Ancient iron in Greece and China, 8th–3rd centuries BCE

Donald B. Wagner
Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Department of Archaeology, Sichuan University, Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Keynote essay for the session, ‘Ancient iron in Europe and China (c. 8th to 3rd centuries BCE): Transcultural comparisons in the study, representation and preservation of iron technological heritage’, organized by Dr. Maria Kostoglou.

Sino-Hellenic Academic Project: The 2nd International Conference on Global Issues of Environment & Culture, Delphi, 18–19 September 2021,

8 November 2021

Video presentation


The production and use of iron in ancient Greece and ancient China raises interesting comparative issues: in Greece, seagoing city-states that spread by colonization; in China, city-states that are remnants of a once-powerful continental empire. The use of iron begins on both ends of the Old World with unimportant uses and develops quickly in different directions toward practical applications. in Greece with the discovery of steel, in China with iron casting.

Important here are the factors which influence innovation. It is generally believed that very little technical innovation took place in ancient Greece, and that this stillstand was caused by a general lack of interest in practical matters among the elite. But both the supposed effect and the supposed cause are poorly documented in the historical and archaeological record, and it is likely that there was more innovation, and more interest in practical matters, than historians have been willing to acknowledge. In China a remarkable series of innovations in iron technology, beginning in the 5th or 4th century BCE, amount to a veritable industrial revolution. The context of these innovations appears to have been ‘iron plantations’, iron-producing villages in the mountains, employing hundreds of workers, outside the reach of governments.

Apologies in advance

Many thanks for the opportunity to give the keynote address for this learned session. It has been quite a challenge to write an introduction to such a broad range of scholarship. On the Greek side, I started knowing very little. In the course of this past summer I have read a few books and articles and browsed through more, but without a clear notion of which works are most important. I readily admit to being ignorantly read, and yet I will question some of the conclusions of eminent scholars, for as my teachers told me in school, if you don’t ask silly questions you will remain ignorant.

On the Chinese side I feel fairly up-to-date on the narrow subject of ancient iron. On the broader historical and archaeological issues that I shall also discuss, however, I have not followed the newer literature very closely since I wrote my Iron and steel in ancient China (1993). There are undoubtedly participants here who will provide important corrections to what I say on these topics.


When teaching Chinese history to students of history I advise them, when dealing with Chinese historical sources, to consult more than one translation, if possible in more than one language. That advice has been highly relevant to me in reading the Greek sources, and here is an example. An article that I looked at briefly (and which I have not been able to find again) quoted a famous passage of Xenophon (Poroi, 4.4–6) in which he states, in effect, that the demand for iron is inelastic. In its translation the article referred to ‘iron mines’, and that intrigued me, for mining for iron is rare in ancient times. In most parts of the world, sufficient iron ore for pre-modern production levels is available near the surface. This reference might therefore suggest very large-scale concentrated production, though one cannot of course be certain of what an ancient writer might call a mine. Would a big hole in the ground be called a mine?

M. I. Finley (1987: 190) gives this translation: ‘Of all the activities I know, this (silver mining) is the only one in which expansion arouses no envy. … If there are more coppersmiths, for example, copper-work becomes cheap and the coppersmiths retire. The same is true in the iron trade. …’ So here the reference is to the iron trade, and we need not worry about a supposed reference to mining, which was only a translator’s interpretation. Another question emerges, however. Coppersmiths? How many hammered copper artefacts, if any at all, are known from ancient Greece? Pleiner (1969: 25) and Marchant (1925: 207) also have ‘coppersmiths’. Whitehead (2019: 71) has ‘bronze-smiths’, which is equally problematic. Dakyas (1892) has ‘bronze-workers’, which sounds more plausible, but he then has ‘ironfounders’, which might lead an unwary reader to imagine a reference to ancient Greek cast iron.

Gauthier (1976: 120) comments, ‘Les chalkotypoi sont les artisans bronziers, les sidèreis sont les ferroniers.’ So here we have ‘bronze workers’ and ‘iron workers’. This would be unexceptionable but for the curious fact that the learned commentator found it necessary to define the terms at all. Clearly these are not definitions that I would immediately find in a lexicon, if I were able to use a Greek lexicon. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I suspect that these words have more general meanings, perhaps ‘persons who deal with copper alloys and iron in one way or another’. It might therefore be reasonable to hypothesize that the passage refers to the owners of the primary production of the metals rather than to the artisans who fashioned the final metal products. Or perhaps (following Finley’s translation) to the merchants who imported these metals, for iron was probably imported from distant places rather than being produced in or near Athens.

In the following I shall have to refer more than once to the problems of a student seeing Greek sources through translations, darkly.



The most obvious comparison between ancient Greece and ancient China can be seen in any historical atlas. In the 5th century BCE, the Greek world consisted largely of numerous city-states dotting the perimeter of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Looking at China in the same time, we see a great land mass divided into many large and small semi-independent states under the nominal suzerainty of one of them, Zhou 周, by this time a small state with little real power. This is the conventional view. An interesting alternative view proposed by Mark Lewis (2000) sees in ancient China a ‘city-state culture’ as that term is loosely defined by Mogens Herman Hansen (2000: 9–34). I find this idea attractive, though I wish there were more concern here with archaeology and with source-critical questions.

The Greek city-states were culturally quite homogeneous, simply because this culture had spread by colonization from an initial limited region. In the Chinese case the question of cultural homogeneity is more difficult to assess. Because of the earlier dominance of two empires, the Shang and the Zhou (traditional dates 1766–1123 and 1122–221 BCE), in matters of ritual, and in the attitudes and behaviour of the educated and the powerful, the states had much in common, at least as these aspects can be seen in the written sources. Below this literate stratum (if I may be allowed this convenient term), we can expect much more geographical variation in spiritual and material culture, but here only archaeology can help us, and Chinese archaeologists have, unaccountably, not been much interested in questions of geographical variation across China in historical periods.

