Shadreck Chirikure

Senior Lecturer, Archaeology Department, University of Cape Town


Mandela Mellon Fellow: Fall 2012

Space, Time and Society: Exploring Africa's Mining and Metallurgical Past

Project Description

Space, Time and Society: Exploring Africa's Mining and Metallurgical Past

“...pre-European metalworkers are worthy of respect for the results they achieved with primitive methods” (Steel 1975: 232)

In technological terms, pre-colonial Africa is held in low regard (Wa Thiong 1994; Guyer 1996). Africa is often viewed as a backwater that achieved little of cultural merit (Trevor Roper 1965). For example, pre-colonial mining and metallurgy in the 19th century is assumed to represent unchanging continuities from the deep past (Cline 1937). Although recent research has demonstrated that socio-cultural life in Africa was inventive (Steel 1975; Guyer 1996: 1), ideas about the continent’s alleged backwardness are still strong. For instance, a Ugandan science teacher was overhead by a team of archaeologists researching pre-colonial iron smelting claiming that Africa had no science and technology before colonialism (Humphris et al 2009). Ironically, the teacher lived near a large scale iron production site. This requires well-informed research that identifies innovations and effectively communicates them to learners and members of the public.

Drawing from geographically sparse data available at the time, Cline (1937) created a synthesis of metal production techniques across sub Saharan Africa from raw material collection to the use of finished products. Since then, generations of scholars have produced technological and sociological information that enhanced our understanding of the subject. Herbert (1993)’s regional synthesis demonstrated the relationships between metallurgy, transformation, gender relations and belief systems. Miller (1997)’s work which was inspired by approaches from earth and engineering sciences focused on the reduction aspects of African metallurgy. The main limitation of the existing studies is that rarely were efforts invested to develop synergy between the sociological and the scientific approaches to yield an integrated reading of the past. Also, pre-colonial metal working is often exclusively treated as a male domain. And yet ongoing research on copper production at Mapungubwe demonstrates that women made the crucibles that were utilized in the process. Furthermore, most of the existing studies use terms such as ‘traditional’ which struggle under the baggage of Eurocentricism, essentialism and timelessness. This status quo persuaded scholars such as Wa Thiong (1994) and Schmidt (2001) to call for the decolonization of the African minds through conducting incisive research and education to dismantle the misconceptions about the continent and its past.

This proposal answers the call by seeking to develop a diachronic understanding of mining and metal production in Africa across space from the deep to the recent past. It proposes to develop a trans-regional study of metallurgical techniques and the associated rituals within a combined framework of archaeometallurgy, GIS, anthropology and history. Archaeometallurgical research carried at Rooiberg in South Africa has uncovered innovations associated with tin working and how it was embedded within political systems at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe (Chirikure et al 2010). These trading towns exported the tin to the Indian Ocean rim regions, initiating globalization from very early times. Different dynamics were unfolding in different parts of Africa such that a cross-regional study has the potential to diachronically and spatially unravel innovations associated with African metalworking (Killick 2009). New work in regions such as Cameroon is pushing the pendulum of origins more towards the local invention of metallurgy in Africa (Holl 2009). This demands a study of the chronology of sites associated with early metal working in Africa and is achievable within the diachronic framework proposed here.

To address the identified gaps, access to a well resourced library that contains information from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa is essential. The W. E. B Dubois Institute Library at Harvard is renowned for its resources on pre-colonial Africa. It also hosts a dynamic GIS database known as AfricaMap. The database currently contains information on typologies of art, landscapes and population distributions. Rather than creating a new database, this proposal seeks to collaborate with the W. E. B Dubois Institute to digitize data on African metallurgy and transform it into themed layers of the AfricaMap Project.

In summary, although knowledge on African metal production exists, it is often variegated and isolated from other nodes of African society. This project seeks to address this information fragmentation by promoting the development of disciplinary synergies while considerably enhancing learning and information dissemination. This is only made possible by pulling together all available data into comprehensive publications and one single, dynamic and multi-layered database. This is the major goal of this proposal.

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