Modern tool steel or stainless steel is created with the addition of chromium, and it is believed that this most important invention was made quite recently – at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Recently, however, scientists from University College London (UK) have received evidence that people learned to use chromium much earlier. Approximately 900 years ago, in the place of Chahak in the south of modern Iran.
In their search for chromium steel, scientists were prompted by an old description of the process of forging it in non-standard crucibles for high temperatures. The source is the manuscript “Al-Jamahir fi Marifa al-Jawahir”, which can be translated as “Compendium for the knowledge of precious stones.” Its author is Abu-Raikhan Biruni, a famous Persian polymath of the 11th century A.D. The forging recipe is the only one for the entire book, which already emphasizes its importance – the author clearly wanted to preserve and pass this information on to posterity.
Deciphering the ancient description turned out to be hardly feasible due to the complexity of the language and the ancient terms incomprehensible to modern Iranians. Most of all, scientists were puzzled by the element called “rusakhtai”, in which the ore mineral chromite was eventually recognized. It seemed incredible, but an archaeological expedition to Chahak, which is now an architectural monument, did find traces of chromium in an ancient smithy.
Analysis of a few droplets of metal recovered from the remains of crucibles and forge slag did show the presence of chromium impurities. There is very little of it there – 1-2% against modern standards of 8-13%, but the fact of artificial addition of chromium during steelmaking has been proven. Archaeologists also found traces of phosphorus, which coincides with the descriptions of ancient swords from Chahak – their blades had beautiful patterns, but the metal was too fragile. Probably, the ancient Persian metallurgists actively experimented with impurities in search of the optimal steel composition, and as a result, it was the chrome alloy that was recognized as such.