Some anthropologists have proposed a classification of historical cultures as ‘thalassophilic’ and ‘thalassophobic’, those that love the sea (thalassos) and those that fear it. (I would be glad to hear what the status of this idea is among anthropologists today.) The Greeks were clearly thalassophilic – they were not separated by the seas but joined by them. Ancient China might well be considered thalassophobic, for it is rather late that we hear of Chinese ocean voyages, or in fact of any interest in the ocean at all. The distinction may be related (as both cause and effect) to attitudes toward risk. Travel by ship would seem to be inherently more risky than travel by land. But of course the Mediterranean is a much more friendly sea than the broad Pacific.


Let us now take a brief and very superficial look at the broad lines of Greek and Chinese history in our period. In the 8th century BCE Greece was emerging from the Dark Age (or the Homeric Age or the Heroic Age). Colonization was spreading Greek city-states throughout the region. In China, this was the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period. ‘Barbarian’ attacks had necessitated moving the capital of the Zhou empire eastward, from the Wei River valley to the vicinity of modern Luoyang. The rulers of Zhou lost power, and the empire at this time can perhaps be seen as a ‘city-state culture’ analogous to that of Greece. It is around this time that the Iron Age had a hesitant beginning at both ends of the Old World.

The following centuries saw in both places a confusing history of conflicts and coalitions among (city-)states and between (city-)states and foreign powers: Persia in the Greek case, nomadic ‘barbarians’ in north China. Endemic war is, according to Hansen (2000: 17), a general characteristic of city-state culture; Finley (1987: 67–87) gives an erudite examination of the general causes underlying the particular reasons given for individual conflicts. In the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE major new developments brought this period of division to a close. Alexander conquered most of his world, and then Rome conquered most of the Greek world. In the Wei River valley a new hybrid culture emerged, combining elements of the old Zhou state with elements of nomadic culture. This was the state of Qin, which in the course of the 3rd century BCE conquered all of the Chinese world and established the Qin empire in 221 BCE. This was soon replaced by the Han empire, which ruled almost continuously for four centuries.

The best estimate of the population of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 1st century CE is about 50–60 million (Finley 1985: 47). The population of the Han Empire in 2 CE was, according to a census, 59,594,978 (Durand 1960: 216). Between them the two empires may have included more than half of the world’s total population.

Historical sources

The sources for this period differ greatly in kind between East and West. This means that the questions we are able to ask are rather different between the two sides.

According to Finley (1959: 1–21), narrative histories of ancient Greece are few: for our period only Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon appear to him worthy of notice. But there is a wealth of other types of source: essays, speeches, inscriptions, and documents of many kinds.

In contrast, on the Chinese side there is a rich narrative source covering the entire period, the heroic work of Sima Qian 司马迁 (c. 163–85 BCE), Shi ji 史记 (‘Records of the historian’). Starting in mythical times and continuing to Sima Qian’s own time, this book gives narratives of the Empire as a whole and, separately, each of the important states; biographies of the most important historical actors; chronological tables; and essays on specialized topics such as ritual, the calendar, river management, and economics. Together with the commentaries of the 1st–4th centuries CE this is a mountain of historical source material, filling 3,322 pages in ten volumes in a modern edition. One of these pages would correspond to two or more in a modern Western language.

The problem with the Shi ji is that all of this has been filtered through one man’s head. Few other sources for the period survive, so it is very difficult to evaluate the information that Sima Qian gives us. Two extant narrative sources that we know he used extensively are Zuo zhuan 左传 (the ‘Zuo commentary’ on the Chunqiu 春秋, ‘Spring and autumn annals’), covering the period 722–463 BCE, and Zhanguo ce 战国策 (‘Intrigues of the Warring States’), covering 454–209 BCE.

The Zuo zhuan appears to be composed of passages from a variety of texts, copied and pasted into the bare chronology of the Chunqiu, a short work that was believed to have been compiled by Confucius himself. Parts of the Zuo zhuan can be shown to be fiction, while others look more like serious historical accounts. On the other hand the Zhanguo ce is, in the judgement of many scholars, a collection of short pieces of historical fiction (e.g. Maspero 1925; Crump 1960; 1964; 1970). I believe that its only correct use by historians can be to indicate, in the background of its fictional accounts, something of what was generally believed, at the end of the 3rd century BCE, about the events of the previous two or three centuries. But in fact modern historians tend to use it as if it were a genuine historical narrative.

These books give their names to the two periods into which the Eastern Zhou period is conventionally divided: the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (generally dated 770–476 and 475–221 BCE), for which these are the major sources, for Sima Qian and for us. It is a strong belief among virtually all Chinese and Western historians of ancient China that great social changes took place at the time of the ‘Spring and Autumn – Warring States transition’ (Chun–Zhan zhi ji 春战之际). This ‘transition’, I believe, is a figment, an artefact of a transition from one type of historical source to another. We can see in the sources, dimly, that elite society in the course of the Eastern Zhou perhaps became less hierarchical and more bureaucratic, but these sources do not in fact support the notion of any abrupt change.

While we have good coverage of the period by Chinese narrative sources, there are, again in contrast to the Greek situation, few non-narrative sources for China in our period. There are philosophical texts and handbooks of ritual, but these rarely tell much about events or trends in their times. Bronze inscriptions from our period tell very little, unlike the earlier, more loquacious, inscriptions of the Western Zhou period (trad. 1122–771 BCE). Stone inscriptions start with the Qin, but are very few before the 1st century CE. The contemporary essays and documents that we do have are largely those that Sima Qian copied into his book.

Source criticism

In a chapter sharply criticizing the methodological confusions of contemporary ancient historians, M. I. Finley (1987: 10) notes ‘the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation.’ In the study of early China there is a common analogous belief in the truth of any ancient narrative that is not obviously mythical, regardless of the usual necessary questions: Who is telling this? Why is he telling it? How does he know it? And the same questions concerning any identifiable source of the source.

