Socializing Indigenous African Metallurgical Knowledge

Socializing Indigenous African Metallurgical Knowledge: an experimental iron smelting workshop at the University of Pretoria
Ezekia Mtetwa


Saturday the 20th of June 2015 saw some of the staff members and students from the University of Pretoria and colleagues from UNISA, Ditsong Museum and the South African Archaeological Society joining me to re-enact aspects of indigenous African iron metallurgy at the UP Sport fields. I remain humbled and honoured for the opportunity to conduct that one-day experimental iron smelting workshop. The workshop, which borrowed immensely from my on-going PhD project on the Iron Industry of Ancient Great Zimbabwe, was entirely a brainchild of Drs Ceri Ashley and Tim Forssman of UP. They suggested it as part of my teaching visit at the University of Pretoria under the Palme-Linnaeus Exchange Program with Uppsala University in Sweden where I have a doctoral position.


By encouraging the active participation of male and female archaeologists from different academic specialities, the student community and other technology enthusiasts, a hyper and overwhelming atmosphere for socialising and communicating ancient metallurgical knowledge was effectively set-up. Killick and Fenn (2012:569) rightly note that there are fewer archaeometallurgists in universities around the world today than in the past. With this observation as a lodestar, the workshop took upon itself the humble but challenging task of bridging the ever-widening gap between consumers of modern and/or western science and technology and the ancient human experience of metal provisioning in Africa. Proceeding along the operational chain and division of labour concepts, participants were made to perform various activities and gestures to constructively create their own knowledge and experience of indigenous African metallurgy.


After a lecture on various aspects of iron smelting and archaeometallurgical field techniques, workshop participants had the pleasure of handling and feeling an assortment of iron technology artefacts from UP’s touch collection. Some of the participants proceeded to making their own tuyeres (clay blow-pipes), feeling the clay as they moulded it around sizeable bundles of thatch-grass. There was so much for experiential learning and investigation: furnace mounting and modification, crushing and roasting of magnetite iron ore, pre-heating of the furnace, fixing of bellows to the furnace, charging the hot furnace with charcoal and ore plus crushed bones and pumping the bellows in turns.


Perhaps the climax in the day, besides the ‘swallowship’ and fellowship over braai and beverages, was when the pumping of bellows triggered singing of some Shona special work-songs accompanied by rhythmic clapping of hands and dance. The technological effect of song and singing became handy when it invigorated and ecstatically translated Professor Innocent Pikirayi (the Head of Department Anthropology and Archaeology at UP) into a human compressor when it was his turn to pump the bellows. Instead of lasting the usual 5 minutes of intense bellowing, he transcended into some trance mode and pumped for not less than 20 minutes.

Suddenly it was sunset, time to disband the camp and jealously abort the experiment four hours after it started. It needed perhaps another four hours of diligent work into the night for the heavily cracked furnace to yield slag and the bloom. The four-hour pregnant furnace was made to abort its foetus, but not before the smelters themselves became pregnant with technological nostalgia and a profound first-hand experience in the concept of ancient African science and technology. The day’s investment in time, thought, physical labour and money was but not in vain. A couple of remarks from two workshop participants are worthy highlighting here. Dr. Ashley, a senior lecturer in the Dept. of Anthropology and Archaeology at UP, suggested that such a workshop be developed into an annual program because of its immense gains in knowledge creation and communication about the past. In concurrence, Mr Wynand van Zyl of Ditsong Museum added that next time, different universities and related institutions should be made to re-enact different iron smelting traditions from the African past in a competition arrangement after which results are compared and contrasted. I totally agree. Meanwhile, plans to analyse the little slag and sintered iron ore using a portable XRF machine are underway at UP.


By way of this guest post, I hereby sincerely thank all workshop participants, the student council and donors of various materials used for the workshop. I am equally indebted to the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at UP through Dr. Ashley, on behalf of its leadership and staff members who channelled all the much needed logistical, moral and material support towards planning my teaching visit and the workshop. I am sincerely thankful to the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History through Dr Anneli Ekblom, my second supervisor and the Palme-Linnaeus coordinator at Uppsala University, Sweden, for the opportunity to be at UP. Special thanks go to Dr. Forssman who worked tirelessly to make the workshop an event beyond imagination.

Guest post written by:
Ezekia Mtetwa
PhD Candidate
Uppsala University
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History


One thought on “Socializing Indigenous African Metallurgical Knowledge”

  1. The most humbling aspect of experimental archaeology, whether successful or a total fiasco, is that, one gets a first-hand experience of the constant struggle the ancient artisans wedged in meeting the ever-increasing demand for both ceremonial and utilitarian goods through technological innovation.

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