Iron Age mining links ancient SA to the world

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Southern Africa's past can contribute to understanding today's knowledge systems.

Abigail Moffett and her colleague, Dr Foreman Bandama, excavating at the site. (Supplied)

Among a colorful spattering of glass beads, fragments of a gold plated rhino lie buried in a grave on Mapungubwe hill. A bundle of hoes, wrapped in hide and carefully stashed behind a smith’s forge, rest in the nook of a stone-walled site on the Highveld, and near a mine in Phalaborwa a pile of heavily vitrified copper crucibles are discarded in an ash midden beside an eroding hut floor. 

Both practical and prestigious, metals, as well as the technology used to make them, are an important part of southern Africa’s Iron Age. Whether buried, hidden or discarded, metals and their production debris reveal the social lives — and the nature of the society they functioned in and the role these objects played in the local, regional and global political economy — of people long dead.

Metallurgy was brought to southern Africa by early Iron Age farmers who, about 2000 years ago, made the dangerous journey across the Limpopo River and moved down along the eastern coast into southern Africa. Along with domesticated animals and plants, these farmers brought knowledge of metalworking, the highly potent and powerful process in which ore is transformed into metal. Initially iron and copper were mined, smelted and traded in southern Africa on a small scale. But by the beginning of the 18th century metal goods — from iron hoes to copper bangles — were widely consumed across southern Africa and fed into a global trading system that linked the Indian Ocean rim, from the Mozambican coast to the Middle East, India and as far as China. 

However, much is still unknown about when, how and under what circumstances metal production changed from small-scale domestic production to a specialised industry that produced large amounts of surplus, or how metal producers and their goods fitted into the wider political economy of the time. 

This is why Phalaborwa is so important: it provides the opportunity to study how the production (and not just the consumption) of metals occurred. It also gives us insight into how the production, use and trade in metals developed and changed over time in response to wider regional changes. 

The rich history of mining and metallurgy in Phalaborwa in the recent past is recorded in the oral traditions of the baPhalaborwa and Shangaan people. Phalaborwa was central to trade routes that went from the Indian Ocean coast to the interior communities. Along with other goods — such as salt, agricultural produce, cattle, cotton cloth and glass beads - the iron and copper that were mined in this region circulated in regional and global trading systems. 

The copper mines at Phalaborwa were mined for more than a thousand years, and provide the missing link between the first and second millennia. The mines also coincide with the rise of socio-political complexity in the region.

This is why Shankare, a habitation and metal production site in Phalaborwa, was chosen for research. As part of my doctoral fieldwork, a team from the University of Cape Town excavated the site in 2012. Shankare remains a mystery, with oral records strangely silent on its history and only the name —thought to be a Sesotho corruption of “Shangaan” — hinting at its past inhabitants. 

The site, located near the Kruger National Park, is a dome-shaped koppie. Elephants and buffalo frequently pass through the area and well-worn animal tracks weave between the grindstones and boulders that are scattered around the base of the hill.

Today, Shankare is on the premises of the Palabora Mining Company, the site of one of Africa’s largest open pit mines. But iron and copper production has been an important part of Phalaborwa’s economy for hundreds of years, sustaining local communities when there was little rain and tsetse flies made farming and cattle-keeping difficult. 

The secrets of metal work and the specialised skills required were closely guarded by the community’s metallurgists, whose numbers were few and positions prestigious. 

Metals objects had many uses for the bePhalaborwa, as well as for other African communities: iron was turned into agricultural tools (such as hoes) and weapons (such as blades and spears). Both iron and copper were used to make jewelry and ornaments. They were also used for trade — for example, iron hoes or copper rods known as marale were used for bride-price payments, tribute and fines. 

Although our fieldwork confirmed that Shankare was inhabited in the 19th century, it also revealed that most of the archaeological remains were much older. Discarded and buried in large ash mounds at the base of the hill were artifacts that predated the baPhalaborwa’s arrival by hundreds of years, and were left there between the 10th and 13th centuries. 

There is much less known about metal production and how copper and iron goods were exchanged and consumed between the 10th and 13th centuries, even though it is a crucial period in southern African history.

This period saw the rise of the first state system in southern Africa: Mapungubwe (AD 1220 to 1300), a complex socio-political system. Situated in the Shashe-Limpopo basin north of Phalaborwa, Mapungubwe was a powerful state that controlled the trade of commodities — such as gold, ivory, cloth, glass beads and copper, among others — between the inland communities and the international trade routes that took these goods from the Swahili ports around the Indian Ocean rim. 

Were these early metal workers at Shankare part of this sprawling system of trade? If so, were they independent producers or was the production and circulation of iron and copper also controlled by political centres such as Mapungubwe? 

Our research shows that between the 10th and 13th centuries, Shankare saw intense metal production. From the sourcing of ore at the nearby Lolwe Mine, to the smelting, melting, final production and possible re-use of both iron and copper, the evidence seems to suggest that this work was done by specialist producers with a high degree of mastery. The residues of metals that stuck to the edge of furnace walls and copper crucibles show that these metallurgists knew a great deal about the conditions and temperatures needed to refine copper metal from this complex ore body. 

There were also 1000-year-old trade items, such as spindle whorls for the spinning of cotton, glass beads of Asian origin and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean coast. Cotton cloth and glass beads were prestige items linked to elite status, and are thought to have been closely controlled by political elites in the Shashe-Limpopo region, raising the question of how these goods got to Shankare. The evidence from Shankare suggests that its occupants were politically and economically independent metal producers who exploited their access to copper and their position along the existing trade routes. 

Although much has changed since our pre-industrial past, the questions of resource control, organisation of production and the role of the exchange in metals in the political economy of South Africa remain no less pertinent. Studying the past, developing and sharing this knowledge helps to change the way that we think about southern Africa and its people, and contributes to an appreciation and understanding of indigenous knowledge systems.

Abigail Moffett is PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.

This publication is the culmination of a six-month-long Mail & Guardian project, called Science Voices, to teach postgraduate science students how to turn their academic writing into something the public can read and enjoy.

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