Bronze, Iron, and Steel: the Metallurgy of Game of Thrones

Posted: July 11, 2017 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , ,

Hey, this post, like many of my posts, is about the HBO show Game of Thrones (occasionally I talk about the book series it’s based on: A Song of Ice and Fire.) Will this post be safe for people to read, for those who are not up on the story and don’t want to be spoiled?

No.

Don’t listen to him. Everything is perfectly safe. We’re perfectly safe. Come be our guest for dinner.

The armorer considered that a moment. “Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.” (Jon I – A Clash of Kings)

Much is made in Game of Thrones of Valyrian steel, the nigh-mythical metal alloy whose secrets vanished with doomed Valyria. Much is made of Valyrian steel and with good reason. It’s rare, valuable, and possibly non-replicable. Valyrian steel weapons are superior weapons and also of powerful symbolic importance to the houses of Westeros.

And they’re hell on White Walkers. But I’m not here to talk about legendary carbon-rich iron, forged in the fires of a vanished empire.

I’d like to focus a bit on the more mundane metals of bronze, iron, and (non-Valyrian) steel. And how they have had an overall impact on Westeros. Wait! Where are you going? This might be entertaining ……

Oh, some of you are still here! You’re the best.

The Bronze Age of Westeros

Stories about the Children of the Forest often mention the weapon technology of the men they fought.

“The children of the forest are all dead,” said Mormont. “The First Men killed half of them with bronze blades, and the Andals finished the job with iron. Why a glass dagger should—”
(Samwell II – A Storm of Swords)

Before the Andals came to Westeros with their iron weapons, the First Men bore weapons and warlike accoutrements made of bronze. This turned out to be very effective against the epipaleolithic technology of the Children. (I don’t mean to dismiss the fact that the Children also had magic to back up their obsidian arrow heads and spear points, but that magic clearly wasn’t enough to stop men of all types from staking out their territory.)

I think modern people have a somewhat biased viewpoint in regards to bronze weaponry as opposed to iron weaponry. After all, if the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, that must mean bronze items were inferior, right? Well, that’s not super accurate.

Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, has a lower melting point than iron so it’s easier to work. Or at least those metals do not require quite as advanced smelting and forging facilities to do the job. Bronze tools in the ancient world were somewhat comparable to mild grades of steel, but bronze became too expensive to produce in preference to wrought iron.

In our world’s history, it’s believed that the transition from the bronze age to the iron age in tool development was largely based on a breakdown in trade, which had been bringing supplies of copper and tin together for bronze development. Iron deposits were more common, but bronze had previously been more commonly worked since it required less work to utilize.

Because the First Men are usually referred to as bronze weapon users, it follows that their society had developed the smelting tech to create bronze, but not necessarily iron. The Ironborn of the Iron Isles are also reportedly First Men, and probably developed iron-working technology out of necessity, due to the abundance of iron on the isles and my speculation of a lack of either copper or tin. I mean, they’re the Iron Isles, not the Bronze Isles or the Copper-Alloy Isles.

Bronze working for weapons and armor is still in evidence in Westeros, but mostly in the lands north of the Wall and largely by the Thenns. In the books, the Thenns are nearly always described as wearing armor consisting of bronze scales sewn on their leather shirts, with bronze helms and weaponry.

Tormund: Thenns. I f###ing hate Thenns.
Styr: Yup. Everyone does.

The Thenns come from a remote valley hidden amongst high hills, so there must be plentiful deposits of copper and tin for them to exploit. (Or else they wouldn’t have bronze.)

Most of the other Free Folk do not really have hereditary leadership, but the Thenns are an exception having a king of sorts called a magnar. The Thenn’s ability to field well-equipped fighters have probably contributed to the stability of their society, and to preserve a more feudal system than is the norm in the far north. (Because of this, I sometimes consider the Thenns and the Ironborn cut from the same cloth. Particularly because the Thenns seem to be so disliked by the other wildlings on the show, as set apart from the Free Folk as the Ironborn are from the men of the dry lands.)

Because bronze implements are far more resistant to corrosion than plain iron, I assume that the weaponry carried by most of the ancient wights are made of bronze.

This tracks, not only because iron weapons would have been reduced to rust over the years (particularly on the skeletal wights buried like land mines in the snow) – but the oldest wights would be First Men, who made use of bronze age technology.

The Iron Age of Westeros

The Andals came to Westeros as part of a second major migration from Essos. We kind of talk about the First Men as a sort of unified group, but they were probably many different groups of people, from many locations in ancient Essos, coming over at different times. But the Andals came from a specific region in Essos, with a specific religion. And they came with the expertise of working with iron, something that they’d learned from the Rhoynar, one of the major political powers in Essos at that time.

