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INTERROGATING THE SCOPE OF TECHNICAL ANALYSES OF IRON SLAG IN

UNDERSTANDING EARLY IRON WORKING IN AFRICA.

BY

NOMISHAN TERNGU SYLVANUS
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ABSTRACT

Slags are the most abundant and best preserved product of traditional iron smelting, and are

thus a staple of archaeometallurgical research in Africa. A wealth of technical information has

been gleaned from these studies, identifying the bloomery process as the universal method of

pre-industrial iron production across the Old World. Despite covering such a vast expanse of

land and spanning more than two millennia, there is little fundamental variability in the

resulting products (bloomery iron and fayalitic slag). This is at odds with the numerous

ethnohistorical studies of traditional iron smelting, particularly in Africa, that have documented

a bewildering array of practices, both social and technical. This is most spectacularly obvious

from the range of furnace designs, from a mere hole in the ground to elaborately decorated and

substantial structures kept in semi- permanent use. The social status of smelters within their

societies, or associated ritualized practices, are other examples of wide-ranging diversity in iron

smelting. Such diversity is not restricted to Africa, but is matched by a similarly wide range of

archaeologically documented furnace designs across prehistoric western Asia and Europe. This

paper attempts to chart some common ground among the extremes of technical analytical studies

of iron slag in understanding early iron working in African. First by exploring the inherent

factors providing the envelope of technical possibilities, and then identifying degrees of freedom

within this envelope which offer room for, or rather require, human decision taking. Some of

these decisions have left their traces in the slag, and teasing out these variables may eventually

offer insights into social and cultural practices through technical studies (Chirikure, S. and

Rehren, T. 2006).
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Introduction

The history of man dates back to as far as 2.6 - 3.5 million years (Williams et al 1993). Since

then, man has interacted with his physical environment. To survive the precarious environment

in which he found himself, he has to invent culture. Man’s first cultural attribute came in the

form of tools and implements with which to fight and conquer the environment. This came first

inform of stick/wood and stone, which was gradually or rather evolutionarily replaced by

iron/metal objects (Itanyi E.I. and Emeka E.O 2009).

This technology came in vogue during the Late Stone Age in Africa and the upper Paleolithic

age in other parts of the world. In some literature, it is referred to as the “Neolithic” or “New

Stone Age” and was generally marked with sedentary life, agricultural practices and climaxed

with urbanization. This process of iron tool production today is an ancient technology which is

continuing up till present in the form of blacksmithing (Itanyi E.I. and Emeka E.O 2009).

To a large extent, if not for a minimal percentage of the study areas, the technology and other

processes involved in the production of iron would have gone into oblivion. Some reasons for

this may be found on the abandonment of the technology. The second reason for it‟s nearly

extinction is that the smelters are no longer there (Itanyi E.I. and Emeka E.O 2009).

Iron working is one of the indigenous technologies of the Africans which is concretely and

convincingly applied when refuting the “Eurocentric” view that “Africans remained what the

Europeans made them”. In addition, “that Africans were more receptive than donor in the world

technological inventory”. The manner in which the origin of early iron technology in Africa was

studied in the past and the poor attention given to this crucial issue particularly with respect to

the nature and process of iron working in the region has created a weak picture of how the

industry functioned in the past (Itanyi E.I. and Emeka E.O 2009).
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These issues along with other factors spurred researchers in the African region to employ serious

efforts in the study of past iron working technology through the examination and technical

analyses of slags found in the African continent.

By interpreting the results of these analyses in conjunction with ethnographic, historical, and

experimental data, it is possible to reconstruct the techniques and ingredients that past smelters

and smiths employed in their crafts, and address important questions concerning the organization

of production, the people involved with the technologies both as practitioners and consumers, the

acquisition of raw materials, innovations and changes in technological approach, the

environmental and social changes that accompanied these technologies (Louise Iles 2017).

Brief Consideration of the Terms Iron Slag and Cinder

Iron Slag is the glass-like by-product left over after a desired metal has been separated (i.e.,

smelted) from its raw ore. Slag is usually a mixture of metal oxides and silicon dioxide (SiO2).

However, slags can contain metal sulfides and elemental metals. While slags are generally used

to remove waste in metal smelting, they can also serve other purposes, such as assisting in the

temperature control of the smelting, and minimizing any re-oxidation of the final liquid metal

product before the molten metal is removed from the furnace and used to make solid metal (See

Fig.1), (Fruehan, Richard 1998).

It is a term applied to the silicate complex, formed in the bloomery process when iron ore is

reduced in a smelting furnace. The main component of slag is the compound fayalite (Fe2SiO4).

Iron Slag may also contain gangue minerals from the ore, impurities derived from the fuel, and in

some cases wustite, silica, and various reaction products formed in the smelting process

(Bestwick, J.D and Cleland,J.H 1974).
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Depending on the conditions of furnace construction and the way of slag solidification either

outside or inside the furnace, two classes of smelting slags can be discerned; tap slags (as in most

European bloomery furnaces) and non-tap slags (as in prehistoric African smelting furnaces).

