The topic of early iron metallurgy in sub-Saharan Africa encompasses both studies of the technology and archaeology of indigenous iron production, and also an understanding of the role that iron production played in African societies before European colonization.
Some evidence from historical linguistics suggests that iron smelting may have been practiced by the Nok culture of Nigeria from as early as 1000 BC.Archaeological evidence indicates that the Nok culture smelted iron by at least 550 BC and possibly several centuries earlier. The nearby Djenné-Djenno culture of the Niger Valley in Mali shows evidence of iron production from c. 250 BC. The technology was spread by the Bantu expansion to Eastern and Southern Africa during c. 500 BC to AD 400 as shown in the Urewe culture.
Although the origins of iron working in Africa have been the subject of scholarly interest since the 1860s, it is still not known whether this technology diffused into sub-Saharan Africa from the Mediterranean region, or whether it was invented there quite independently of iron working elsewhere.Although some nineteenth-century European scholars favored an indigenous invention of iron working in sub-Saharan Africa, archaeologists writing between 1945 and 1965 mostly favored diffusion of iron smelting technology from Carthage across the Sahara to West Africa, or from Meroe on the upper Nile to central Africa, or both. The invention of radiocarbon dating in the late 1950s made it possible to date metallurgical sites in sub-Saharan Africa (since the fuel used for smelting and forging was always charcoal) and by the late 1960s some surprisingly early radiocarbon dates had been obtained for iron smelting sites in both Nigeria and central Africa (Rwanda, Burundi). This led some scholars to state that iron was independently invented in sub-Saharan Africa. The same findings weakened the diffusion hypothesis (at least for those sites in Sub-Saharan Africa for which such early dates had been obtained), as there was no firm evidence at that time for the antiquity of ironworking in either Carthage or Meroe. Evidence of early Phoenician iron smelting in the western Mediterranean (900–800 BC) was not found until the 1990s. Phoenician iron metallurgy in North Africa in particular, dates to at least the 5th to 4th centuries BC and possibly to the 7th century BC, and, according to archaeometallurgist Manfred Eggert, "Carthage cannot be reliably considered the point of origin for sub-Saharan iron ore reduction." It is still not known when iron working was first practiced in Kush and Meroe in modern Sudan, but earliest known iron metallurgy dates from Meroe and Egypt do not predate those from sub-Saharan Africa, and thus the Nile Valley is considered unlikely to be the source of sub-Saharan iron metallurgy.
From the mid-1970s there were new claims for independent invention of iron smelting on central Nigerand from 1994–1999 UNESCO funded an initiative "Les Routes du Fer en Afrique/The Iron Routes in Africa" to investigate the origins and spread of iron metallurgy in Africa. This funded both the conference on early iron in Africa and the Mediterranean and a volume, published by UNESCO, that has generated much controversy because it included only authors sympathetic to the view that iron was independently invented in Africa.
Two major reviews of the evidence were published in the mid-2000s.Both authors concluded that there were major technical flaws in each of the studies claiming independent invention. Three major issues were identified. The first was whether the material dated by radiocarbon was in secure archaeological association with iron-working residues. (Many of the dates from Niger, for example, were on organic matter in potsherds that were lying on the ground surface together with iron objects). The second issue is the possible effect of "old carbon": wood or charcoal much older than the time at which iron was smelted. This is a particular problem in Niger, where the charred stumps of ancient trees are a potential source of charcoal, and have sometimes been misidentified as smelting furnaces. A third issue is the inherent lack of precision of the radiocarbon method itself in the range from 800 to 400 BC, which is attributable to irregular production of radiocarbon in the upper atmosphere. Unfortunately most radiocarbon dates for the initial spread of iron metallurgy in sub-Saharan Africa fall within this range.
Controversy flared again with the publication of excavations by Étienne Zangato and colleagues of their excavations in the Central African Republic.At the site of Oboui they excavated an undated iron forge, for which they obtained eight consistent radiocarbon dates of 2000 BC. This would make Oboui the oldest iron working site in the world, and more than a thousand years older than any other dated evidence of iron in Central Africa. Opinion among African archaeologists is sharply divided. Some accept this interpretation, but it has also been suggested that Oboui is a highly disturbed site, with older charcoal having been brought up to the level of the forge by the digging of pits into older levels Questions have also been raised about the unusually good state of preservation of metallic iron from the site.
