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date: 02 October 2023

Precolonial Iron Production in the Great Zimbabwe Hinterland (900–1900 ce)locked

Precolonial Iron Production in the Great Zimbabwe Hinterland (900–1900 ce)locked

  • Ezekia MtetwaEzekia MtetwaUppsala University


Iron, critical for its utilitarian and ceremonial functions, was the staple metal in the socioeconomic, political, and environmental transformations of the prehistoric settlement of Great Zimbabwe during the first and second millennium of the Common Era (ce). Great Zimbabwe is the largest and one of the earliest settlements associated with social complexity, urbanism, and statehood in the southern African region, established by people with an agro-pastoral, mining, metalworking, and trading lifestyle. The size of the Great Zimbabwe settlement and its significance as a political, religious, and international trade center would have required considerable supplies of finished iron tools and other metal objects, particularly during its fluorescent urban phase spanning the 11th and 16th centuries ce.

Since the early 1990s, research within and around the drystone-walled urban center of Great Zimbabwe reveals that from at least the end of the first millennium ce, the settlement experienced significant transformations in its iron production technologies in the broader hinterland. These changes corresponded, presumably, with other technological and sociopolitical developments at the drystone-built urban center. Forms of evidence including tap slags, tuyeres fused in multiples, and natural draft furnaces (one with a long base), clearly indicate that the people of Great Zimbabwe employed remarkably complex and varied designs and approaches to produce iron from its ores.

Again, evidence of primary and secondary iron production activities at Great Zimbabwe’s domestic and specialized settings outside settlements illuminate more significant spatiotemporal complexities and ambiguities in the organization of iron production than previously thought. Within domestic contexts, the smelting of iron would have offered an inclusive social space, which made possible the transformation of not just materials, but also women and children into active social agents of technology. This way of looking at iron provides an alternative and more socially embedded perspective of Great Zimbabwe and its daily material practices.


  • Southern Africa

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