Linguistic Avatars of Wootz: The Ancient Indian Steel
by D.P. Agrawal
- Le Coze, of the Centre for Materials Science, France, has come out with an interesting essay about the different names of steel in different parts of the world that the ancient Indian stell known aswootzinspired. Wootz, was perhaps derived from the Kannada word Ukku. This steel making process was practiced in peninsular India since great antiquity. The ancient Indian steel was known as Damascene steel in Persia and was in great demand in the Persian courts of the First Millennium BC. Even Alexander was presented a sword made of such steel. Coze studied the etymology of the terms denoting steel. Taking into account the fact that the names given to steel in different languages have always a technical content (hardness, resistance, etc.), Le Coze traced the transformation of the term Wootz, denoting the Indian crucible steel, through the Arab texts of the 9-12th centuries AD describing the preparation of the crucible steel named fulad. He discovered that fulad had an Indian origin of the word as transformed by Arab travellers.
The following account is basically a summary of his essay.
Wootz is the name given to a crucible steel prepared in India. Coze informs that it first occurred in printed form in the 1795 Pearson’s report. This steel was abundantly studied in Western Europe during the 19th century AD because of its special characteristics: high hardness, difficulty in forging, unknown procedures, etc. However, the origin of the name itself is unclear even if it has been proposed by Yule and Burnell in the Hobson-Jobson Dictionary that the word Wootz could come from ukku in the Kanadda language. Such a possibility does not give any technical content to the word, and there lays the center of the problem because, in the etymology of the different names given to steel in different countries and times, it appears that, contrary to iron which is a general name, steel represents a property qualifying a particular iron product. This is because steel is never a primary product extracted from the ore; in ancient metallurgy, it was obtained by cementation of wrought iron (malleable iron) or in modern processes, by fining cast iron, whereas iron – either wrought or cast – has always been a primary product.
Words Designating Properties of Steel
The English word steel and the German Stahl are derived from Stahal in Old High German (~l1th century AD) and contain the reconstituted Indo-European root *sta which can be found in the German verb “stehen /stand” or in English “to stand”, and related to the Sanskrit stakati, which means: “it resists”. The same root is used in Nordic languages and in modem Russian, Polish, etc. In Celtic languages the same root is generally used, e.g., stailin but other words meaning force or hardness are also found, e.g., dir in Breton. In French, acier is derived from the Latin acies which means cutting edge or point of an arrow. The same root is used in all Latin based languages: Spanish, Italian, etc. Diderot explained that Pliny used acies to represent the word chalybs, i.e., steel in ancient Greek.
The Latin word acieris (close to acies), represents a bronze axe used for religious sacrifices. The main point here is not the nature of the metal, but the property of the tool. The same remark applies to the names of metal in the ancient Vedic hymns analysed by Pleiner: ayas and loha could represent iron or other metals. Ayas would signify “strength and solidity” of a metal. In the Pali Canon (5th-3rd BC), ayo– (in composite words) often means iron, and loha is copper, but in many cases there is a possible confusion. For instance, ayas has given aes (bronze) in Latin but, about the 1st Century BC, ayo– is generally related to iron. Such confusion is also found in ancient Greek texts.
Coze informs that in ancient Greek, three names were attributed to steel: stomoma, adamas and chalybs. Stomoma was used by Aristotle (4th BC) for cutting (edge). Since Hesiode (~8th BC), adamas signifies inflexible or hard. It was systematically translated into “hard as steel” but there is no direct reference to a metal in Hesiode texts or even in Virgil, eight centuries later. However, adamas has been the origin of the adjective for diamond (adamantine) and the English adamant which means inflexible. According toHerodotus (5th BC), Chalybs is the name of a people living in Asia Minor. They were known to prepare chalybdikos (sideros) i.e., hard (iron). This name is not directly a qualification of a technical property but of the geographical origin of the product. In China, iron is represented by thieh which could mean grey and steel by kang, from kang thieh (hard iron).
In the Muslim world of the 9th-12th centuries AD, the production of fuladh, a Persian word, has been described by Al-Kindi, Al-Biruni and Al-Tarsusi, from narm-ahan and shaburqan, two other Persian words representing iron products obtained by direct reduction of the ore. Ahan means iron. Narm-ahan is a soft iron and shaburqan a harder one or able to be quench-hardened. Old nails and horse-shoes were also used as base for fuladh preparation. It must be noticed that, according to Hammer- Purgstall, there was no Arab word for steel, which explain the use of Persian words. Fuladh prepared by melting in small crucibles can be considered as a steel in our modem classification, due to its properties (hardness, quench hardened ability, etc.). The word fuladh means “the purified” as explained by Al-Kindi. This word can be found as puladh, for instance in Chardin (1711 AD) who called this product; poulad jauherder, acier onde, which means “watering steel”, a characteristic of what was called Damascene steel in Europe.
In Russian the corresponding word is bulat and in Mongol bolot. In the 19th century AD, it was accepted as evident by European metallurgists that the ancient word bulat / fuladh and the newly introduced one Wootz represented the same kind of high carbon crucible steel (1-2wt % C) which should have been used by Muslim blacksmiths to forge the so called Damascene blades, the secret of which had been lost as was said by Russian and European metallurgists of that time.