In the study of ancient Greece, much appears to be happening. Anton Powell’s remarkable Athens and Sparta (2016), for example, gives a readable and convincing history, but simultaneously discusses the sources and how they can and cannot be used. There is no book remotely like this for ancient China.

In the early 20th century radical Chinese historians, the best known of whom was Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893–1980), rejected the almost religious belief of their predecessors in the ancient texts. They produced some very useful research which is now virtually forgotten. A leading idea, still worth considering today, was that what we know of the two earliest Chinese dynasties, Xia and Shang, comes from texts written in the Eastern Zhou period with the purpose of legitimating Zhou rule. They went so far as to claim that Xia and Shang are entirely fictitious, never existed (see Wagner 1993: 10, fn. 23). Archaeology soon showed, however, that the Shang certainly was real, and this discovery brought about a general rejection of all doubts of the veracity of the sources. One aspect of the sources turned out to be correct; therefore, to a great extent even today, everything in the sources that is not obviously false is true. Some egregious examples of failing source criticism among Western scholars of early China have been discussed by Bo Ærenlund Sørensen (2010).

Iron in the written sources

Incidental references in the literature of our period, on both sides, indicate that iron was well known and used for many purposes, including weapons and implements (see e.g. Pleiner 1969; Francotte 1900, 1: 88–89; Wagner 1993: 147–149; 2008: 116–117). Archaeology shows the same, and provides more nuance.

Looking to this literature for the kind of insights that archaeology cannot easily give, concerning for example production, labour, and marketing, there is not very much. Xenophon, as I have already mentioned, believed that the demand for iron was inelastic. An oration by Demostheses in the 4th century BCE (27, 9–11) indicates that his late father’s estate included a sword manufactory employing 32 or 33 slaves (Murray 1936, 4: 1, 13). Thus a smithy could apparently be quite a large-scale enterprise.

More interesting is the philosopher Aristotle’s story in the 4th century BCE of a man who cornered the market for iron in Sicily, buying up all the iron from the primary producers; ‘when the merchants arrived from their shops, he used to be the only seller’ (Politics, 1259a23, tr. Sinclair 1992: 90; cf. Francotte 1902, 2: 143). We learn from this that in the Greek cities of Sicily there was more than one producer of iron and that these normally sold their product to merchants, who presumably sold it to smithies. The same is likely to be true of all or most of the other Greek cities.

A passage by Hesiod (Theogony 861–866), possibly as early as the 7th century BCE, has been interpreted as describing bloomery smelting of iron. Zeus is battling with the Titans:

… a flame shot forth from that thunderbolted lord in the mountain’s dark, rugged dales, as he was struck, and the huge earth was much burned by the prodigious blast, and it melted like tin when it is heated with skill by young men in well-perforated melting pots, or as iron, although it is the strongest thing, melts in the divine earth by the skilled hands of Hephaestus when it is overpowered in a mountain’s dales by burning fire (Most 2006: 73; Pleiner 1969: 14).

There is also a passage by Hesiod which some interpret as mentioning an iron ploughshare (Works and days, 414–447; Most 2006: 123; Pleiner 1969: 50, fn. 44). This interpretation depends on identifying ‘Athena’s servant’ as a blacksmith rather than a carpenter, which in the context is rather far-fetched.

On the Chinese side there is one interesting story. The philosopher Mencius (Mengzi 孟子), towards the end of the 4th century BCE, is told of the teachings of a certain Xu Xing 许行 of the southern state of Chu 楚, who holds that a good and wise ruler tills the land himself and cooks his own meals; not to do so is to inflict hardship on the people. As Mencius argues his own point of view, the following exchange occurs (Wagner 2008: 116–117):

‘Does Master Xu cook with a [metal] pot [fu 釜] and an [earthenware] steamer [zeng 甑]? Does he till with iron [implements]?’


‘Does he make them himself?’

‘No, he trades grain for them.’

‘Trading grain for implements does not inflict hardship on the potters and founders. And when the potters and founders trade implements for grain, does this inflict hardship on the peasants? How can it be that Master Xu does not establish his own pottery and foundry? Why does he go about trading with the hundred craftsmen? Why does he bother?’

‘The work of the hundred craftsmen certainly cannot be done while tilling.’

This story is told in the Mengzi, a book which was probably compiled by the philosopher’s disciples in about 300 BCE. At this early time it is doubtful that iron agricultural implements were common anywhere outside China; yet here they are taken for granted as a necessity. Another underlying assumption is that the production of iron implements is a specialized craft which the peasant would be foolish to take up himself.

Later texts

For more information we must look to texts of later centuries. The geographer Strabo in the late 1st century BCE mentions an iron mine, exhausted by his time, near Khalkís on the island of Euboea, about 75 km from Athens (Geography, 10.1.9). This was ‘a remarkable mine of copper and iron, which is not recorded as happening elsewhere’ (Roller 2014: 437; cf. Jones 1928, 5: 13; Francotte 1900, 1: 85), and this may be why we find iron being mined here – iron ore was a by-product of copper mining. Stephanus of Byzantium in the 6th century CE is said to mention iron mines at Aidepsos, also on Euboea (Francotte 1900, 1: 85); that book praises the skilled blacksmiths of Aidepsos, but does not in fact mention mines (Billerbeck & Neumann-Hartmann 2021: 201).

Strabo also mentions iron mines elsewhere, especially in Iberia and on the island of Elba (3.4.6 and 5.2.6; Jones 1923, 5: 89, 355; Roller 2014: 170, 228). Both places were known for their high-quality iron (e.g. Blümner 1887, 4: 77), and iron mining here seems plausible.

Concerning Elba, Strabo writes, ‘I also saw those who work the iron brought from Aithalia [Elba], for it cannot be smelted in heating furnaces on the island, and is immediately brought from the mines to the mainland’ (Roller 2014: 228). Jones (1923, 5: 355) gives a technical explanation that cannot be quite right. It is likely that iron was smelted here in earlier times, but that deforestation, by Strabo’s time, had made smelting on the island impractical.

