Hutton Pulitzer’s so-called “Roman Sword Report”

Roman Sword!
Design Toscano Roman style sword.

On Andy White’s blog, I noticed the link for Hutton Pulitzer’s “Roman sword report” which is a very strange read. He constantly refers to it as a “200 page report” but it really just boils down to about 30 pages of diatribe. What follows is my critique of much of it.

Hutton’s claims are bolded and my critique follows.

1) The sword is 2,500 years old.

Yeah, not according to the real scientist with an actual degree and training to assess it. But let’s examine why he feels this way. I have a sword just like it hanging on my wall by the way. Bought it on Amazon.

2) “The approved party line date for the earliest is not based on its historic use for several thousand years, but based on only one fact: The date of when Electro-winning of metals was first demonstrated in 1847, and then the practice was first patented in 1865. Thus, they say “must have been electro-winned and thus that was not known until 1865, and then the systems were sold, so lets use 1880 for good measure.”

While zinc was known by Indian metallurgists before 1000 BCE and recognized as a unique metal around 800 CE, it wasn’t isolated until 1746. The use of refined copper and lead in the alloy suggest… well… refining. The earliest refining method was electrowinning which was started in the mid-1800s.

3) “The ONLY logical reason to introduce electrowinning into the testing of the Oak Island Roman sword by Dr. Brosseau is to use electro-winning as a “date setting” method. “

Brosseau noted the purity of the copper and the lead, the latter of which pooled as slag in several regions of the sword. The lack of contaminants within the copper and lead were consistent with them being refined. The earliest method to refine these two metals was the process of electrowinning, which was first done in 1847 (no evidence of electrowinning has been shown prior). Therefore, the logical reason for her to mention electrowinning is it was the earliest known refining process. The metals could very well have been refined by some other process at a much later time.

4) “However, when electro-winning is reviewed one finds the very metals such technology is designed to remove are still fully present within the Oak Island Roman Sword.”

The metals that remained in trace were probably introduced during the alloying process. The copper and the lead were apparently refined very refined, but within the alloying process, sometimes it’s helpful to add other elements. Nickel, for instance, can help the alloy resist corrosion (which the oxidized lead patina would also do in addition to creating an “aged” look). Nickel has a very high melting point and wasn’t isolated until the mid-1700s.

5) “Why did the Brosseau Report select only certain metals to
show in its analysis?” If they where to show all the metals contained, then one would be able to see the metallurgy fingerprint pointing to the swords antiquity.

The report by Brosseau showed what was relevant to the results. This is what reports do. Reports aren’t meant to publish complete data sets and drone on and on about data (though some do, unfortunately). Reports are meant to be quick, easy to follow explanations of results. But Brosseau’s data showed that there was 56% copper, 35% zinc, 2.6% lead, and 2.3% oxygen. Trace elements included nickel, iron, tin, aluminium, and arsenic. Since the main constituents add up to 95.9%, we can assume that the trace elements are the remaining 4% or so (there was a plus/minus of up to 1% on the main elements).

Alleged Roman Sword. Courtesy of the History Channel.

What isn’t clear in Hutton’s diatribe he calls a report (see, I told you some people drone on and on), is how the trace elements would be a “fingerprint pointing to the swords (sic) antiquity).” Here, it would seem, he’s simply making things up. For instance, since nickel wasn’t isolated until the mid-1700s, its use within the alloy (if intentionally added) also places the age of the sword much closer to modern times than Hutton’s claim of 2,500 years. All the trace metals are found in modern alloys even today. Aluminum wasn’t discovered until 1825, so if it was intentionally added, then–again–we’re looking at a modern sword.

Hutton says over and over things like Brosseau’s report “is based on predetermined bias and only talks about that which can be used to point to a ‘modern manufacture,’…” but fails at actually showing her “predetermined bias.” But, when a proponent of a pseudoarchaeological claim speaks about “predetermined bias,” you can bet they’ve heard that accusation more than once! He comes close to justifying his accusation a few times, each leaning on her comment that includes this passage:

“There is 30% zinc in this Oak Island Sword and we have been taught if there is zinc content then we must call it brass and not bronze and further, we are only allowed to identify something which is considered brass by the system as modern because even though brass is several thousands years old there was not a patent granted for it until 1865. Thus, using brass and its official patent date as the basis, we are able to use technicalities to discredit numerous real and authentic artifacts finds, which challenge the system.”

