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Smelting iron at L’Anse aux Meadows


Staff demonstrated iron smelting to the public on July 7

L’ANSE AUX MEADOWS, N.L. – Visitors at L’Anse aux Meadows got to witness firsthand the long and arduous process of how the Vikings smelted iron 1,000 years ago.

On July 7, as part of Canada Historic Places Day and to mark the 40th anniversary of L’Anse aux Meadows being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park was open to the public for free.

The big attraction throughout the day was the iron smelt.

Using the technology and techniques of the Norse Vikings, staff smelted iron at the national historic site’s furnace hut.

The crew will produce nails and boat hardware with the iron they extracted, just as the Vikings did.

Interpreter Mark Pilgrim (portraying Ragnar Red Beard) led the smelting process. He had participated in many smelts before, but this was his first time as the master smelter.

The process ran from 7:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.

The team had to take turns continuously pumping air into the furnace throughout the day.

For Pilgrim, the most difficult part of the smelt was extracting the iron bloom from the furnace.

As he tore down the furnace and removed the bloom with a pair of tongs, sparks flew everywhere, including on him.

While two of the crew hammered away at the bloom to consolidate the iron, two others had to splash them with water because of the heat.

“I’m leaning over the fire that’s about 1,200 degrees Celsius and it zaps the energy out of me,” Pilgrim told The Northern Pen.

In the end, the entire process was a success.

Of the 29 kg of bog ore that was placed in the furnace that morning, they extracted 7.9 kg (17.4 pounds).

According to Brennan, for a good smelt you need to extract at least 10 per cent of the ore.

They exceeded that comfortably, extracting approximately 27 per cent.

“A thousand years ago, when the Norse lived here, they produced 2.5 kg,” said visitor experience team leader Matthias Brennan. “We almost tripled that this year.”

An eight-man crew participated in the smelt.

Five members were interpreters at the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site while the other three were Snorri West Program exchange students from Iceland.

“They were here for a week and it was awesome because they knew Icelandic,” said Brennan. “It was really cool to have people with that history here for that.”

He felt the project was highly rewarding for the entire staff, because it involved not just those partaking in the smelt but staff who, for instance, provided food throughout the process and helped prepare.

Brennan says the project was also a good opportunity for locals to visit the site.

The next step is to turn the iron into 300-400 nails. Pilgrim says the whole process of producing nails may take the entire summer.

The site hopes to use it for future programming.

This wasn’t the first smelt at L’Anse aux Meadows, nor will it be the last.

Pilgrim and Brennan say they hope to do it once a season.

stephen.roberts@northernpen.ca

Facts:

  • Smelting is a process of extractive metallurgy.
  • L’Anse aux Meadows is the first known place where Europeans settled on North America and Brennan says it is therefore also the first place where iron was forged on North America.
  • This was the third smelt at the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and the second in two years.
  • These smelts are the first times that iron has been forged at L’Anse aux Meadows since the Vikings did it 1,000 years ago.
  • This smelt was also the first-time actual Icelanders have been involved in smelting at L’Anse aux Meadows since the Vikings did it 1,000 years ago.
  • This was the first smelt to be left in the hands of Mark Pilgrim and the national historic site’s staff.
  • Everything used in the process was built by the staff.

Smelting process:

Mark Pilgrim (Ragnar Red Beard) explained the L’Anse aux Meadows Vikings’ smelting process to The Northern Pen:

  • Build a clay furnace, about 60 cm high, 37 cm wide. It is made of clay, sand and horse manure.
  • Three elements needed: 29 kg of bog ore (collected from bogs in the region) and iron oxide as the raw material, an air supply (billows pumped into the furnace) and 41 kg of charcoal as fuel supply.
  • The furnace has to be heated up to 1,200 to 1,400 degrees Celsius. These temperatures are hot enough to extract the iron from the sand.
  • The furnace was pre-heated with wood around 7:30 a.m. When that was finished, they filled the furnace with charcoal.
  • Around 10:15 a.m., they started pumping billows into the furnace at one pump per second of continuous air flow. Six of the eight team members took turns pumping air into the furnace until the extraction of the iron bloom.
  • Around 11:05 a.m., the first charge of ore was added.
  • The last charge was stopped at 5:15 p.m.
  • The bloom was pulled from the furnace at 6:15 p.m.
  • After hammering away at the bloom to consolidate the iron, they were left with 7.9 kg (17.4 pounds) of iron.

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