Coze emphasises that it is not the aim of his present paper to discuss from a technical point of view the identification of the ancient steels named fuladh and the wootz specimens observed in the 19th century AD, which were all of recent production. Ancient pieces of metals have not been analysed, up to now. However, even if differences can be found between the Indian and Muslim processes, the essential character of melting in crucibles is present in both products (compare al- Tarasusi 12th century AD).
Possible Origin of the Word Wootz
In India, different names were given to crucible steel in different languages. Following Yule and Burnell (1886), Wootz would seem to have originated in some clerical error, or misreading, very possibly for wook, representing the Canarese (Kannada) ukku (pron. wukku) “steel” or uchcha, “of superior quality”. They add: “the Madras Glossary gives as local names of steel, Canarese ukku, Telagu ukku, Tamil and Malayalam urukku, and derives Wootz from Sanskrit ucca, whence comes Hindi uncha“.
In his History of Chemistry in Ancient and Medieval India, Ray (1956) however mentioned only that Wootz was the name given to Indian crucible steel in Europe, without discussing the origin of this word. Biswas (1994) wrote that vrtta means steel in Kautilya’s Arthasastra: “vrtta means circle or disc and could denote crucible-molten steel”. Steel is also represented by ukku in Telugu or Kannada, wuz in Gujarati, or Wootz which was the term used and spread all over the world by the traders from the Middle East.
Significance of dos
In the description of the fuladh preparation, it appears as a substance called duc, dos or dws as a function of the transliteration from Arab to Latin characters. Al-Biruni mentions that “Nirmahan is divided…into two types. One is (nirmahan) itself, and the other is its water which flows from it when it is melted and extracted from stones, and it is called dos; in Persian it is called astah and in the area of Zabulistan, ro, because of its speed of flow and because it overtakes iron when it is flowing. It is solid, white and tends to be silvery”. The translation by Allan is quite similar: “…This is called duc…because of the speed with which it comes out of the iron and precedes the iron in reaching a fluid state…”. Mazaheri (1958) uses the transcription al-dws.
It is important to remark that the origin of dos is unknown. Contrarily to fuladh, nirmahan and shaburqan, which are Persian words, dos is not. Its Persian equivalent was astah and in Zabulistan – between Afghanistan and Pakistan – its name was ro. Nor is it an Arab word, as the Arab word for water is different. This substance could be identified either with liquid metal or liquid slag. It must be remembered that the significance of the word could have changed from the 9th to the 12th AD, and that it could represent quite different products as compared to our present definitions of iron and steel, because the products were identified from their fabrication process, not from a chemical composition as of today. Without discussing the details, it is clear that the substance represented by dos has the property of “flowing like water”. Following Mazaheri (1958), the word dws in oriental Arab can be transformed into wds in occidental Arab, due to a common confusion between the sounds represented by d and w. Mazaheri proposed that dws after transformation into wds during its travels from East to West, is the origin of the name Wootz.
Cose infers that even if the Mazaheri’s proposition may not give the first origin of the European Wootz, it shows how it could have been transmitted from India to Europe. More important, such interpretation gives a technical content to Wootz as a material prepared in the liquid state and shows the historical continuity between the 9th century AD product named fuladh by Muslim writers and the 19th century AD Wootz, the name given in Europe.
The Arab transmission of the word Wootz seems logical because Muslim traders were very active between India, Persia and western Muslim countries. But this is not sufficient to give an absolute demonstration. Written sources should be found to make a decisive link. Regarding the origin of dws itself, it could be a name, completely different from Persian and Arab, as observed above and the Gujarati oats proposed by Heath (Hadfield) or wus by Biswas, thus giving dos/ a technical content to this word, thanks to ancient Muslim written sources. However, it could also be objected that the Gujarati word would come from dos/ wds.
Cose suggests that the simplest solution would be that wus (a Gujarati word) was existing independently of Arab travellers and that Al-Biruni, who seems to be the first to write the word dos, could also have been the author who transformed wus into duc. This explanation can be supported by the fact that Al-Biruni, after visiting India, lived in Ghazni about 100 km south from Kabul, at a time when the Ghaznevid Empire extended as far as the Sindh at the border of Gujarat. Al-Biruni was then living in eastern Muslim countries where he might have transformed the w sound of wus into the d sound of duc, in the same way as the reverse was possible from eastern to western Arab.
Combining the idea that Wootz (name of a steel) had necessarily a technical content as the other names given to steel in many languages, with the proposal by Mazaheri of the relation dos/wds which contains the idea of “flowing like water” found in the preparation of fuladh, it becomes possible (i) to understand the transmission of wds from India to Europe by Arab travellers; (ii) to show the continuity fuladh/Wootz from the 9th AD to 19th AD; and (iii) to give a technical content to Wootz as dos, i.e., molten steel. The first origin of the word Wootz, transmitted by Muslim travellers, is not Persian. It could be attributed to Gujarati but this point must be researched further.
Select Bibliography (Given by Coze)
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Allan, J, Persian Metal Technology 700-1300 AD, Oxford Oriental Monographs, London, 1979.
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Yule, H. and Burnell, A., Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary, 1st ed. London, 1886; HTML version; www.bibliomania.com. (Oxford, England). Abbreviations used: Can.: Canarese; Tel.: Telanga; Tam.: Tamil; Skt.: Sanskrit; H.: Hindi.
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- LE COZE. 2003. About the Signification of Wootz and Other Names Given to Steel.Indian Journal of History of Science. 38 (2):117-127.