As I hinted above, the inhabitants of the Iron Islands probably already had facility with iron weapons, a skill that they most likely had been keeping to themselves.  (To clarify, I doubt that they were keeping it a secret that they had iron weapons. I’m talking about the specific knowledge of how to smelt the ore and work the iron.)

The Andals managed to push through most of the kingdoms of the First Men, but they were stopped by the men of the North, a land the Andals never conquered. Iron-working in the lands controlled by the Andals probably quickly became the norm, and as a result of any disruption in trade for southern copper and tin sources probably forced the northerners to shift largely to iron eventually. But because the North Remembers, the old use of bronze is remembered as well.

King Robb’s crown is reflective of this.

The ancient crown of the Kings of Winter had been lost three centuries ago, yielded up to Aegon the Conqueror when Torrhen Stark knelt in submission. What Aegon had done with it no man could say. Lord Hoster’s smith had done his work well, and Robb’s crown looked much as the other was said to have looked in the tales told of the Stark kings of old; an open circlet of hammered bronze incised with the runes of the First Men, surmounted by nine black iron spikes wrought in the shape of longswords. Of gold and silver and gemstones, it had none; bronze and iron were the metals of winter, dark and strong to fight against the cold.

With the widespread introduction of iron-working, it’s not a far jump to the pursuit of iron’s famous alloy, steel. Creating steel requires a precise quantity of carbon mixed in with the iron base. The Valyrians had contact with Westeros, since so many noble houses have passed down Valyrian steel swords from antiquity.

I would not be surprised if steel-making pursuits in Westeros were largely driven by smiths attempting to uncover the process for creating Valyrian-quality steel.  This strong, durable, and resilient alloy remained just out of reach, since it was most likely also magical. (Fans of the books have speculated that dragonfire is required, or possibly dragonglass fused in with the metal.)

Although the famous dragonsteel seems out of reach, the making of various grades of steel in Westeros is fairly common. Ned Stark, on seeing Arya’s sword Needle, recognized that it was castle-forged steel. He even identified it as something created by Winterfell’s blacksmith, Mikken.

We see Mikken giving the slim sword one last buffing before handing it to Jon in the second episode of the series. One can presume that work done at a castle would be of excellent quality, and we can also assume that there is non-castle-forged steel throughout the countryside, by lesser smiths who just need to get something passable created.

Ygritte remarked on the metallurgical efforts of the wildlings north of the Wall as well.

Ygritte: We can’t make steel as good as yours, that’s true. But we’re free.

Now, it’s possible that Ygritte was mistakenly comparing common wrought iron weapons as if they were steel to the true steel weapons of the south, but it does sound like some wildling smiths were trying to create steel weaponry. (Maybe to compete with the Thenns and their bronze. F###ing Thenns.)

What’s Happening In Essos?

Across the Narrow Seas, bronze weaponry and armor are still in evidence.

Not that I think the people of Essos are behind the times, I’m sure they can forge iron-based weapons (since the Rhoynar taught the Andals how to do it, before both groups emigrated to Westeros) but Essos is huge, copper and tin resources are probably available, trade is good and plentiful, and bronze is easy to create and work with.

The Titan of Braavos: We like bronze. Like my spray-on tan, bruh.
Daario: This is why I behead him later.

The Unsullied who serve Daenerys on the show appear to be using steel weapons (okay, I’m sure all that stuff is actually aluminum, but don’t sweat that) but the earliest incarnation of an Unsullied, shown at Illyrio’s palace in the first season, has the spiky-helmed warrior decked out in bronze-looking metal.

The Unsullied, like the Thenns up north or the First Men in the past, are almost always sporting bronze in the books.

Some fashions just never go out of style.

So, Who Is Making All That Stuff?

Part of the reason behind this post: a few months ago, I tweeted a request that if anyone had topics they’d like me to address, I’d consider it (because the show was going to air months later than usual, and I needed some topics to work up.)

My fellow blogger H. W. MacNaughton (you can check out his blog here) suggested that I write about the economics of all the steel armor and weaponry. We don’t see it being made, so are the houses of Westeros buying that gear from somewhere?

I don’t know if I really have a lot of insight into that question.

I guess the implication is that we don’t see the manufacturing process going into the weaponry. That’s true. We also don’t see lumber being cut, crops being planted or harvested, clothing being woven, masonry being quarried or cut. We don’t see fishermen catching fish, or weaving nets to catch the fish, or gutting the fish for the feasts. We don’t see animals being butchered, or horses being shod. We don’t see how the parchment for the ravens are put together, or the ravens being trained, or the production and acquisition of ink for writing all these furtive messages for the ravens to carry.