Diodorus of Sicily in the 1st century BCE described iron production on Elba. In his text we can clearly see the operation of a bloomery furnace and the spongy bloom that it produces, and we see something of production and marketing practices as well:

Off the city of Tyrrhenia known as Poplonium there is an island which men call Aethaleia. It is about one hundred stades distant from the coast and received the name it bears from the smoke (aithalos) which lies so thick about it. For the island possesses a great amount of iron-rock, which they quarry in order to melt and cast and thus to secure the iron, and they possess a great abundance of this ore. For those who are engaged in the working of this ore crush the rock and burn the lumps which have thus been broken in certain ingenious furnaces; and in these they smelt the lumps by means of a great fire and form them into pieces of moderate size which are in their appearance like large sponges. These are purchased by merchants in exchange either for money or for goods and are then taken to Dicaearchia or the other trading-stations, where there are men who purchase such cargoes and who, with the aid of a multitude of artisans in metal whom they have collected, work it further and manufacture iron objects of every description. Some of these are worked into the shape of armour, and others are ingeniously fabricated into shapes well suited for two-pronged forks and sickles and other such tools; and these are then carried by merchants to every region and thus many parts of the inhabited world have a share in the usefulness which accrues from them (Biblioteca historica, 5.13.1; Oldfather 1933: 131).

It is obvious that the author of Diodorus’s source had seen such a furnace in operation. The source was probably some centuries earlier than Diodorus if Strabo’s statement is accepted, that iron smelting did not take place on the island in his time.

Considering the Greek emphasis on estate self-sufficiency (e.g. Finley 1985: 110–111), it would be natural to suppose that production of iron from ore would often have been done by farmers in the slack periods of agriculture. This has been the case in many parts of the world, including ancient China and post-Medieval Scandinavia. These stories from Elba, together with Aristotle’s story from Sicily and the Hesiod passage, do not support this supposition. They suggest, rather, that primary production of the iron raw material was a specialized occupation practised in places distant from both cities and agriculture. The smiths who fabricated from this the iron weapons and tools would no doubt have worked in cities and towns, closer to their customers.

On the Chinese side, a source of the 1st century BCE gives an interesting view of iron production in earlier centuries. In 117 BCE a state monopoly was imposed by the Han dynasty on all production of salt and iron. This raised considerable opposition, and in 81 BCE a debate on the subject between the government and its critics was ordered by the Emperor. Some years later (between 73 and 49 BCE), Huan Kuan 桓宽 compiled a book, Yan tie lun 盐铁论 (Discourses on salt and iron), which purports to be a report of a meeting between the two sides. Most Western scholars accept the book as a verbatim report of an oral debate, while a significant minority of Chinese historians agree with the eminent historian and polymath Guo Moruo 郭沫若 that this debate took place by exchange of texts rather than in person, and that Huan Kuan’s book is ‘a work of fiction in dialogue form on a historical theme’, drawing on essays written in connection with the debate in 81 BCE but also bringing in much additional material. I have no difficulty agreeing with this view (On the monopoly and related issues, see Wagner 2008: 171ff; on the status of Yan tie lun, 2008: 185–186.)

The debate includes two descriptions of iron production in the centuries before the monopoly, and these show that the iron industry consisted of two distinct sectors, large-scale and small-scale. A representative of the government claims,

When ordinary people gather together [to make iron], their time is too short and they are fatigued by the work. The strength of the iron is not ‘melted and refined’ [? tie li bu xiao lian 铁力不销炼], and the hard and the soft are not harmonised [? jian rou bu he 堅柔不和]. …

(Unfortunately these two ancient technical expressions are not fully understood today, though guesses can be made.) The critics respond,

When the members of a household united, and father and son pooled their labour, each sought to make excellent implements. Inferior implements were not sold. At busy times for agricultural activity the implements were transported to the fields for distribution. People traded with each other, exchanging money and products, grain, and new and old [implements] (Wagner 2008: 181; cf. Levi 2010: 196; Schefold 2002: 180–181).

This appears to be a clear description of peasant families producing iron in the slack periods of the agricultural year. There are numerous historical parallels, for example in 18th-century Scandinavia. As we have seen, this may not have been the case in ancient Greek iron production.

The government’s representatives are more concerned with large-scale ironworks:

In the past, great and powerful families obtained control of the benefits of mountains and seas. They extracted iron ore to smelt and cast it, and they boiled the seas to make salt. One family might gather a multitude of over a thousand persons, nearly all common bandits. Travelling far from their homes and abandoning the graves of their ancestors, they became dependent on the great families. Being assembled in deep mountains and remote marshes, engaging in illicit enterprises and following the power of factions, their tendency to commit wrongs was a danger (Wagner 2008: 144; cf. Levi 2010: 35; Schefold 2002: 131).

There is confirmation of some of this in the biographies of three ironmaster families in the Shi ji and in a text of the 4th century CE, Huayang guozhi 华阳国志 (Treatise on the states south of Mount Hua [in Sichuan]). One of the ironmasters, Zhuo Wangsun 卓王孙 in Linqiong 临邛, Sichuan, possessed 800 or 1,000 ‘slaves’ or ‘retainers’ (depending on the source; see Wagner 2008: 140–144). It is reasonable, I believe, to suppose that these were the ‘common bandits’ who, ‘abandoning the graves of their ancestors’, were employed by the ironmaster ‘in deep mountains and marshes’.

There is good archaeological evidence that the large-scale ironworks smelted ore in blast furnaces. It may be presumed that the small-scale ironworks smelted by the direct method, in bloomeries, but there is as yet no solid archaeological evidence of bloomeries in China in our period.

