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Meteoric iron, containing a high percentage of nickel, is found naturally and, since its heavenly origin was realised it was highly prized for its supposed magical properties. There are scattered records of smelted earth iron from early times, but the technique of iron-working was not mastered until c. 1500 BC under the Hittites. When they were overthrown and their secret leaked out, iron spread rapidly to replace bronze for man’s basic tools and weapons, thus opening the Iron Age.


The technique of smelting is more complicated than with copper or tin, since the first smelt gives only an unpromising slaggy lump, the bloom. Hammering at red heat is then required to expel stone fragments and combine carbon with the iron to make in effect steel; pure iron is too soft for functional use. But once the technique is discovered, it replaces earlier metallurgies; iron ores are much commoner and more widespread than those of copper or tin, and the resulting metal is far superior. Unfortunately for the archaeologist it corrodes much more rapidly. The two basic methods of working it are by forging – hammering into shape at red heat – and casting. The latter was not used in Europe until the Middle Ages.


Lots of iron artefacts have been found in Buckinghamshire, from the Iron Age onwards. An Iron Age spear was found at Pulpit Hillfort, for instance. A medieval iron arrowhead was also found at Grove Farm, Ashley Green.