But, I think we assume all of that is happening.

Maybe just not exactly where we’re visiting. Crops are being planted and harvested out in the fields, animal husbandry is happening on farms, trees are cut in the forests. This stuff is probably happening in villages that aren’t currently under siege, which is what we’re more likely to see on the show.

But we do see many instances blacksmithing on the show.

We’ve already mentioned Mikken at Winterfell.

What’s up with Mikken? Did Jon threaten to kill his children if he didn’t make a masterpiece sword for Arya?

And we know that the Lannisters had a guy working for them at Harrenhal.

Gendry: Hey, can I grab my shirt?
Arya: Seven Hells no! It’s about time we saw some male boobies on the show.
Gendry: It doesn’t feel all that good, being objectified you know.
Arya: SMASH THE PATRIARCHY!

The same blacksmith who’d been trained in his craft at King’s Landing, which would be a pre-industrial hub of pre-industrial era manufacturing.

Ned: This is fine work. And I’m glad you’re wearing a shirt. Too many blacksmiths these days have this urge to flash a lot of skin. It’s unseemly.
Gendry: I know! I think they’re trying to get picked for a calendar or something.
Ned: Sad.

(Gendry also did some work for the Brotherhood without Banners. That kid’s got a lot of experience in wartime wares-manufacturing.)

Okay, obviously  Gendry isn’t a one-man foundry. We can assume that throughout Westeros, in each castle, in all the villages and hamlets, there’s at least one person who is handy and busy most days taking iron ingots and getting some wrought-iron implements shaped. Maybe even making steel items.

Ingots are probably being produced where the mining of ore is happening. I’d assume it is tons easier (possibly literally) and more convenient to smelt ore where it’s mined into ingots and cart them off to blacksmiths to work on, rather than shipping the ore.

Anyone know about Damascus steel, the nearly mythical quality steel used in medieval times? Superior steel weapons were forged in Damascus (yes, the city in Syria) but the ingots were shipped there from India, where the expertise in smelting iron ore into high quality carbon steel was known.

So it’s no wonder we don’t see smelting and slag and so on happening, unless a storyline had brought one of our characters to a mining operation. But no storyline has yet done that.

It’s true that we don’t see much pollution on the show. Realistically, we should be seeing smoke from cooking fires, hearthfires, as well as forges and other human activities that require a fire. Since King’s Landing is so heavily populated (along with locations like Meereen) we might expect to see some signs of activity in this regard, but I’m not surprised that the show hasn’t tried to simulate the actual living conditions of humans.

I mean, if Osha the wildling can be well groomed, unnaturally unhazy air can probably be forgiven.

But, there is an anachronistic aspect of the armor that we see on the show that I think is worthwhile talking about.

Looking the Part

All of the Seven Kingdoms are very brand-conscious when they’re equipping their soldiery.

It’s pretty easy to identify a soldier from the Stormlands as opposed to an infantryman from the Reach. Almost all regions seem to have standardized on a particular military look. The North is so big that they have some variation among the different major houses, but in general they all look northern. (Really, only the helmets are different. Maybe there are some other differentiating accents, like the Umbers’ fondness for chains.)

The fact that everyone pretty much is wearing a team uniform is convenient for the show watcher (the more observant ones at least) to identify who to root for and who to root against. (Although in some cases, it’s more like who to grudgingly root for and who to also grudgingly root for, if the situation is particularly complicated.) But it’s even more useful for the men on the battlefield to know that they should be trying to kill the guys in the distinctive Lannister armor, and knowing that their allies probably won’t mistake their dingy northern leathers for the fancy armor of a soldier from the Westerlands.

But, that’s kind of not authentic.

Okay, before I’m told that Game of Thrones isn’t real, and therefore I can’t say what’s authentic or not, let me elaborate.

In the books, armies are fielded in a manner consistent with armies in our own medieval history. Men at arms basically show up with whatever they have on hand. If you have bits of armor, or a good helmet that might have been your dad’s dad’s helmet, or maybe a helm dad brought back from a previous war taken from an enemy, that’s what you wear.

Knights would typically wear their personal colors and coats of arms, because they’re invested in everyone knowing that they’re a knight, and probably a specific knight. It’s better to capture a knight than to kill one, because they can be ransomed for money.

