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Ancient Metals 3

Ancient Metals 3

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Published by palcoleto

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Published by: palcoleto on Dec 24, 2012
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Gold Foil, Strip, and Wire in theIron Age of Southern Africa
ANDREW ODDY
G
old has been an important metal in the southeastern part of Africa for at leastthelast millennium, and possibly longer, and many sites show signs of primitive(although usually undated) mining activity (Summers 1969). There are three mainsites in Southeast Africa where gold artifacts from the later Iron Age have beenfound: Mapungubwe in the northern Transvaal, which flourished in the eleventh andtwelfth centuries; Great Zimbabwe, which flourished in the thirteenth and four-teenth centuries; and some rich burials at Ingombe Ilede in Zambia, which date fromthe late fourteenth and/or fifteenth centuries.Gold was one of the commodities that brought early explorers and traders southon the Red Sea. Although in the time of Solomon the ships had probably reachedonly as far south as the Gulf of Aden, by the first century
C
.
E
.at the latest, Greeksfrom Egypt had rounded Cape Guardafui and sailed down the East African coast,probably as far as Rhapta opposite the island of Zanzibar (Casson 1989). The map(Fig. 1) shows this ancient route. It is likely, however, that Arabs had penetrated intothe Indian Ocean well before this time; Arab traders subsequently reached as farsouth as Sofala, establishing trading posts along the coast, at least from the ninthcentury
C
.
E
.These posts were outlets for the products of the interior, of which goldwas probably one of the most important.
1
As a result of the settlements by Arabs and their intermarriages with the indige-nous peoples, the Swahili culture developed along the coast, and this culture hadmaritime trading connections with the Red Sea, the coast of Arabia, and ultimatelywith India. Even shards of Chinese ceramics dating from the Sung Dynasty (
C
.
E
.960–1279) onward have been found at Great Zimbabwe (Summers 1963:46, fig. 14).The tenuous contacts with the cultures of Arabia and India, which are proven byimports from these regions, raise the question of when external influences first pene-trated the African interior. The cultural origins of the great stone ruins in modernZimbabwe, the best example of which is Great Zimbabwe, were much debated in theearlier part of this century. It has long been recognized, however, that the ruins were
 
built by a wholly indigenous (Bantu) civilization. This recognition stands, despiteongoing arguments for the penetration of the gold-producing areas by Indians andeven Indonesians at least two thousand years ago (Hromník 1981).In fact, the history of gold use is intimately bound up with that of other metals.It is also well known that the exploitation and use of metals by the peoples of theAfrican continent varies greatly from region to region. The great natural barrierscreated by geography and climate meant that the use of metal did not show the samepattern of development in West and East Africa, nor in the Mediterranean coastalregions north of the Sahara. During the early first millennium
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.
E
., iron use occurredat sites in eastern sub-Saharan Africa as far south as the Transvaal, but its method of introduction has been much debated and is still unclear. The beginnings of food pro-duction and the first working of iron appear to be roughly contemporary, however.At about the same time, a movement of peoples took place, accompanied by thespread of the Bantu family of languages. Whether these concurrent cultural changesall resulted from the same event or were purely coincidental is still being argued. Inthe past it has even been suggested that iron smelting was an independent discoveryin sub-Saharan Africa, but the increasing availability of radiocarbon dates for IronAge sites now supports the view that knowledge of iron was introduced from thenorth and spread southward (Phillipson 1985:149).One of the links in the chain was, presumably, the kingdom of Meroë, whichwas established in the sixth century
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.
C
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E
.in what is now Sudan, where vast depositsof slag from iron smelting have been found. Meroë is separated from Egypt by desert.For this and for political reasons, communications were established in other direc-
184
G
OLD
F
OIL
,
S
TRIP
,
AND
 W
IREINTHE
I
RON
 A
GE
FIGURE 1.
Map of Africashowing principal sites men-tioned in the text.
 
tions, particularly eastward toward the Red Sea and southeastward toward theemerging Aksumite civilization in the highlands of Ethiopia. The heyday of ironproduction at Meroë was apparently during the last centuries
B
.
C
.
E
.when iron wasexported in return for luxuries from the north and east, which were imported via theRed Sea route. Iron use appears to have been established in the area around LakeVictoria during the last few centuries
B
.
C
.
E
., and reached as far south as Natal byabout
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.
E
.300. It is noteworthy that over an enormous area of eastern and southernAfrica, the earliest iron-using communities show a remarkable degree of culturalhomogeneity (Phillipson 1985:171ff).This all began to change in about the tenth century
C
.
E
.when the Iron Age pop-ulation began to expand. Domestic animals became more common, and actual min-ing for metal ore supplanted—or at least augmented—collection from the surface.Atthe same time, regional differences in the material culture became marked in thearchaeological record. Powerful kingdoms began to emerge in which trade and theresultant wealth were controlled by an elite stratum of society. In the area of present-day Zimbabwe, many sites preserve remains of stone-built monuments dating backto the early centuries of the present millennium (MacIver 1906). Few of these siteshave been excavated systematically, and many were deliberately ransacked in thenineteenth century by treasure hunters searching for gold; but some archaeologicalinvestigations have been carried out that have preserved evidence for the use of goldby the indigenous Africans. Gold artifacts are known to have been found—either byexcavation, treasure hunting, or accident—on about twenty sites altogether, all of which are within or close to the main gold fields in present-day Zimbabwe.The earliest site to have produced gold in any quantity is the acropolis atMapungubwe, a site in the northern Transvaal, about two kilometers south of theLimpopo River. The acropolis consists of a long, narrow, steep-sided sandstonehill,which has only two paths to the top and was, therefore, very easy to defend. Atthe top are traces of stone walls and rock-cut cisterns. It is thought that the thin cov-ering of soil must have been transported to the top in baskets and that the hilltopwas the living area as well as the burial place of the nobility.Serious excavations at Mapungubwe began in 1933. Several of the site’s richgraves, thought to date from the twelfth century, were found to contain iron-wirebangles, ivory bangles, bone tools, pottery, and gold. Excavations on the site havecontinued intermittently since then (Fouché 1937; Gardner 1963). Four differenttypes of gold objects have been identified: coiled-strip anklets, wire circlets, objectsmade of gold foil, and beads.
2
G
OLD
S
HEET
(
F
OIL
)
The best known of the finds from Mapungubwe is a small rhinoceros (Fig. 2) madeof gold sheet. Although rather crude in appearance, the body and legs are all madefrom one piece by hammering, indicating a passing familiarity with the principlesof 
repoussé
work. The front hips are nicely delineated, but on the whole, the execu-tion of the rhinoceros does not exhibit much skill, as the shaping has been partlyachieved by folding and creasing the gold.
185
O
DDY

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