality of the metal being used. The iron used by both civilizations was bog iron, nodules of iron as a byproduct of bacteria action in swamps.

By the time of the Vikings, smiths had found that a hotter forge yielded a product that had better qualities. At the hotter temperatures, the raw melting iron picks up more carbon from the charcoal as it drips to the bottom of the pot, making a type of steel.

But whether the smiths of the time actually knew what was happening is unclear. "We know because we have the scientific knowledge," said Crowther, who works full time at Farnsworth Middle School as a computer technician. "Much of what they learned was trial and error -- if it's this color, you can do this with it; if I do that with my iron, my tools don't break."

Even the evolution of when man first learned to work iron is unclear. While humankind had worked with nonferrous metals for thousands of years, archaeological findings put ironwork within the Celtic culture at about 800 B.C., at which time it arrived from the Middle East.

Even within the Celtic culture it's unclear whether a blacksmith was a transient or each tribe or village had one. "Look around," Crowther said, pointing to his layout. "Except for the tools, which would be recycled, everything else would rot away or be found in almost any household." From ancient histories, however, the smith's place in society is known. Slipping into character, Crowther noted: "I'm worth three cows. Any other craftsman is worth maybe one calf."