Iron in the Altai began to be smelted 3 centuries earlier

4 July 2019

TSU archaeologists have obtained radiocarbon dating of Kosh-Agach type iron-smelting furnaces found in the Altai Mountains. It used to be thought that these furnaces appeared in the ancient Turkic era in the 6th–10th centuries. However, radiocarbon analysis showed that they appeared 300–400 years earlier, in the 3rd–4th centuries AD, that is, before the Turkic Khanate was formed. The research results were presented at the international conference Archaeometallurgy in Europe, in Miskolc (Hungary).

A total of 15 Kosh-Agach type furnaces were opened there - these are the largest furnaces of that time in all of Central Asia. The research was conducted in the 1970s–80s, and then their appearance was associated with the first Turkic Khanate. After that, studies on the archeological metallurgy of iron were not conducted in the area of the Gorny Altai for more than 40 years.

In 2018, TSU archaeologists conducted excavations of ancient iron smelting workshops on the banks of the Kuyakhtanar River. They used aerial photography and magnetic reconnaissance to detect furnaces and ore works. The dip-needle work helped to discover a furnace with excellent preservation that for the first time made it possible to completely restore the design and understand the ancient technology of smelting iron.

- The work helped to reassess the dates of occurrence of these furnaces in Altai. Radiocarbon dates showed that stoves of Kosh-Agach type appeared already in the 3rd–4th centuries AD. Very similar stoves are found later in Southeast Asia, - said Yevgeny Vodyasov, the project manager, staff member of the Laboratory of Social and Anthropological Research at the TSU Faculty of Historical and Political Studies. - This is a revolution in ideas about the development of metallurgy. If such complex and productive furnaces appeared in Altai earlier than in Southeast Asia, now we need to rethink existing ideas about the spread of technology. This can be greatly helped by research in the border areas of the Russian Altai of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China.

In the Kosh-Agach type furnaces it was possible to get an iron sheet weighing about one ton in one melting. 1,500 kg of clay and stone slabs weighing 1,200 kg were used for the construction of the furnace.

- We studied the underground chamber and the above-ground part of the furnace where the process of iron reduction from ore took place. This year, we will look for a place where they processed the iron balls, and we hope to find a forge, - explained Yevgeny Vodyasov.

The Tomsk scientists presented the results of their work at the international conference Archaeometallurgy in Europe 2019, in Miskolc (Hungary). This is the only specialized European conference on archaeometallurgy and takes place every three years. This year scientists from Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, France, and other countries took part. TSU archaeologists have become some of the few representatives of Russia and the only representatives of this research area from Siberia. In addition to the study of iron-smelting furnaces in the Gorny Altai, they spoke about the features of the metallurgy of the Kuznetsk Tatars and preliminary results of studies of the iron-smelting and forge coke heater in Gornaya Shoria.