The Metal Workers of Phalaborwa

The small mining town of Phalaborwa is situated in the Letaba District of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The town was established in the 1950's, when modern mining began to exploit the Palabora Igneous Complex. This occurred about 1200 years after the unique rock formation was discovered and mined by the first metal workers settling in this barren part of the country.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Phalaborwa region was occupied by metalworking communities during at least two periods in the last 1200 years. Both phases of occupation (the 9th-13th and 17th-20th centuries) coincided with trade along the East Coast of Africa. Very little is known about the early phase of metal (mostly copper) working. There is a strong possibility that the metal trade was, at least initially, geared to address the needs of local communities rather than to cater for traders from elsewhere.

Long-distance trade between the South African interior and the East Coast, which started as early as the 8th century AD, expanded in the 16th century, when Europeans entered the Indian Ocean trade network. Phalaborwa became one of the hubs of the short- and long-distance trade networks. Different groups controlled the manufacture and trade of metals: the most dominant spheres of influence in Phalaborwa were those of the Makušane-Malatji and the Masêkê-Malatji. Later, in the 19th century, the domains were dominated by the Shai (in the Mašišimale Hills) and the Majaji-Malatji to the south and to the east of Phalaborwa (now the Kruger National Park), who had risen to prominence.

Metal-working sites in Phalaborwa

The present-day Phalaborwa landscape is dotted by approximately 53 metal working sites, the majority being associated with the syenite hills that stud the area. The settlement style of the metal workers indicates a geographical separation of primary (ore smelting) and secondary (iron forging and copper smelting and forging) metalworking activities.

The metal workers and their families lived on terraces located against hill slopes and on level ground, but iron and copper smelting furnaces were located some distance from these living quarters. Iron forge furnaces with massive anvil stones, on which iron bloom was forged, were built on terraces against the slopes of the hills or on level ground, mostly close to where the people lived.

This pattern is consistent with an ideology in which smelting was practised with ritual and was associated with many taboos. Smelting was done some distance away from villages, so that menopausal women could not attend or 'interfere' with these activities. Medicine holes in iron-smelting furnaces and certain iron forge furnaces served as receptacles for 'medicine', such as human hand bones. Other possible 'medicines' include aardvark remains, and the remains from lions and neonatal sheep. Some of these medicines were used to propitiate the forefathers to ensure a successful smelt.

The geographical separation of smelters' working areas from the residential areas may indicate that smelters were 'married to their furnaces' during smelting periods and consequently abstained from relations with women during times of iron and copper smelting. The metalworking process was further regarded as a metaphor for human fertility and fecundity. Metal working eventually became entrenched in the political, social and religious aspects of the metal workers' lives.

Metalworking processes

Iron and copper ores were smelted in various types of clay furnaces loaded with ores, charcoal and fluxes such as quartzite stone, bones and mollusc shells. The smelters operated by blowing air through clay pipes (tuyères) into a furnace. The one end of the blowpipe was placed into openings in the furnace while the other end was attached to leather bellows. Two processes were used to manufacture iron and copper, namely:

  • The smelting (reduction) of the iron and copper ores; and
  • The refining of the manufactured iron bloom and the solidified copper (ingots). Iron bloom was transformed into artefacts such as iron hoes, axes, spearheads and adzes. The reworking of copper (ingots) consisted of the melting and casting of copper; cold or hot forging of copper; or copper wire drawing. Copper was mostly used for jewellery such as arm bangles, wire, beads, etc.

The decline of the metalworking industry

The metalworking industry in Phalaborwa declined during the last quarter of the 19th century. After the subjugation of the Tsonga peoples in Moçambique by Dingaan's chief tributary, Sochangaan during the 1840's, access to harbours such as Delagoa Bay and Inhambane (from where some of Phalaborwa's metal work entered the Indian Ocean trade network) was restricted.

European manufactured iron goods, including iron hoes, were imported into the Lowveld causing a decline in the demand for locally manufactured implements. Oral tradition also indicates that internal strife increased between the various metal working domains in Phalaborwa. This was further exacerbated by the influx of Changaan groups from Moçambique and the interference of influential trader groups that established new alliances with the local metal working domains.

This ancient metalworking industry dwindled during the last decades of the 19th century, with the first European prospectors entering the area during the first decades of the 20th century, and modern mining beginning in the second half of the 20th century. During the early 20th century descendants of the ancient metalworking groups were removed and resettled in townships which still exist around the town of Phalaborwa today.

Phalaborwa, Limpopo , South Africa
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