The site of Gbabiri (also in the Central African Republic) has also yielded evidence of iron metallurgy, from a reduction furnace and blacksmith workshop, (dating somewhat later than that from Oboui); with earliest dates of 896-773 BC and 907-796 BC respectively.
Archaeological sites with early dates containing iron smelting furnaces and slag have also been excavated dating to 750 BC in Opi (Augustin Holl 2009) and Lejja dated to 2,000 BC (Pamela Eze-Uzomaka 2009), both in the Nsukka region of southeast Nigeria in what is now Igboland.
In 2014, archaeo-metallurgist Manfred Eggert argued that, though still inconclusive, the evidence overall suggests an independent invention of iron metallurgy in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In summary, there is no proof that iron working technology was taken across the Sahara into sub-Saharan Africa; nor is there proof of independent invention. Given the multitude of potential problems with radiocarbon dating in the first millennium BC, archaeologists trying to date the earliest African metallurgy need to make routine use of luminescence dating of the baked clay from smelting furnaces.
Even though the origin(s) of iron smelting are difficult to date by radiocarbon, there are fewer problems with using it to track the spread of ironworking after 400 BC. In the 1960s it was suggested that iron working was spread by speakers of Bantu languages, the original homeland of which has been located by linguists in the Benue River valley of eastern Nigeria and Western Cameroon. Although it has been proposed that no words for iron or ironworking can be traced to reconstructed proto-Bantu, [ citation needed ]the toponymy in West Africa such as Ilorin suggest otherwise (short for Okuta Ilorin, literally meaning the site of Iron-Work). The linguist Christopher Ehret argues that the first words for iron-working in Bantu languages were borrowed from Central Sudanic languages, probably somewhere in the vicinity of modern Uganda and Kenya, while Jan Vansina argues instead that they originated in non-Bantu languages in Nigeria, and that iron metallurgy spread southwards and eastwards to speakers of Bantu languages, which had already dispersed into the Congo rainforest and into the Great Lakes region. Whichever of these interpretations is correct, the archaeological evidence clearly indicates that iron and cereal agriculture (millet and sorghum) spread together from southern Tanzania and northern Zambia, starting in the first century BC, all the way south to the eastern Cape region of present South Africa, which was reached by the third of fourth century AD It seems highly probable that both iron metallurgy and cereal agriculture were spread through this vast area by migrations of people speaking Bantu languages.
All indigenous African iron smelting processes are variants of the bloomery process. A much wider range of bloomery smelting processes has been recorded on the African continent than elsewhere in the Old World, probably because bloomeries remained in use into the 20th century in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, whereas in Europe and most parts of Asia they were replaced by the blast furnace before most varieties of bloomeries could be recorded. W.W. Cline's compilation of eye-witness records of bloomery iron smelting over the past 250 years in Africais invaluable, and has been supplemented by more recent ethnoarchaeological and archaeological studies. Furnaces used in the 19th and 20th centuries ranges from small bowl furnaces, dug down from the ground surface and powered by bellows, through bellows-powered shaft furnaces up to 1.5 m tall, to 6.5m natural-draft furnaces (i.e. furnaces designed to operate without bellows at all). The truly remarkable variety of African bloomery furnaces presumably reflects local adaptations to particular ores, ecological conditions and social circumstances, such as abundance or shortage of labour.
Over much of tropical Africa the ore used was laterite, which is widely available on the old continental cratons in West, Central and Southern Africa. Magnetite sand, concentrated in streams by flowing water, was often used in more mountainous areas, after beneficiation to raise the concentration of iron. Precolonial iron workers in present South Africa even smelted iron-titanium ores that cannot be used by modern blast furnaces. This is because titanium oxide is not reduced in bloomeries, and mixes readily with iron and silica to produce fluid slags. In the blast furnace titanium oxide is partially reduced and makes the calcium-magnesium-silica-alumina slags sticky, so that they cannot be drained from the furnace.Bloomery furnaces were less productive than blast furnaces, but were far more versatile.
The fuel used was invariably charcoal, and the products were the bloom (a solid mass of iron) and slag (a liquid waste product). African ironworkers regularly produced inhomogeneous steel blooms, especially in the large natural-draft furnaces. The blooms invariably contained some entrapped slag, and after removal from the furnace had to be reheated and hammered to expel as much of the slag as possible. Semi-finished bars of iron or steel were widely traded in some parts of West Africa, as for example at Sukur on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, which in the nineteenth century exported thousands of bars per year north to the Lake Chad Basin.Although many African ironworkers produced steel blooms, there is little evidence in sub-Saharan as yet for hardening of steel by quenching and tempering. or for the manufacture of composite tools combining a hard steel cutting edge with a soft but tough iron body. Relatively little metallography of ancient African iron tools has yet been done, so this conclusion may perhaps be modified by future work.