The polemical character of the passage quoted above is obvious, and needs no comment. Ignoring the polemics, the ironworks seem very like the ‘iron plantations’ of 18th-century America and northern Sweden. An iron plantationwas a largely self-sufficient community living in the midst of a large tract of forest. Some agriculture was practised, but nearly all activities in the community centred about the production of iron: forestry, charcoal production, ore-gathering or mining, the operation of the blast furnace, and so forth. Their isolation was a natural consequence of their dependence on the forest for a large and reliable supply of charcoal to fuel the blast furnace. Labour relations could vary greatly. Slaves were used in Virginia, free labourers in Pennsylvania; and it seems that for the Pennsylvania iron plantations even the polemical parts of Sang Hongyang’s description fit very well. In Sweden they seem to have functioned rather like feudal manors (On all of this see Wagner 2008: 144–146.)

Studies by economic historians of the organization of iron production in iron plantations are needed, but casual study suggests to me that this type of organisation is almost dictated by several factors common to the iron industries of 3rd century BCE China and 18th century America and Sweden: charcoal blast furnace technology, difficulty of transportation, and weakly developed markets.

Iron beginnings


In our session we shall hear more about the first iron smelting in Greece, but here, I believe, is the broad story that most scholars agree on (e.g. Waldbaum 1978; Pleiner 2000: 7ff; 2008; Erb-Satullo 2019). Iron was occasionally used in Anatolia and neighbouring regions in extremely early times, but not for important uses, for bronze was a better metal in most applications. When at some point bronze became scarce, because of changes in either supply or demand, iron came into use for some weapons and tools. Once iron had begun to be used seriously, the smiths learned more about the properties of this metal. In particular, they learned to make steel. With this discovery iron quickly became the preferred metal for weapons and tools. In Greece this may have been about 800 BCE.

Now I shall digress a moment to ask a question: Why was iron used at all in the mid-2nd millennium BCE or earlier in Anatolia? Who discovered iron smelting, and then used the product for only a few decorative items, when they had bronze? In recent years some scholars have suggested that the original invention of iron occurred somewhere in Africa, perhaps in what is now Nigeria (Bocoum 2004; Alpern 2005). It makes sense to suppose that people who had no metal would be more likely to put iron to practical use as soon as it was discovered. Then perhaps the technique of iron smelting was learned in Anatolia and used occasionally to produce an exotic material for elite consumption. The amazing variation in iron-smelting techniques used in different parts of Africa (see e.g. Cline 1937) suggests to me that this technology had been around for a long long time and evolved separately in different places to fit local conditions of ore, fuel, and refractory materials.


The beginning of iron in China is another subject that we shall be discussing. I have put forth a hypothesis on the question (Wagner 2008: 88–97), and I will outline it briefly here, but this is not the only hypothesis, and I look forward to our discussion.

Briefly, then: The first iron used in China was meteoritic. As early as the Shang period, some bronze weapons were made with edges of meteoritic iron. It is likely that these were superior to bronze, for meteoritic iron can be very hard. The supply of meteoritic iron was at some point exhausted, and bronze–iron weapons of the same sort began to be produced with smelted iron. This iron was probably not superior to bronze, but by now these were prestige weapons, for show and not necessarily for serious fighting.

The earliest artefacts of man-made iron found within the present borders of China are some simple knives from Xinjiang, in the far west, the earliest dateable to perhaps 800 BCE. At that early time this region had only minimal contact with the Central Plain of China, but it was presumably from here that iron smelting was learned by the Zhou artisans.

How did the technology of iron smelting begin in Xinjiang? It seems likely that it was learned from further west, ultimately from Western Asia through many intermediaries; but I have in a diligent search not found a route by which it is likely to have come. It is also quite possible that it was discovered independently in Xinjiang.

Whereas the iron age of Greece began with the discovery of steel, in China, by my hypothesis, it was iron casting that played this role. In southeast China, in the region around Shanghai and Nanjing, was the ‘semi-barbarian’ state of Wu 吴. The people of Wu were different from those of the northern states. They spoke an unrelated language (Wagner 1990), and both written sources and archaeology indicate that their material and spiritual culture were quite different (Wagner 1993: 97–146). But they learned a great deal from the technologically more advanced states of the north. Among other matters, they learned the Chinese written language and they learned bronze metallurgy.

Bronze agricultural implements were widely used here, and this fact makes Wu almost or entirely unique in the ancient world. Bronze was used elsewhere for weapons, some tools, and ritual requisites of various kinds, but it was basically the property of the ruling elite; in Wu, bronze production was a technology practised by many in the general population. That is no doubt why bronze work figures prominently in the mythology of Wu (e.g. Eichhorn 1969; Schüssler 1966; 1969) and not elsewhere in the ancient Chinese world.

It was also in Wu that the earliest cast iron appears, about the 5th century BCE. The earliest known cast iron implements (in Chu 楚 rather than Wu; Wu archaeology has challenges, as I have argued, Wagner 1993: 83, 96, 146) are clearly modelled after the earlier bronze implements of Wu. It would seem that the bronze founders at some point learned the iron-smelting technology used in the north for making bronze–iron weapons. However, instead of smithing the iron, they melted and cast it in the same kind of cupola furnace that they used for casting bronze. This is a quite well-known possibility: it is for example described in a 15th-century German manuscript (Johannsen 1910; English translation Awty 2015). Under the right conditions, low-carbon bloomery iron can take up carbon from the cupola furnace fuel, so that its melting point falls and it can be cast.

The use of cast-iron agricultural implements spread quickly: to the southern state of Chu 楚 and then further to the northern states. By the 3rd century BCE cast-iron agricultural implements were common throughout China. Meanwhile, in the same period, other major developments in iron technology were taking place. The most important of these were blast-furnace iron smelting, cast-iron moulds for cast-iron products, annealing to produce malleable cast iron, fining to convert pig iron from the blast furnace to wrought iron for the smith, and of course steelmaking.

