Shame and soft metal mounts

Every student of Arms and Armor sooner or later recognizes one strange thing – it is not considered appropriate to study soft metal (gold, silver, copper) fittings.

The examples of such mannerism are too numerous to be mentioned. In the Caucasus, starting with Astvatsaturjan, there is a constant mentioning of “sabers of Iranian type” being used in Georgia, with the emphasis on shamshir Persian blades. Yet very few blades strictly adhering to this Persian type are known to exhibit any evidence of being used in Georgia. Persian guards on the contrary are extremely common on Georgian swords, and the older (17th-18th century) ones especially, as I would argue that Tbilisi guard makers did not become very prominent until 1790s. Yet these imports are never mentioned explicitly. Making blades is manly, making fittings – is not.

Similarly, it is hard to read a general book on nihonto without a reference to blades being exported to Ming China. No examples of such are known to have survived today. Yet Japanese guards are commonly found among 16th century archeological finds, but literally never addressed in the literature. In case when their presence cannot be ignored, like with the San Diego shipwreck, it is attributed not to trade, but to Samurai stormtroopers, staffing the Portuguese ships. Given the location of the found guards, for some reason, these Samurai would always have to sit literally on top of each other, and all their equipment, save the guards, would have to disintegrate upon the shipwrecking.

Even when we are not discussing exports, the situation does not substantially improve. There are probably at least two dozen major volumes dedicated to older (pre-1600) Japanese iron guards, and almost none dealing specifically with the soft metal (gold, copper) ones from the same period. An ugly like hell, huge and poorly worked circa 1500 guard can attract immediate fascination as representation of “true Samurai spirit”, “ultimate steel” and “the essence of wabi-sabi”, while those collecting older soft metal work often feel the need to excuse and justify their habit.

Where this comes from? Well, it is our old friend and arch-nemesis of decent ¬†scholarship – Machoism. Admitting exports of soft metal fittings classifies one’s nation as jewelers. Peddlers, moneylenders and materialists. Blades are on the contrary are associated with “superior cutting power”, silent and strong warriors, and other “cool” imagery. Exporting them is a sign of clear superiority.

Both iron and soft metal objects however at their very base – are metals processed by specialized craftsmen. There is no more “great militant nobility” emanating from the blast furnace, than there is from a chisel of a gold carver. Their export potential is often adjusted in accordance to abundance of the raw material, and copper rich countries will tend to export copper (and probably gold, if found in the same ore) fittings.