Unlike bloomery iron-workers in Europe, India or China, African metalworkers did not make use of water power to blow bellows in furnaces too large to be blown by hand-powered bellows. This is partly because sub-Saharan Africa has much less potential for water power than these other regions, but also because there were no engineering techniques developed for converting rotary motion to linear motion. African ironworkers did however invent a way to increase the size of their furnaces, and thus the amount of metal produced per charge, without using bellows. This was the natural-draft furnace, which is designed to reach the temperatures necessary to form and drain slag by using a chimney effect – hot air leaving the topic of the furnace draws in more air through openings at the base. (Natural-draft furnaces should not be confused with wind-powered furnaces, which were invariably small). The natural-draft furnace was the one African innovation in ferrous metallurgy that spread widely.Natural draft furnaces were particularly characteristic of African savanna woodlands, and were used in two belts – across the Sahelian woodlands from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and in the Brachystegia-Julbenardia (miombo) woodlands from southern Tanzania south to northern Zimbabwe. The oldest natural-draft furnaces yet found are in Burkina Faso and date to the seventh/eight centuries The large masses of slag (10,000 to 60,000 tons) noted in some locations in Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali reflect the great expansion of iron production in West Africa after 1000 AD that is associated with the spread of natural-draft furnace technology. But not all large scale iron production in Africa was associated with natural draft furnaces – those of Meroe (Sudan, first to fifth centuries AD) were produced by slag-tapping bellows-driven furnaces, and the large 18th-19th century iron industry of the Cameroon grasslands by non-tapping bellows-driven furnaces. All of the large-scale iron smelting recorded so far are in the Sahelian and Sudanic zones that stretch from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east; there were no iron-smelting concentrations like these in central or southern Africa.
There is also evidence that carbon steel was made in Western Tanzania by the ancestors of the Haya people as early as 2,300-2,000 years ago by a complex process of "pre-heating" allowing temperatures inside a furnace to reach 1300 to 1400° C.
These techniques are now extinct in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa, except, in the case of some of techniques, for some very remote regions of Ethiopia. In most regions of Africa they fell out of use before 1950. The main reason for this was the increasing availability of iron imported from Europe. Blacksmiths still work in rural areas of Africa to make and repair agricultural tools, but the iron that they use is imported, or recycled from old motor vehicles.
Iron was not the only metal to be used in Africa; copper and brass were widely utilised too. However the steady spread of iron meant it must have had more favourable properties for many different uses. Its durability over copper meant that it was used to make many tools from farming pieces to weaponry. Iron was used for personal adornment in jewelry, impressive pieces of artwork and even instruments. It was used for coins and currencies of varying forms. For example, kisi pennies; a traditional form of iron currency used for trading in West Africa. They are twisted iron rods ranging from <30 cm to >2m in length. Suggestions for their uses vary from marital transactions, or simply that they were a convenient shape for transportation, melting down and reshaping into a desired object. There are many different forms of iron currency, often regionally differing in shape and value. Iron did not replace other materials, such as stone and wooden tools, but the quantity of production and variety of uses met were significantly high by comparison.
It is important to recognize that while iron production had great influence over Africa both culturally in trade and expansion (Martinelli, 1993, 1996, 2004), as well as socially in beliefs and rituals, there is great regional variation. Much of the evidence for cultural significance comes from the practises still carried out today by different African cultures. Ethnographical information has been very useful in reconstructing the events surrounding iron production in the past, however the reconstructions could have become distorted through time and influence by anthropologist's studies.
The Iron Age of Africa was based around the agricultural revolution, driven by the use of iron tools. Tools for cultivation and farming made production far more efficient and possible on much larger scales. Fishing hooks, arrow heads and spears aided hunting. Iron weapons also influenced warfare. These items, in addition to the production of other iron goods helped stimulate economic activity, the rise of chiefdoms and even states. The control of iron production was often by ironworkers themselves, or a "central power" in larger societies such as kingdoms or states (Barros 2000, p. 154). The demand for trade is believed to have resulted in some societies working only as smelters or smiths, specialising in just one of the many skills necessary to the production process. It is possible that this also led to tradesmen specialising in transporting and trading iron (Barros 2000, pg152). However, not every region benefited from industrialising iron production, some suffered environmentally from problems that arose due to the massive deforestation required to provide the charcoal for fuelling furnaces (for example the ecological crisis of the Mema Region (Holl 2000, pg48)).
