The Archaeology of Metal Production in Southern Africa
- Abigail MoffettAbigail MoffettDepartment of Archaeology, University of Cape Town
Metal production in southern Africa dates to the early first millennium ce when the technology of working iron and copper was brought into the region by incoming “Iron Age” farming communities. The mining and production of copper, iron, and later, tin and gold were important activities in the lives of communities in southern Africa throughout the past two millennia. Not only were metals central to livelihoods, like the iron hoe in farming, but metal objects were also enmeshed in the social and political fabric of society, with the transaction and display of them creating social identities and cementing relationships.
The production of different metals varied in space and time, from household production of iron for domestic consumption to more specialized production of iron, copper, and tin or seasonal production of gold. Metals produced in southern Africa were traded over long distances and fed into regional trade networks that expanded to the wider Indian Ocean rim. Copper ingots and iron gongs from central Africa and brass from Europe have also been recovered in southern Africa, indicating the complex directionality with which metals, and the ideas and technological innovations associated with them, flowed. Analyzing patterns in the production and exchange of metals can reveal both micro-shifts in political economy, such as changes in the gendered division of labor, to macro-shifts, such as changing regional political powers. As a result, the archaeology of metal production exposes many aspects of the lives of Iron Age farming communities in southern Africa through time.