These later developments are difficult to place geographically or chronologically, but all were in place throughout China by the mid-3rd century BCE. By this time nearly all weapons were of wrought iron or steel, while nearly all agricultural implements were of cast iron (many of malleable cast iron). For more on all these developments see Wagner 1993 and 2008.

Iron in achaeology


Archaeologists dealing with iron in ancient Greece have to a great extent concentrated on the beginning of the use of iron. Here I shall be more concerned with the rest of our period.

On the primary production of iron, it seems that only one Greek iron-smelting furnace has been excavated, a shaft bloomery furnace at Nikissiani in northern Greece (Kostoglou forthcoming, citing Papastamataki 1986). This is believed to date to the Ottoman period, and therefore is not relevant to our present concerns. The most useful available archaeological material for primary production is slag; Kostoglou (2008), among others, has documented numerous slag heaps. It is often difficult to distinguish bloomery slag from smithing slag, but when many tons of slag are found in one place it is clearly from primary production. We should like to know more about the geographical distribution of smelting sites, to understand better, among other matters, the relations between smelters, merchants, smiths, and consumers.

The smiths fabricating iron weapons and tools are seen in artistic representations, and these have been much discussed. A sword ritually killed by bending it around an amphora in the 9th century BCE is evidence of a smith engaged as part of ritual activity (Kostoglou 2010: 176–178). Other than this there is not much known about them. A plausible guess is that they worked in cities and towns and traded their products at markets visited by persons of the surrounding countryside.

The iron artefacts reported in Greek archaeology are largely spits, knives, swords, and spears (Kostoglou forthcoming) The ‘spits’ may actually have been used in cooking, as the term implies, or they may have been traded as a kind of ‘currency bar’ (Kostoglou 2003). Concerning agricultural implements, I have seen reports of iron sickles, billhooks, and a pitchfork from our period, but no ploughshares or hoes or spades: does this indicate that agriculture remained largely in the stone age? That is perhaps a possibility, but a more likely explanation is that such artefacts rarely show up in typical archaeological contexts.

Concerning smithy techniques, there have not been many metallographic examinations of artefacts, but one conclusion from what there have been seems to be that in this period the techniques of steelmaking and quench-hardening were known but not fully mastered (Photos 1989; Kostoglou forthcoming).

There has been some discussion of the possibility of cast iron production in ancient Greece and Rome. Long ago Otto Johannsen (1911–1917) examined all claims of ancient iron castings and found in each case that the artefact was either not cast or not old. Since then, I believe, there has been only one such claim, two blocks of iron of Roman date (Krapp 1987). As I have mentioned earlier, casting of bloomery iron in a bronze-melting cupola has from the beginning been a possibility, producing simple objects like these blocks.

There have also been claims that raw cast iron produced, accidentally or intentionally, in bloomeries was converted to wrought iron by one or another decarburizing method (Photos 1987; Kostoglou 2006). This is not on its face implausible, as can be seen in ethnographic descriptions of African iron smelting (e.g. David et al. 1989). However, real evidence for decarburization of cast iron in ancient Greece appears to be lacking. Photos (1987: 249 ff) argues from iconographic and textual evidence for the use of furnaces that closely resemble fining hearths used in Yunnan, China, in the 19th century. But she admits: ‘However, presently, there exists no material evidence either in the form of artefacts or metallurgical waste for cast iron production in Greece’ (Photos 1987: 250). Without such evidence the claim must be considered highly speculative.

Kostoglou (2006: 57) shows the microstructure of a lump of cast iron which she interprets as an intermediate stage in the decarburization of grey cast iron. The microstructure shown is mysterious, and I cannot interpret it, but I must state categorically that it does not show decarburization.


It is a reasonable assumption that the earliest iron smelting in China was by the direct method, in bloomeries, but so far not a single ancient bloomery has been reported in Chinese archaeology. We can also be sure that iron was also smelted in blast furnaces very early on, but only one is known from before the imposition of the Han state monopoly of the salt and iron industries in 117 BCE.

The economically rational placement for charcoal-fuelled blast furnaces is in forests far from cities, among other things to avoid competing with the city for fuel. We have seen above that the ironworks before the monopoly were located in ‘deep mountains and remote marshes’. The monopoly brought the ironworks to the outskirts of cities, where state officials could supervise them without leaving their comfortable surroundings. This relocation had the side-effect of bringing the ironworks to places where archaeologists more easily find them, and dozens of Han state ironworks, all using blast furnaces, have been excavated and reported (see Table 2 in Wagner 2008: 201–209). Many of these excavations were by enthusiastic amateurs in the late 1950’s, spurred on by the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel (Wagner 2011); others were professionally excavated but only summarily reported; but a few have been documented in rich detail and give us an excellent view of blast-furnace iron production under the monopoly (Wagner 2008: 229–245). The few pre-Han ironworks excavated appear to show that the earlier technology was not substantially different.

A blast furnace excavated at Tieshenggou in Gong County, Henan 巩县铁生沟, identified by inscriptions as Henan Commandery state ironworks no. 3, was about 4.5 m high with elliptical cross-section, 3 × 4 m. It probably produced tons of pig iron per day, operating continuously for periods of a week or more. This high-carbon iron could be used directly in foundries, but fining hearths were also excavated in which it could be decarburized, converting it to wrought iron, the raw material of smiths.

What we do have from pre-Han archaeology is several iron foundries, where useful products were cast from the pig iron produced in the mountains. They used less fuel than blast furnaces, and it was rational to locate them in or near cities and towns, close to their customers. Iron was melted in large cupola furnaces a meter or more in diameter and probably 3–4 m high. The moulds were of clay or – amazingly – cast iron, and were of surprising sophistication (Wagner 2008: 147–159). Metallographic examination shows that many early castings were annealed for a period of days at high temperatures to improve their mechanical properties, producing what is in modern terminology called ‘malleable cast iron’.