Iron smelters and smiths received different social status depending on their culture. Some were lower in society due to the aspect of manual labour and associations with witchcraft, for example in the Maasai and Tuareg (Childs et al. 2005 pg 288). In other cultures the skills are often passed down through family and would receive great social status (sometimes even considered as witchdoctors) within their community. Their powerful knowledge allowed them to produce materials on which the whole community relied. In some communities they were believed to have such strong supernatural powers that they were regarded as highly as the king or chief. For example, an excavation at the royal tomb of King Rugira (Great Lakes, Eastern Africa) found two iron anvils placed at his head (Childs et al. 2005, p. 288 in Herbert 1993:ch.6), suggesting their importance and powerful significance. In some cultures mythical stories have been built around the premise of the iron smelter emphasising their godlike significance.
The smelting process was often carried out away from the rest of the community. Ironworkers became experts in rituals to encourage good production and to ward off bad spirits, including song and prayers, plus the giving of medicines and even sacrifices. The latter are usually put in the furnace itself or buried under the base of the furnace. Examples of these date back as far as the early Iron Age in Tanzania and Rwanda (Schmidt 1997 in Childs et al., 2005 p. 293).
Some cultures associated sexual symbolism with iron production. Smelting is integrated with the fertility of their society, as with natural reproduction the production of the bloom is compared to the conception and birth. There are many strict taboos surrounding the process. The smelting process is carried out entirely by men and often away from the village. For women to touch any of the materials or be present could jeopardise the success of the production. The furnaces are also often extravagantly adorned to resemble a woman, the mother of the bloom.
The Iron Age is the final epoch of the three-age division of the prehistory and protohistory of humanity. It was preceded by the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. The concept has been mostly applied to Europe and the Ancient Near East, and, by analogy, also to other parts of the Old World.
Smelting is a process of applying heat to ore in order to extract a base metal. It is a form of extractive metallurgy. It is used to extract many metals from their ores, including silver, iron, copper, and other base metals. Smelting uses heat and a chemical reducing agent to decompose the ore, driving off other elements as gases or slag and leaving the metal base behind. The reducing agent is commonly a source of carbon, such as coke—or, in earlier times, charcoal.
Wrought iron is an iron alloy with a very low carbon content in contrast to cast iron. It is a semi-fused mass of iron with fibrous slag inclusions, which gives it a "grain" resembling wood that is visible when it is etched or bent to the point of failure. Wrought iron is tough, malleable, ductile, corrosion-resistant and easily welded.
A blast furnace is a type of metallurgical furnace used for smelting to produce industrial metals, generally pig iron, but also others such as lead or copper. Blast refers to the combustion air being "forced" or supplied above atmospheric pressure.
Bog iron is a form of impure iron deposit that develops in bogs or swamps by the chemical or biochemical oxidation of iron carried in solution. In general, bog ores consist primarily of iron oxyhydroxides, commonly goethite.
The Wealden iron industry was located in the Weald of south-eastern England. It was formerly an important industry, producing a large proportion of the bar iron made in England in the 16th century and most British cannon until about 1770. Ironmaking in the Weald used ironstone from various clay beds, and was fuelled by charcoal made from trees in the heavily wooded landscape. The industry in the Weald declined when ironmaking began to be fuelled by coke made from coal, which does not occur accessibly in the area.
A bloomery is a type of furnace once used widely for smelting iron from its oxides. The bloomery was the earliest form of smelter capable of smelting iron. A bloomery's product is a porous mass of iron and slag called a bloom. This mix of slag and iron in the bloom, termed sponge iron, is usually consolidated and further forged into wrought iron. The bloomery has now largely been superseded by the blast furnace, which produces pig iron.
The Nok culture is an early Iron Age population whose material remains are named after the Ham village of Nok in Kaduna State of Nigeria, where their terracotta sculptures were first discovered in 1928. The Nok Culture appeared in northern Nigeria around 1500 BC and vanished under unknown circumstances around 500 AD, thus having lasted approximately 2,000 years.
