CultureEconomyNOV 19 EDITIONTrending

AFRICA’S SMELTING CULTURE

By: Chika Osuji

Smelting is the process of applying heat to ore in order to extract a base metal, a form of extractive metallurgy. It is used to extract many metals from Ores including silver, iron, copper, and other base metals. The smelting culture was known in in the Nok culture of Nigeria as early as 1000BC. This iron smelting technology went further by the Buntu expansion to Eastern and Southern Africa during 500 BC to AD 400 as shown in the Urewe culture.

A typical local smelting site

But the West was in the know of the cultural dimensions of African metallurgy. It was not until the looting of the Benin city by the British expedition of 1897 that the outside world learned of the West African traditions of figurative arts in metal, and not until the 1940s that these traditions were first investigated by archaeologists.
This practice of the cognitive and symbolic aspects of metallurgy in pre-industrial African societies is even more recent. Although, missionaries and colonial officials had drawn attention in the early 1900s to the rituals associated with smelting metals in Africa. The level of sophistication was very low and far below of what is needed to produce for example, a pattern – welded sword or some highly creative patterns.

However, Africa is big and smelting happened almost all over the place in many cultures. Some of these creative Iron smelting were produced and mostly used for everyday items – farming implements, ritual process and weapons.
In Nigeria, iron was fundamental to the rise of several important kingdoms – Benin, Dahomey, and the Yoruba kingdoms. Ife and Oyo were not left out. Taruga is just one of the sites in central Nigeria where artifacts from the Nok culture have been excavated. Since 1945, similar figurines and pottery have been found in many other locations in the area, often uncovered accidentally by modern tin miners, and dating from 500BCto 200AD.

Some smelted tools ornament on display

The region was probably moister and more heavily wooded during this period than it is today, but was till north of the zone of dense forests. The people would have subsisted by farming and cattle rising. As the climate gradually became drier, they would have drifted south, so the Nok people may have been the ancestors of people such as the Igala, Nupe, Yoruba, and Ibo, whose artworks show similarities to the earlier Nok artifacts.

Benin bronzes are a group of more than a thousand metal plagues and sculptures that decorated the palace of the kingdom of Benin. That art of bronze casting was introduced around the year 1280. The kingdom reached its maximum size and artistic splendor in the 15th and 16th century. For a long time the Benin Bronze sculptures were the only historical evidence dating back several centuries into the west African past and both the level of technical accomplishment attained in bronze casting, as well as the monumental vigor of the figures represented, were the objects of great admiration.

As mentioned earlier, the Empire flourished until 1897 when the palace was sacked by the English in reprisal for an ambush that had cost the British vice – consul his life. Archeological research into the technological life of the Haya of the northwestern Tanzania show that these people and their forebears 1500 to 2000 years ago, practiced a highly advanced iron smelting technology based on pre leading principles and, as a result, produced carbon steel. This sophisticated technology may have evolved as an adaptation to over exploit forest
resources.

The Royal city Mercoe, a 200km north of Khartoum in the ancient capital of the kingdom of Kush from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD. Kushite rulers controlled significant territory from the banks of the Nile at Moroe, in part, through their ability to ensure the production of significant quantities of iron. The extensive archaeological remains of meroitic iron production have been investigated over decades, and recently, a series of experimental iron smelts in a replica meroitic furnace has shed new light on the archaeological evidence.

Today, most of those smelting formed into various valuable objects of arts adorn many homes and museums local and abroad.

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