Two sub-types of slag can be recognized in general, this include:

 Sub-type A: Flow-type slag; solidified from molten or semi-molten condition. Lava-like

rippled appearance with a Black, dense, smooth surface.

 Sub-type B: Furnace-bottom slag; resembling a 'flat cake'. Formed at furnace bottom,

containing higher amounts of impurities from ore, fuel, and bloom. It has irregular 'coral-

reef' appearance, often spongy and porous, as well as coarser distribution of matrix and

grain than in flow-type slag (Bestwick, J.D and Cleland, J.H 1974).

The structure of many slags is intermediate between the two sub-types described above.

While Cinder is a drossy solid material that collects on the top of molten slag. When removed, it

resembles a mass of material infusible at the working temperature of the furnace, embedded in

partially fused material. Thus cinder never reached a molten nor free-flowing condition in the

furnace (Bestwick, J.D and Cleland, J.H 1974).

The term cinder is also used for the fused residue produced when coal, wood, grass, or other

organic materials have been burnt. Such residues, either iron free or with a low iron content, may

have a superficial similarity to 'true' slag and may give rise to mis-identification, as has happened

occasionally. Residue cinders have also been found on old kraal sites, where dry cow-dung had

caught fire and on the floors of grass huts that had been burnt down (Friede, and Steel 1980).

Therefore, whatever may be the case, a slag should be regarded as evidence for Iron Age

smelting operations only when it is found in a satisfactory context (with furnace debris, tuyere
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fragments, or ore and metal pieces), and when its analysis falls into the ranges established for

'normal' Iron Age smelting slags (Friede, and Steel 1980).

Archaeometric Techniques used in Iron Slag Analyses.

In general, there are three main categories of archaeometric techniques relevant to

archaeometallurgy, this include:

 Optical/imaging analysis: this is a qualitative microstructural analysis, undertaking a

visual identification of mineral phases present within a sample and their different

proportions. These methods are experience based, in that a researcher’s interpretation of a

given sample is based on prior knowledge of similar samples. These methods include

optical microscopy (both petrographic [thin-section] and metallographic [reflected light])

and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) (Mark Pollard et al. 2007).

 Elemental analysis: it is identifying and quantifying the elemental composition of a

sample. These methods include scanning electron microscopy (SEM) spectroscopy, X-

ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), neutron activation analysis (NAA), inductively

coupled plasma mass spectrometry or optical/atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP-

MS/ICP-AES/OES), atomic absorption spectrometry (AAS), and particle-induced X-ray

emission (PIXE) (Mark Pollard et al. 2007).

 Structural analysis: this is exploring the compounds present in a sample by analyzing the

crystalline structures within a sample. These methods include Raman spectroscopy and

X-ray diffraction (XRD) (Mark Pollard et al. 2007).

However, investigations of iron production generally use these techniques in two ways:
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1. To understand what a sample is formed of (i.e., its bulk chemistry or overall

composition), and

2. To understand how it formed (i.e., its microstructure) (Mark Pollard et al. 2007).

Thus, as noted earlier iron slag in general, is a particularly valuable asset for

archaeometallurgists, and importantly, it is one that tends to be very well preserved

archaeologically. Encased upon and throughout the slag is macroscopic and microscopic

information about the structure and operation of the furnace (e.g., slag tapping or non slag

tapping, the shape of the furnace structure that the slag solidified against), or the use of plant

materials in the furnace structure or as fuel. Together, these strands allow the reconstruction of

the chemical and physical environments of the furnace (Louise Iles 2017).

However, the analyses of iron slag in our area of study have been of a disturbing concern over a

long period of time as most researches rarely pounder on this aspect of iron tradition in Africa. In

this research however, the major target is to interrogate the scope of technical analyses of iron

slag in our bid to understand early iron working in Africa.

Technical Analyses of Iron Slag in Sampled Locations

According to Okafor (1993), analyses of slag in the Nsukka region of Nigeria indicate that, iron

smelting in the area dates between 200BC and 1450AD. However, this date has to be taken with

caution since it has not been finally proven. Okafor (1993) identified three phases of extensive

iron smelting in the area. The first phase according to him is dated to 765BC and is mainly

identified with cylindrical slags. The second phase is identified with tapped slags which are flat

with ropy surfaces. The third phase contains mainly aggregate slags which are pulled out from

shaft furnace and separated. Okafor (1993) was of the view that all the phases made use of shaft

furnace.
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In their article, Archaeo-metallurgical studies of iron smelting slags from prehistoric sites in

Southern Africa, published in the Journal of the South African Institute of Mining And

Metallurgy (1982), Friede H. M, Hejja A. A. and Koursaris A. logically discussed some of the

salient features of technical analyses of iron slag in the South African Sub-region as follow.

1. After several analyses, no essential differences were found between the composition of

slag samples from the Early Iron Age site near Broederstroom and that of a number of

samples from six Later Iron Age sites of the central and western Transvaal, Swaziland,

and Botswana. This fact strengthens the concept of iron-smelting technology that

remained basically unchanged during the whole period of the South African Iron Age

(4th to 19th century AD).