In the Battle of the Green Fork (in the books, Tyrion is not knocked unconscious at the start of the battle like he was on the show) Tyrion identifies the minor noblemen he’s fighting against by their sigils. Tyrion himself is dressed in a random collection of armor, since his imp-sized custom suit was still at Casterly Rock.

I think a good example of the type of arms and armor variety that could be found among the men-at-arms in Westeros can be found from Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s HENRY V.

There are guys who can afford armor and guys who can’t. Most of them with chain coifs, some with helmets (a variety) but not all. (I assume the knights have helms, they’re just not wearing them at the moment.)

So, in realistic medieval warfare, how did one foot soldier identify a friendly from a foe? Uh, they didn’t always. Battles were messy.

I’m not saying that everyone on a particular force wore identical armor. You can see some variation among Stannis’ men.

In general, they were going with centerline protection, and relied on padded coats over mail. (And nearly everyone had that distinctive Baratheon helmet.)

Everyone else was more or less uniform.

The Starks prefer leather jerkins or whatever over mail shirts. (Guys like Rickard Karstark enjoy some extra mail on the neck and shoulders. Robb, because he’s the boss, gets some sweet steel protection for his shoulders and arms.)

The knights of the Vale though, they beef up with a consistent look.

Along with the mail shirts (pretty standard for everyone, I guess) they sport better breastplates than the Baratheons, and everyone has shoulder guards.

The Lannisters and Tyrells also go all-in for uniformity among their troops, with a lot of protection afforded to even the common foot soldier.

The Lannisters have possibly the most distinctive and atypical-for-Westeros look…

The Tyrells are all about clean, uniform steel.

This returns me to the point that H. W. MacNaughton brought up to me. Just who is making all of this stuff?

It’s not that there’s an unbelievable amount of metal armor in evidence on the show. I mean, chain mail is not that hard to forge, and when you’ve trained an apprentice smith to hammer out a reasonable pot helm, they can probably keep doing that as long as there are available ingots.

But the vast uniformity of armor, specific to the geographic region, suggests manufacturing processes for which we have no evidence for. Just look at the Tyrell troops with Jaime. Those guys don’t look like they went to war with whatever random stuff they had on hand.

I don’t know if I really need to have this explained to me, or that the looks of the armor takes me out of the show.  As things go, it’s pretty easy to accept.

If I am forced to rationalize this, I can certainly imagine tons of crofter villages that do nothing but craft nearly identical suits of armor for the region, just like there are most likely smelting kilns set up at every mining operation that we don’t have a need to see.

It does seem a bit much, though, even as a rationalization. But I’m glad the show went this way. It simplifies knowing who’s-who by a great deal, and there really wouldn’t be any benefit in representing things in a more realistic manner.


Alright, that’s probably enough words on metalwork in Game of Thrones. (I could probably end all of my posts like that. “That’s probably enough words on [topic] in Game of Thrones.”)

But I’ll write a few more before I wrap things up.

Season Seven starts up this weekend. We’ve all been waiting a long time for new episodes.

Because I only write about the show when it’s not on the air, the later schedule for the show had me crank out twice as many weekly blog posts during the lead up then I had really planned on.

And next season will probably be pushed back even further.

So, I’ll probably take a break from blogging in regards to Game of Thrones, I can’t keep up at the same rate that I had been doing. We’ll just say that either my copper mines or my tin trade resources have dried up. I won’t be cranking out the blogging bronze so much.

It’s been my pleasure to write about the show, and for those who have been with me for awhile (or anyone who actually read this post all the way through, it was fairly long and dealing with a rather arcane topic) – thank you so much for being interested in what I’ve had to say about Game of Thrones.


(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)

Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (Obviously.) 

I make no claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2017 Some Rights Reserved

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Comments
  1. Leah says:

    I never really gave much thought to armour other than ‘You should have it’ in general – the only reason I know Pikemen are good against mounted units is because Civ 5 told me. I have a feeling I’m not going to be into the final run of the show as much because it’s war stuff, and it was the politics that got me into the show. Great post!

    More importantly, congratulations! Time for a well-deserved break. I look forward to all your twitter thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Leah! The Civilization games are a wealth of historical information.

      Not into war? Shame on you! War is just politics by other means! (Okay, I’m being a clown now. I totally get what you’re saying.)

      I’ll probably do what I did last year, wait a few days after the show has aired, and then do a long tweet thread with observations (hopefully it’ll be witty twitter…)

      This season: #BlackThorn confirmed!

      Minion: News, m’lady. Brynden Blackfish died at Riverrun.
      Lady Olenna: NO! He was secretly my boyfriend! It’s why he never married.