A few metallographic examinations of wrought iron and steel artefacts tend to show, in the same way as in the Greek case, that steelmaking and quench-hardening were known but not yet fully mastered (Wagner 1993: 267–334; 2008: 128–134). But more work on this is desperately needed.

Iron artefacts of our period include all manner of weapons and tools, including agricultural implements such as ploughshares, hoes, spades, and sickles (documented in detail, Wagner 1993: 147–245). With very few exceptions, weapons were made of wrought iron or steel while implements were made of cast iron – often but not always malleable cast iron.


Alert readers may have noticed my difficulties choosing between the words discovery and invention. I write of the discovery of steel and the invention of iron casting, but I could just as well have switched the two words. In the present context the difference is unimportant: what matters is innovation. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have invented the helicopter in the 15th century, but the innovation came with Sikorsky in 1942.

Moses Finley (1981b) has documented what he sees as a lack of technological innovation in ancient Greece and Rome, and explains it as a consequence of the general use of slave labour and a related negative attitude among the elite towards work and towards technology in general. I see problems with this explanation, as I shall discuss further below.

Historians of technology love telling stories, no doubt because of our lack of persuasive overarching theories to explain such complex phenomena as innovation. I have three stories to tell, from different places, and times, and technologies, to illustrate the points that I wish to make about innovation.

1. Vacationing in pre-history

At the Experimental Archaeology Centre in Lejre, Denmark, for many years it was possible for families to take their summer vacation in the Stone Age. The motto of the Centre was Things speak when they are put to use. People who spent a period of weeks using Neolithic materials and tools in daily life learned a great deal about the possibilities, and the archaeologists learned from them (The Centre has since changed its name and focus, becoming more attractive to tourists.)

At the beginning of the Iron Age in the West we believe that an analogous process was at work. The smiths, working with this new material, learned its properties and developed efficient ways of dealing with it. Steelmaking in particular made this a superior metal, and a technological revolution began.

In China, perhaps about the same time or a bit later, smiths making meteoritic edges for bronze prestige weapons took up a metal that was new to them – smelted iron. We must assume that a similar learning process ensued, but the chronology of the development of wrought iron and steel in China is at the moment very uncertain. Current archaeological knowledge suggests that cast-iron implements became important before wrought-iron and steel weapons.

In the hypothesis I have outlined above, bronze founders in Wu discovered by experiment that they could melt and cast the new metal, bloomery iron, with techniques very similar to those of bronze casting. The same experiment could have been made, with some chance of success, anywhere, from the beginning of the Iron Age onward. We know that it was done in Medieval Europe.

There is no reason to assume that the experiment could never have been tried in ancient Greece. With a little luck and a bit of tinkering, a Greek bronze founder might well have melted some iron. But what could he then have done with it? What he produced would have been low-silicon white cast iron, which is hard and brittle and would probably have been ugly, full of blow-holes. This is no sort of metal for the kinds of things that Greek bronze founders made. The experiment would have stopped here, and there would be no innovation.

The bronze founders of Wu, on the other hand, made implements. These did not need to be pretty. The hardness and brittleness of white cast iron was less of a problem and sometimes an advantage. They began casting iron implements. Experience with the technology, ‘learning by doing’, led in time to the development of sophisticated foundry techniques to deal with the new metal effectively.

2. African diamond mining

Motlatsi Thabane (2003) tells a fascinating story of diamond mining in Lesotho in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In two regions of that country, Kao and Letšeng-la-Terae, large foreign companies regarded the diamond deposits as uneconomic, but individual diggers had great success, using apparatus of their own invention. Thabane describes the diggers’ technology and the way in which they developed it over a few years to greater and greater sophistication and effectiveness. Among his conclusions is:

[I]ndividual diggers had to deal creatively and innovatively with technical problems on a day-to-day basis. They continually improved their methods of working as well as their tools. Although large companies gave up Kao and Letšeng as uneconomic, the diggers’ innovations led to increased productivities at these deposits, thus casting doubt on the conclusions reached by these companies using advanced technology (Thabane 2003: 160–161).

The point I wish to emphasize in this case is that, when modern science is not involved, innovation, if it comes at all, will come from the people actually doing the work. No one else knows enough about it to make a useful suggestion. Whether they do innovate will depend on numerous factors. The nature of the technology may have a major influence, and other factors may lie in the province of sociology – a field about which I am entirely ignorant.

3. Modern copper smelting, 1895

In a book entitled Modern copper smelting, published in 1895, an American metallurgist took on the challenge of using modern science to improve a technology that had hardly changed since Medieval times. On the last page of the book he gives vent to frustration over labour relations in his industry:

It is difficult to avoid cliques about the furnaces, and for this reason a judicious mixture of nationalities will often prevent the deceptions, and the attitude of passive resistance to all improvements, that characterize a body of furnace-men of any one nationality. A mixture of Irish and Cornish furnace-men, with an American foreman, usually works well, as the men all dislike and distrust each other so much that they find it impossible to combine against the common enemy. … [T]he old race of prejudiced and bigoted furnace-man will gradually become extinct. …

Although one must not always expect to be met in the same spirit, the only way in which large numbers of workmen can be successfully managed is by employing extreme patience and a little more than perfect fairness, recollecting that it is easier for the educated, than for the ignorant, man to see the justice there may be in his opponent’s claims, or the weak points that may exist in his own (Peters 1895: 627–628).

Thus while workers may very well innovate, if not hindered by an ignorant employer, an enlightened employer may be hindered by experienced workers who believe they know best. And indeed they may know best: the last sentence suggests that the best results may come from an employer and a work force who can work together in mutual respect.

Moses Finley on technological innovation in ancient Greece

Finley (1981b: 176 ff) argues strongly that there was little technological innovation in Greece in the period we are interested in here. He lists a few, dismissing some as mere stylistic changes. In agriculture,

There was an accumulation of empirical knowledge about plants and fertilizers. But there was no selective breeding (of plants or animals), no noticeable change in tools or techniques, whether of ploughing or exploiting the soil or harvesting or irrigating. … Neither increased productivity nor economic rationalism (in Max Weber’s sense) was ever achieved in any significant measure, so far as we can tell.

