The Social Archaeometallurgy of Iron in Ancient Great Zimbabwe Urbanism, AD 900-1800
I am currently employed as a PhD Candidate with Uppsala University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History to undertake research on the archaeologies of iron production during Great Zimbabwe’s urbanization process. What remains today of Great Zimbabwe, once an important political, religious and trading centre (c AD 1250-1550), is its famous monumental architecture, a masterpiece of human creative genius (UNESCO). More than a century of recurrent research on the grandeur of the drystone architecture has cast many other aspects of the ancient settlement’s lifeways into oblivion. In this PhD study, I choose to explore Great Zimbabwe iron space as an integral component of its social, economic, political and environmental systems and processes.
The narrowed focus on Great Zimbabwe’s spectacular architecture and spaces within and around the constituent dry-stone walled enclosures has left many questions unanswered about the ancient settlement. How did Great Zimbabwe evolve from subsistence agro-pastoral communities in the first millennium AD into an integral urban phenomenon in the Indian Ocean trade network from the end of the same millennium? When did this evolution begin to accelerate towards greater social complexity? How did the urban centre develop in interaction with its countryside? To what extent can that interaction be historicized in light of the modern Euro-American experience of city-consumer and rural-producer duality? What was the nature and organization of material and social practices that were critical in generating Great Zimbabwe urbanism? It is the aim of the current PhD project to answer some of these questions and Great Zimbabwe’s iron industry is considered here as a social artifact.
To that end, I have already conducted archaeological field surveys and excavations in areas surrounding the Great Zimbabwe World Heritage Site. A large number of previously undocumented iron working sites have been identified, with a high likelihood of finding many more in the future. Other sites reported during surveys in sporadic surveys between the 1970s and 1990s by Paul Sinclair, David Collett and Webber Ndoro were confirmed or relocated. At the centre of this study are high quality archaeometallurgical materials such as multiple fused tuyeres, varied slag types, large circular and oblong furnace bases, furnace rubble, iron ore and some charcoal samples some of which have been radiocarbon dated and analyzed by ICP-AES and ICP-MS techniques. Data on iron production sites has also been integrated into a GIS to analyze shifting distributions and concentrations of industrial activities over time as humans socially engaged with their physical landscape and such resources as wood and iron ores.
In order to generate more socially imbedded insights into Great Zimbabwe’s iron space, results of archaeometallurgical analyses are viewed through several theoretical angles of materiality, agency, social practice and gender from anthropological and sociological sciences. This is in response to a call towards social archaeometallurgy, an approach that seeks to harmonize the differential emphasis of either technical or social aspects in archaeometallurgical studies. These various angles of approaching Great Zimbabwe are being currently elaborated in several publications in international journals which will be compiled into a PhD thesis.
Social archaeometallurgy, landscape archaeology, ancient African urbanism, historical ecology, urban ecology, gender.