New Acquisitions from Japan: Damascus Steel Swords
Special metals workshop at the Freilichmuseum at Hagen
Gerdt Janssen, Museum blacksmith
HEPHAISTOS 3/4 1995, p.22
Tr. Mike Spencer
The Freillicht Museum at Hagen has opend a new restoration workshop. The occasion was marked by the presentation of two important Japanese swords for the museum's collection.

New Acquisitions from Japan:
Damascus Steel Swords

From now on, master smith and restoration specialist Gerdt Janssen will have 40 square meters of workspace avalable for maintianing and restoring the valuable collection of Damascus steel artifacts at the Westfalian Freilichtmuseum at Hagen.

Rebates have been cut in the workbenches so that Janssen can do the delicate work required by the centuries-old artifacts under magnification in comfort and without fatigue-induced vibrations. Two hunderd exhibition pieces in the museum, many with filligree ornamentation, will be restored to their original splendor. The most pressing matter to deal with is corrosion damage in the existing collection. In addition, new acquisitions can be restored to the best possible condition.

And what could be more fitting to celebrate the opening of the new workshop than the presentation of two new artifacts that Janssen will get to work on? Museum expert Kerstin Stolz proudly presented two old Japanese swords, one 400 and the other 600 years old. One of these rare pieces fills a serious gap in the museum's Japanese collection and comes with the much sought after certificate of authentication from the Japanese Sword Society. The Hagen collection consists primarily of daggers, swords, sabres, long guns and pistols of Damascus steel.

This complicated metal technology was known as early as twenty-five hundred years ago. Steel and iron were cut, drawn, folded and forged at high heat until the several million layers were developed that are responsible for the markedly sharp and elastic blades of Samurai swords to which magical properties are attributed in myth and heroic tales. The ancient Normans, Franks and Gauls relied on similarly advanced technology for their most valued swords.

This technique was especially highly developed in Japan and India. Scholars are still arguing over the origin of the name "Damascus steel". One theory is that it derives from the name of the Syrian city of that name because it was at one time the main center of trade in steel.

Museum director Dr. Michael Dauskardt announced the "International Society for Damascus Steel Research", recently established at the Freilicht Museum. It will now be possible to have some coordination in research activities in this field. The society plans scientific conferences, a newsletter and public lectures. President of the new society is German "Damascus smith" Manfred Sachse of Mönchengladbach, to whom the museum also owes gratitude for the core of its collection.

Translator's note:
The translator is aware that the term "Damascus steel" as it is colloquially used in English is not the correct term to describe Japanese swords and that what English speakers mean by the term varies a great deal. Here, "Damaszenerstahl" is translated "Damascus steel" without trying to settle any controversies by choice of words. It is also clear from context that reference to the inlay technique also known as "Damascene" is not intended.
-- mds

Copyright © 1995 HEPHAISTOS Internationale Zeitschrift für Metallgestalter. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for educational or other not-for-profit purposes.
Updated 7 July 1995 -- Michael Spencer