      Pat and Leah: #BLACKTHORN CONFIRMED!!!

      Lady Olenna: How did these strange people get into my sanctum?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So what are your thoughts on the creation of Valyrian Steel. What do you think the secret ingredient or technique is?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a good question. Valyrian Steel is something that can be reworked, just like the ingots of wootz steel from India could be worked to become items by the Syrians in Damascus, but they couldn’t recreate the steel making process – so Valyrian Steel might just be a proprietary secret. But we feel it needs magic to make it work, since the steel destroys White Walkers, like dragonglass does.

      So I lean towards obsidian being a required component, although I don’t have the materials science background to discuss if melting silicon into steel is even possible. (I think obsidian is mostly silicon, I should look that up.) Of course, magic doesn’t have to be too scientific.

      I’ve heard people assume that dragonfire is required, but I don’t know how I feel about that. That seems like a hard heat source to control.

      Some people think that the weapons of Iron Throne itself were transformed into Valyrian steel by Balerion’s breath, but I am skeptical.

      Thanks for the question, I appreciate the interaction, particularly from a dedicated Game of Thrones blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. joanna says:

    Fascinating post Pat. Harking back to your point about not seeing the manufacturing process brings this to mind – Lady Olenna’s contribution to the Lannisters’ war:

    “Eighteen hundred mounted lances. Two thousand in support. Provisions, so this city might survive the winter. A millions bushels of wheat. Half a million bushels each of barley, oats, and rye. Twenty thousand head of cattle. Fifty thousand sheep”.

    Apart from an astounding amount of agricultural provisions, eighteen hundred lances are a whole lotta lances to be delivered in one batch. And 2000 support troops also need kitting out. It feels like they were stockpiling for a rainy day. Perhaps each house had a Royal Armoury.

    For posterity, perhaps the best opening scene, in my opinion, is Season 4 Ep 01. The reforging of Ice, Ned’s Valyrian sword to two lighter swords: Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper.

    About not blogging during Season 7: when GoT is “live” in all its’ glory, who in their right mind (except paid journalists) wants to do that? And you need – deserve a Well Earned Rest.

    But I’m pretty sure you’ll being jotting down notes 🙂

    I read somewhere a while back that GoT statistically is the most (perhaps only) TV show that is talked about all year between seasons [Social Media, Internet etc). Whereas other shows are almost forgotten all year. Chatter occurs just before season commencement and during. But then fizzles out in record time.

    But during each new GoT season, there a comparative hush, a silence, a reverence, Everyone is drinking in what they’ve just witnessed. Except of course the weekly explosion on Twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for all of this! The Reach is a super rich place, so I can see them putting in the $$$ for a regional armory. Thank you for providing the numbers on cavalry and support troops.

      I appreciate the stats on the year long buzz for the show, and how my hiatus falls in line with other fan behavior. I’ll enjoy the time off (by emailing long emails to my favorite podcasts)

      Thumbs up on the amazing cold open in Season Four, when the Stark greatsword Ice is melted down, and reworked by a Volantene smith into the new swords.

      In the books, the smith tried to infuse a red hue into the metal, but it resisted, and the red was veined throughout the folds.

      As always, your replies give me a lot to consider, thank you. I look forward to chatting about the upcoming season, even if I won’t be blogging (I reserve the right for an odd post, here or there) while it’s on.

      Cheers! 🐉⚔

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Heya Pat!

    I have been spending a lot of time thinking about Valyrian steel myself. I agree that there has to be some sort of magical component, though what exactly that is I don’t know.

    You can still get swords and other items made from Damascus steel. A while back I bought some Damascus steel arrowheads for the wife for Christmas. Got her some obsidian arrowheads too. You never know when the White Walkers might show up.

    I have a feeling that Gendry is going to be doing some more forging before the show is over. I really want to see him rework some Valyrian steel, like maybe reforge Joffrey’s sword into something for the Starks. For that matter, I want to see him legitimized and made the new Lord Baratheon, since there are no more Baratheons otherwise.

    Anyway, counting down the hours here. You doing anything special for the premiere?

    ~Geoff

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for asking (and thank you for your accounts of Damascus steel and obsidian. You’re the Slayer!)

      Sunday is daughter’s birthday, so we’ll be seeing Spider-Man and having a birthday dinner.

      All the while, I will be nervously watching the clock.

      I think we can wrap up festivities in time for the show. Wife would like us to host a viewing party this season, and we might. We’ll just have to clean up the basement for guests.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. hopelessblog says:

    This was really interesting to read, this post really makes it sound like i’m reading about actual history that happened!

    Liked by 1 person

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