I can almost understand Hutton’s confusion. Almost. The fact that a patent was issued means that an idea is controlled, but that idea existed before the patent and, therefore, one can’t simply pin a date on the patent and call that the item’s oldest possible age. But that’s assuming that the isolation of zinc was something that happened long before Andreas Marggraf in 1746 since isolation of the metal would allow it to be used in sufficient quantities to create Gamma brasses (brass with at least 33% zinc). But the addition of 2.5% lead indicates a type of “360 brass” (brass with 2.5% lead and up to 35% zinc), which is used for machining (the lead helps keep the machining blades “lubricated”). Machining brass like 360 is a much, much later invention than 2,500 years ago.

So, yes… zinc was understood and used in the manufacture of brass in antiquity. But, zinc melts at 420ºC and boils at about 950ºC, below a temperature that would reduce zinc oxide. Ores containing zinc were added to crucibles of copper which reduced the ore to metallic state but didn’t melt the copper. Vapor from the zinc permeated the copper to form brass. The brass was then be melted to produce a uniform alloy. So you can see how there would be small amounts of zinc until it was isolated in the 16th century and more fully understood in the 17th century.

Okay, so Hutton’s nonsense about Brosseau not “adhering to scientific method” etc is dismissed. We can see how things aren’t quite the way he imagines it. He spends a lot of time trying to convince readers that zinc was common in percentages above 28% in ancient Rome, but never shows it.

6) “…there are more Archaeometallurgy studies which prove a greater than 30% zinc content proves the veracity and authenticity of Roman artifacts (sic).”

I think what Hutton is trying to say here is that there are data which show Roman artifacts dating to about 2,500 years ago (~430 BCE) which have greater than 30% zinc content. Except he doesn’t show one. Or refer to one. Not even in that very section where he made the claim.

He then does one of his cutesy little question/answer side bars on page 76 with this question: “From a historical perspective, have there been other bronze or high Zinc content Bronze Swords, which have been recovered through history and proven authentic?”

what follows are photographs of bronze swords and artifacts (none of them attributed at the photo, though presumably from museum collections). Why he shows bronze artifacts is not entirely clear. Bronze is a copper-tin alloy that sometimes has other metals in it. Lead was added to increase fluidity, for instance. Some metals, like zinc would end up in trace quantities. The addition of zinc in the earliest times would have been accidental since it occurs with deposits of other metals. But the inclusion of zinc would have been at a much, much lower percentage than the tin (generally around 12%). There simply is no such thing as a “high zinc content bronze sword.” If there was, it would be called a brass sword.

7) Hutton seems to be under the impression that XRF is a better testing method than scanning electron microscopy.

He would be right. If one needed testing done in the field. The SEM controls much better for contamination and has a much higher resolution than the portable XRF. If not used correctly, XRF can give false results. This occurs most frequently when inexperienced operators don’t properly line up the sample.

So what about Hutton’s own XRF data? He doesn’t show it. About it he will only make unsubstantiated claims:

• The ore was volcanic in nature
• The ore contained unique Zinc Oxides
• The ore had a naturally occurring high concentration of Zinc
• The ore came from a region known for Coal production thus being subjected to condensation of Coal-derived gases
• The ore mine shows a specific Ferris oxide contained within the ore, however the Brosseau reports calls Ferris Oxide an agent used to age an item, when it occurs naturally at the mine site

Hutton’s “200-page report” is really just a 30 page diatribe on how he doesn’t like being told he’s wrong. He wants it to come across as a scientific analysis yet also a presentation of “facts” to be judged by [insert audience]. What it really ends up being is a pseudoscientific rant using made up “facts” and a seriously misapplied theme. The theme that results is “there is a lot of zinc in old stuff, therefore Brosseau is wrong” but he fails to support this assertion. He shows some graphs and charts of zinc content prior to the 17th century that reaches percentages of 28%, which is consistent with what we know archaeologically. But these are all roughly around the first century BCE to the first few centuries CE in coins. None are over 30% and none are as old as 430 BCE. The upper limit for zinc content in antiquity was 28% and this was because alloys that exceed this percentage require a two-phase alloying method where one phase precipitates out into another. These methods simply weren’t around until the 18th century.

So it wouldn’t really matter what the concentration of zinc was in the ore his XRF allegedly shows. One could drop pure zinc ingots in a crucible with copper and the zinc will vaporize before the copper is molten. Or vaporize in contact with molten copper. In the latter method, you get percentages as high as, but very often lower than, 28%.

Unless Hutton shows the data produced by his XRF, then I call bullshit. I don’t think he has XRF data at all. He has 5 claims that he’s made based on it in the bullets above, so the burden of proof is upon him to back up what he says.

A pseudoscientist would not.
A genuine scientist would do so cheerfully with hope that peers could criticize it thoroughly.

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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