We note that last phrase, so far as we can tell, and it seems important to remember that neither written sources nor archaeology can tell us very much about agricultural techniques or how they might have changed over time.

Finley explains this lack of progress (a word he does not use) as following directly from the use of slave labour, absentee landlordship, and negative attitudes toward practical matters. Much (not all) of agriculture was in the hands of slaves, managed by bailiffs who very often also were slaves. The landlords lived in the cities and took no interest in the management of their estates.

Modern study reveals that ‘absentee landlordism is a guarantee that customary methods are strictly observed though they may be antiquated’. Customary methods allowed for refinements – this may be said repeatedly – but normally stopped there. Hence economies of scale were not a realistic possibility for the very men whose holdings were hypothetically large enough and growing larger (Finley 1985: 113–114).

I have difficulty imagining a society in which the basic form of wealth – land – is largely in the hands of slaves who produce the income of absentee owners who take no interest at all in what they are doing. Obviously not a society that respected the old adage, ‘The eye of the master fattens the ox.’

Finley’s most important source for his claim about attitudes towards practical matters is in Aristotle’s Politics (1258b33):

A general account has now been given of the various forms of acquisition: to consider them minutely, in detail, might be useful for practical purposes; but to dwell long upon them would be in poor taste. … There are books on these subjects by several writers … anyone who is interested should study these subjects with the aid of these writings (Finley 1981b: 180; ellipses by Finley).

Finley concludes: Aristotle’s ‘curiosity was unbounded, but “good taste”, a moral category, interposed to put beyond the pale knowledge in its practical applications except when the application was ethical or political.’

And now I must ask about the Greek phrase here translated ‘in poor taste’. How broad is its range of meaning? Other translations have ‘irksome’ and ‘tiresome’ (Sinclair 1981: 89; Jowett and Butcher 1964: 25), not obviously moral categories.

Anyone who writes expository prose –probably including every reader of this essay – knows the challenge of deciding the level of detail in their text. Is Subject X so important that it must be dealt with in detail here, or is it peripheral to the purpose of the text? Should it be relegated to a footnote, or summed up briefly, with a reference to some other publication? If X is given too much space it may disturb the flow of the text and/or bore the reader. It can be ‘tiresome’ or ‘irksome’; perhaps some readers will feel that it is ‘in poor taste’. What I see here is Aristotle making that sort of decision. For details of certain practical matters he refers the reader to other publications, for they are less important in a text concerned with politics and ethics.

He tells us that books are available on these subjects. Such books would not have been written if there had not been literate persons who wanted to know what they tell. I suppose some slaves on farms may have been literate and might have had access to books, but on the face of things it is much more likely that the books were being read by landowners who were not at all indifferent to practical matters and what their slaves were doing.

A lack of innovation – if such there really was – is more easily explained by reference to the example of Modern copper smelting: the men and women doing the work on the farm knew it through and through, and changes demanded by a master with book learning and no hands-on experience would have met immediate obstruction. And the obstruction might very well have been warranted if, for example, the master wanted a new irrigation system but had only a vague book-inspired notion of how it was to be accomplished. On the other hand, the example of African diamond miners suggests that a group of uneducated workers, working together, can genuinely improve their technology. Whether a group of workers – slaves or freemen – will actually innovate depends on numerous factors influencing their group dynamics – cultural, sociological, psychological, economic, technical – that we can have no hope of uncovering.

Innovation in Greek iron

Specifically concerning innovation in iron technology, we have too little information to say very much. There was not much change in the design of weapons and tools: ‘typological studies of iron objects present limitations because all object types (swords, spears, knives, sickles) span more than six centuries’ (Kostoglou forthcoming). One may suspect that if the smiths innovated in their technology they would also have innovated in their products – but this is no more than a guess.

Thinking further about the organization of the smiths, we have seen that Demosthenes mentions a sword manufactory employing over 30 slaves, and Diodorus describes ‘a multitude of artisans in metal’ apparently collected in large workshops. This is contrary to the common image of the village blacksmith. Whether these groups of artisans would or could innovate in their work would have depended on the same unknowable factors that influenced innovation in agriculture.

Innovation in Chinese iron

From the first iron casting in the 5th or 4th century BCE, and a few centuries thereafter, a remarkable series of innovations occurred in China: the blast furnace, large cupola furnaces specifically designed for iron casting, sophisticated ceramic moulds, cast-iron moulds, malleable cast iron, and fining of pig iron to wrought iron. By the 2nd century BCE the technology was in place that would remain almost unchanged through the end of the Han dynasty.

What was the context of these innovations? As the Yan tie lun and other sources tell us, ironmasters assembled a multitude of workers in ‘deep mountains and remote marshes’. Were these workers slaves or freemen? We should probably say that they had no legal status at all: they had ‘abandoned the graves of their ancestors’ and lived and worked outside the reach of governments. Who were they? No doubt many were menial labourers, engaged in forestry, charcoal production, ore gathering, operating the blast, and all manner of fetching and carrying. There would also have been a core group of skilled and experienced workers under the command of an experienced foreman, perhaps the ironmaster himself.

It can only have been these workers who brought about this burst of innovation comparable to the Industrial Revolution two millennia later. Here again we confront the unknowable factors in group dynamics that can hinder or encourage technological innovation. But I am inclined to guess that the key was ironmasters who knew their technology and respected their workers, perhaps working side-by-side with them.

Concluding remarks

I have attempted in this essay to review the most relevant points of comparison between ancient Greece and ancient China, both in general and specifically related to the archaeometallurgy of iron. In the matter of innovation East and West I have suggested some aspects of the question. Much of what I have written may be seen as controversial, and I expect a lively discussion in our session.


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