Tell Hammeh is a relatively small tell in the central Jordan Valley, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, located where the Zarqa River valley opens into the Jordan Valley. It is the site of the earliest bloomery smelting of iron, from around 930 BC. It is close to several of the larger tells in this part of the Jordan Valley as well as to the natural resources desirable in metal production: access to water, outcrops of marly clays, and above all the only iron ore deposit of the wider region at Mugharet al-Warda.
Ferrous metallurgy is the metallurgy of iron and its alloys. It began far back in prehistory. The earliest surviving iron artifacts, from the 4th millennium BC in Egypt, were made from meteoritic iron-nickel. It is not known when or where the smelting of iron from ores began, but by the end of the 2nd millennium BC iron was being produced from iron ores from Sub-Saharan Africa to China. The use of wrought iron was known by the 1st millennium BC, and its spread marked the Iron Age. During the medieval period, means were found in Europe of producing wrought iron from cast iron using finery forges. For all these processes, charcoal was required as fuel.
The Urewe culture developed and spread in and around the Lake Victoria region of Africa during the African Iron Age. The culture's earliest dated artefacts are located in the Kagera Region of Tanzania, and it extended as far west as the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as far east as the Nyanza and Western provinces of Kenya, and north into Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Sites from the Urewe culture date from the Early Iron Age, from the 5th century BC to the 6th century AD.
Metals and metal working had been known to the people of modern Italy since the Bronze Age. By 53 BC, Rome had expanded to control an immense expanse of the Mediterranean. This included Italy and its islands, Spain, Macedonia, Africa, Asia Minor, Syria and Greece; by the end of the Emperor Trajan's reign, the Roman Empire had grown further to encompass parts of Britain, Egypt, all of modern Germany west of the Rhine, Dacia, Noricum, Judea, Armenia, Illyria, and Thrace. As the empire grew, so did its need for metals.
Ancient iron production refers to iron working in times from prehistory to the early Middle Ages where knowledge of production processes is derived from archaeological investigation. Slag, the byproduct of iron-working processes such as smelting or smithing, is left at the iron-working site rather than being moved away with the product. It also weathers well and hence it is readily available for study. The size, shape, chemical composition and microstructure of slag are determined by features of the iron-working processes used at the time of its formation.
Experimental archaeometallurgy is a subset of experimental archaeology that specifically involves past metallurgical processes most commonly involving the replication of copper and iron objects as well as testing the methodology behind the production of ancient metals and metal objects. Metals and elements used primarily as alloying materials, such as tin, lead, and arsenic, are also a part of experimental research.
Copper metallurgy in Africa encompasses the study of copper production across the continent and an understanding of how it influenced aspects of African archaeology.
Taruga is an archeological site in Nigeria famous for the artifacts of the Nok culture that have been discovered there, some dating to 600 BC, and for evidence of very early iron working. The site is 60 km southeast of Abuja, in the Middle Belt.
Ashdown Forest formed an important part of the Wealden iron industry that operated from pre-Roman times until the early 18th century. The industry reached its peak in the two periods when the Weald was the main iron-producing region of Britain, namely in the first 200 years of the Roman occupation and during Tudor and early Stuart times. Iron-smelting in the former period was based on bloomery technology, while the latter depended for its rapid growth on the blast furnace, when the Ashdown area became the first in England to use this technology.
Non-ferrous extractive metallurgy is one of the two branches of extractive metallurgy which pertains to the processes of reducing valuable, non-iron metals from ores or raw material. Metals like zinc, copper, lead, aluminium as well as rare and noble metals are of particular interest in this field, while the more common metal, iron, is considered a major impurity. Like ferrous extraction, non-ferrous extraction primarily focuses on the economic optimization of extraction processes in separating qualitatively and quantitatively marketable metals from its impurities (gangue).
The pre-history of Northern Nigeria spans the period covering from the early history of the planet to the time of written historical records. There has been very little investigation into the History of Northern Nigeria before the rise of human civilisation.
Opi is a community in Enugu State of South-Eastern Nigeria. It is populated by the Igbo people and located in Nsukka region. It is the location of a prehistoric archaeological site which contains iron smelting furnaces and slag dated to 750 BC.. Iron ore was smelted in natural draft furnaces and molten slag was drained through shallow conduits to collecting pits forming huge slag blocks weighing up to 47 kg. The operating temperatures are estimated to have varied between 1,155 and 1,450 °C.
MetalAfrica: a Scientific Network on African Metalworking