It’s also fantastically hard work. Barney, the guy running the demo, took ten hours to build the bloomery. Ten. Hours. Before he could even start the work. Then the iron ore had to be smashed into small pieces. The bellows had to be manned and pumped for seven hours. We got through at least two kilos of charcoal and smashed about the same amount of ore. Despite the other things going on at The Telling, I stayed around the bellows almost all day.
Some time during the afternoon, I started wondering why I didn’t want to do anything else. What was it about a Iron Age bloomery that had me so fascinated?
As I pounded pellets of ore between two stones, I realised what I was doing. I was making metal.
I was turning rock into metal. Into the metal that would be made into swords and shields, if we were in the Iron Age. But we’re not. We’re in the twenty-first century.
I was making the metal that would be made into the girders which support sky scrapers. That gets turned into car chassis. Or aeroplane wings. Or the knives people use to pierce the film of their ready meals. Or the screw drivers they use to change screws.
It was the metal that makes the electric cable which powers our homes. That is painted onto circuit boards for TVs and laptops and iPods. That makes SCART sockets USB to mini-USB cables.
Everything around us. Everything we take for granted. Everything I’ve always just kind of assumed… appeared out of thin air and onto supermarket shelves, I guess. It all comes from rocks. There’s no magical well of printed circuit boards, there’s just some poor bastard hauling huge lumps of rock out the earth. Rocks that are smashed and smelted and beaten into shape.
Poor old Ug the Caveman. He gets so much stick for sitting in his cave, banging his rocks together. Oh, the technological hipster says, with their tablet computer and smartphone and wet dreams of transhumanism, you’re so primitive. You’re such a cavemen. Why don’t you just sod off back to the Iron Age and let us developed humans live in the twenty-first century?
You know, that technological hipster sounds a lot like me five years ago. The truth–past me–is that we’re banging rocks together just as much as Ug is. The difference is that Ug knows what he’s doing, and we’re happy to believe that our high-end consumer goods simply materialize out the ether. If Ug could see us now, and if we could see the look on Ug’s face, it would be the same look he reserves for his children when they gasp in uncomprehending wonder at the sparks which materialise out of the ether as he bangs his rocks together.
(Addendum. I know it takes more than just metal, or other minerals derived from rocks, to make nearly all our consumer products. It also takes planets and petrochemicals. And petrochemicals are just really old plants and animals. That’s it, folks. Our modern age of wonders, all just rocks, plants and animals.)