I am currently taking a class on the Languages and Writing Systems of Anatolia, focusing on the ancient Hittites and some of their neighbors and successors in the region. One of our readings was Alfonso Archi, “When Did the Hittites Begin to Write in Hittite?” in Pax Hethitica: Studies on the Hittites and their Neighbours in Honour of Itamar Singer. On p. 39 I read:
The words of the Tabarna, the Great King, are of iron. They are not to be thrust aside, not to be thrust aside, not to be broken. He who changes (them) his head will be cut off
This was from the Bronze age. While iron was not in common use, iron from meteorites was known. A dagger made from meteoric iron was found in Tutankhamun’s Tomb. What struck me was that the strength of iron was well enough known that the Tabarna (apparently Arnuwanda I, who died about 1370 BCE) could use it as a metaphor and expect his readers to understand it.
Decades ago in some old books I had read that in fact the Hittites did have iron weapons, which gave them military superiority over their rivals. There are obvious problems with this concept, as discussed in Bronze Age Lightsabers: Did the Hittites have Iron Weapons? (with a magnificiently silly illustration). Modern scholarship has rejected that notion; the Hittites of that era used bronze weapons and tools, just like their Egyptian, Babylonian, and other contemporaries.
However, meteoric iron was known throughout the region. In fact, the Hittite word for iron is transliterated from cuneiform as AN.BAR, which is actually the Sumerian term for the metal. Apparently the Hittites developed considerable skill at working iron as Violetta Cordani documented in The Development of the Hittite Iron Industry. A Reappraisal of the Written Sources
However, meteoric iron is rare. You could not equip an army with it. For that you need to smelt iron ore, which requires much hotter fires than needed for copper and tin. Did the Hittites know how to smelt iron? Some references suggest they did:
- Valério and Yakubovich, Semitic Word for Iron as Anatolian Loanword, in ИCСЛЕДОВАНИЯ ПО ЛИНГВИСТИКЕ И СЕМИОТИКЕ.
- ANCIENT IRON AND STEEL (Part I)
- Iron – The secret weapon?
I would like to read Iron in Anatolia and the Nature of the Hittite Iron Industry, but it is locked behind a paywall.
Even if they could smelt iron, they could not do so economically. Otherwise they would have used iron rather than bronze for weapons and tools. Bronze is made from copper and tin, which are not nearly as common as iron. Once efficient smelting processes were developed, iron weapons and tools replaced those of bronze, largely because they were much cheaper. Hence the Iron Age followed the Bronze Age. The disruption of the tin trade routes at the end of the bronze age might have motivated the search for more effective iron smelting processes.