Africans have been refining and smelting metal and making iron implements since 1200 B.C. In fact, the Iron Age occurred earlier in Africa than in Europe. Iron implements grant a huge advantage to the user in all shapes and forms — working axes and hoes facilitated agricultural expansion in Sub-Sahara African societies, hunting became easier, and warfare became deadlier with the introduction of iron spears, arrow points, and knives.
Smelting was remarkably challenging in ancient Africa. It was so complex that the men who possessed the knowledge often formed guilds that guarded the secrets of ironwork. A furnace had to be constructed, hard wood for a high temperature burn had to be gathered, and the bellows had to be worked constantly for days. Iron pieces were typically intricate, and an ironworker took personal pride in the pieces he produced. As guns and other intricate metal inventions were introduced to the region, blacksmiths mastered these new arts.
As European intervention grew in the 17th through 19th centuries, the African iron market was flooded with European metals. These new materials required less effort and energy to procure than the elaborate traditional smelting process. These foreign metals, iron included, replaced traditionally made metal, but blacksmiths continued to make their stylized metal tools in traditional forms. In the colonial era of 1880–1950, European hardware entered the African markets, and this flow of cheap European goods managed to displace the traditional ways of the African blacksmith.
All the axes in this collection are from the early 20th century and represent some of the very last styles of pieces made before the African iron market was flooded with imports and local production effectively disappeared. They would have been manufactured primarily for foreign sale, much as the limited African iron tools made today are marketed to collectors and tourists.
All artifacts are from the Richard L. Sutton [opens new window] donation.
Westerdijk, Peter. African Metal Implements: Weapons, Tools, and Regalia: Collection of Frederick and Clair Mebel. (Greenvale, New York: Hillwood Art Gallery, 1984)
Spring, Christopher. African Arms and Armor. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993)
Moss, Joyce; Wilson, George. Peoples of the World: Africans South of the Sahara. (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991)
Newman, James L. The Peopling of Africa. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)
Photos and text by Chelsea Bilyeu spring 2007
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