2. The composition of the slags found in the eastern and northern Transvaal is in some

respects (contents of titanium, alkalies, and earth alkalies) different from that of slags

found in other parts of the Transvaal and adjacent areas. The reason for such regional

differences lies mainly in the characteristics of the raw materials (ore, fuel, etc.) used in

the smelting process.

3. The majority of the slags examined microscopically show the presence of a SiO2, but not

of cristobalite, indicating that they were never exposed to temperatures of more than

1250°C. The presence of a SiO2 and of small amounts of cristobalite in some slags shows

that they were formed at furnace temperatures somewhat higher than 1250°C.

4. An important aspect influencing the results of archaeo-metallurgical investigations is the

statistical validity of the sampling methods and the accuracy of the testing methods used.

These factors have to be taken into account in the planning, undertaking, and interpreting

of archaeo-metallurgical work in the South African Sub-region.
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General Discussion

A number of studies have been carried out with a view to understanding better the process

involved in African iron technology. Investigations by Sassoon (1964), Sutton (1977), Anozia

(1979), Effiah-Gyamfi (1981) and Okafor (1983) demonstrated that extensive and complex iron

working was practiced in various parts of Nigeria. Artifacts of iron and other metals were

recovered from the same archaeological level for the first time at Daima site; thus, the transition

from stone use to iron was documented in Daima dated between 5 AD and 6 AD (Connah,

1969). The earliest evidence so far for ore exploitation and smelting of iron and metal was dated

700 BC at Opi Nsukka and 500 BC in Taruga-Nok site (Okafor, 1993; Shaw, 1970). Okafor

(1983) analyzed four specimens of slag in Nsukka area, but only the major elements were sought

and minor and trace elements were lumped together as others. Nothing is known about their

mineralogical phases, their free-flowing temperature, density and viscosity. These deficiencies

make this work less useful for comparative studies.

Goucher (1984) have studied iron working sites in Bassar, Togo, and applied analytical

techniques to the products of the technology to determine their chemical and mineralogical

composition. In Northern Ghana, Pole (1985) has described the various furnace types and

smelting techniques employed in the area.

A number of imitative experiments’ (Childs and Schmidt 1985. P 122) in reconstructing

techniques of African iron smelting have been carried out based on ethnographic models, aimed

at providing a better understanding of archaeological iron smelting remains; Friede and Steel

(1977) in South Africa, Todd, J.A and Charles, J.A (1978; 1979) in Ethiopia at phases of these

samples. The number of specimens used in this study was very small, so the results are

inadequate for comparative purposes.
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From Togo, Goucher (1984) published a summary of analyses of fifteenth century Bassar slags.

Although details of the oxide constituents were not published, major phases were identified as

fayalite, wustite, and glass. From the Ivory Coast, Bachmann (1982) made an analysis of slags

from the Senufo; major phases were identified as fayalite, wustite, spinel, hercynite and

magnetite. Their viscosity was found to be low and their free-flowing temperature to range from

11600C to 11900C.

Work among the Dimi iron workers of Ethiopia (Todd and Charles 1978) remains the most

detailed study of African iron working residues. Ores, slag and metal specimens were analyzed

and the results compared with the analysis of residues from Hani in Ghana, and from Central and

Western Sudan; most of these slags had a high flowing temperature of around 14000C. From

these analyses it was realized that it is difficult to do provenance studies from slag analysis using

trace elements.

Sometimes it is generally difficult to classify slag-like materials found at Iron Age sites. Such

'abnormal' slags have been reported from several Magaliesberg sites, especially from the large

Middle Iron Age site of Olifantspoorts. The analysis of these slags shows very high silicon

contents, low iron contents, and high alkalinity. No convincing explanation for the formation of

these slags has so far been given (Friede 1977).

In past decades, probably fewer than one hundred analyses of iron slags and iron artefacts

collected on African sites have been published. However, most of these analyses fall into

reasonably close ranges of elemental composition and may give, if carefully interpreted, results

useful for the evaluation of Iron Age metallurgy in Africa (Bestwick, J.D and Cleland,J.H 1974).
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Conclusion

A common factor, however, in much of the earlier literature is an underlying assumption of

constancy or stagnation in early iron smelting technology, despite glaring evidence of extreme

diversity in Africa, which can only be explained by a strong and sustained history of evolution,

development and adaptation (Paynter 2006).

The interplay between technological constraints and experimentation, regulating traditions and

taboos, and varying political and economic parameters thus results in a multifaceted record. Not

every action and decision leaves its trace, and many traces remain undecipherable. However,

modern archaeometallurgical research combining established and only seemingly incompatible

approaches with awareness for parameters relevant to the subjects of our studies, namely the

smelters operating in the past, and critical reflection on our own practices, can unravel details of

past practice and contexts previously out of reach of archaeological enquiry.

Of course, none of this is restricted to African slags. European and Asian iron smelters will have

operated in very similar networks of technical choices and constraints with complex interacting

and changing parameters, and possibly with the same level of sophistication, skill and aptitude

for change and development as their African counterparts, but still the African record is much

richer and therefore better suited to such a study (Pleiner 2000; Kronz and Keesmann 2005;

Paynter 2006).
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