In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Technological Developments in the African Iron Age
  • North Africa
  • Egypt and the Sudan
  • The Horn of Africa
  • West Africa
  • The Bantu Hypothesis
  • Central Africa
  • Eastern Africa
  • Southern Africa

African Studies Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
Rachel MacLean
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0027


Iron technology first appears in the African continent in the 1st millennium BCE, and the term Iron Age is generally used, certainly south of the Sahara, to describe iron-using communities in Africa until the modern historical era. It thus covers a very long period of time and is used to describe a great variety of different societies, from simple village-based farmers and nomadic pastoralists to great empires with centralized political and economic control. The diversity of subsidence practices that developed across Africa during the Iron Age is remarkable. In many parts of the continent, particularly in the east and south, a distinction is made between the Early and the Later Iron Age, a time of sociocultural and economic change with increasing urbanization and population growth allied with increasing social complexity evident in the archaeological record. In the north of Africa, and in parts of the west, the areas more closely connected with Europe and Asia, the term medieval is commonly used to describe Later Iron Age periods. In southern Africa the term “iron-using” is increasingly being used in preference to the term “Iron Age.” In much of the continent archaeology provides the only evidence for Iron Age societies, though for North Africa, being part of the classical world, there is some historical evidence. African iron technology was extremely varied, with many distinct localized technologies evolving over the centuries. Traditional iron industries continued in many areas into the beginning of the 20th century, enabling ethnographers, archaeologists, and metallurgists to record either actual smelts or, latterly, recreations of smelts by those who had participated in their youth. This wealth of data has been exploited by archaeologists seeking to understand the Iron Age, and theories concerning the origins and spread of ironworking and the sociocultural impact it had are hotly debated. A further dimension has been added to the study of these early periods by the work of historical linguists who have traced the evolution of various African languages over time. In particular, the spread of the Bantu languages across eastern and southern Africa in the Early Iron Age has resulted in significant debate. The Iron Age was a period of developing craft specialization, and the connection between material culture and ethnicity and the validity of exploring such issues using linguistic and archaeological material has long been a major concern. The relationship between ceramic styles and social groups, in particular, has been the focus of very valuable research.

General Overviews

There are a number of publications that give a good overview of the archaeology of the Iron Age in Africa. Phillipson 2005 is perhaps the best general introduction to African archaeology, summarizing a considerable amount of evidence for the general reader and specialist alike. Shaw, et al. 1993 contains a broad range of papers that deal with Iron Age topics. Stahl 2005 is a more recent edited volume along similar lines. A special issue of Azania (Sutton 1994–1995) presents a broad range of evidence for the development of Early Iron Age societies in the southern half of the continent. Connah 2001 deals with a number of later urban centers, and Insoll 2003 provides a good overview of the extraordinary cultural diversity of Later Iron Age Africa. Mitchell 2005 is valuable in showing that Iron Age African societies were part of regional, interregional, and intercontinental networks.

  • Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Examines the development of social complexity, concentrating upon urbanism and state formation in seven main areas of Africa: Nubia, Ethiopia, the West African savanna, the West African forest, the East African coast and islands, the Zimbabwe Plateau, and parts of Central Africa.

  • Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Although a study of the impact of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, this comprehensive volume gives a very good picture of the enormous cultural diversity present in sub-Saharan Africa during the Later Iron Age.

  • Mitchell, Peter. African Connections: An Archaeological Perspective on Africa and the Wider World. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2005.

    Looks at Africa’s long and complex relationship with the rest of the world. Although covering a broad time period, it is valuable for placing Africa within a wider context.

  • Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800313

    A concise, readable, and well-illustrated summary of the archaeological evidence available at the time of publication, it discusses iron-using peoples region by region and also deals with related issues and arguments.

  • Shaw, Thurstan, Paul Sinclair, Bassey Andah, and Alex Okpoko, eds. The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns. London: Routledge, 1993.

    Substantial edited volume covering the prehistory of Africa to the recent historical past, and discussing food production, technology, and increasing social complexity. Chapters 16, 17, 21–32, and 37–44 are of particular relevance.

  • Stahl, Ann Brower, ed. African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    The twenty-three contributing authors to this volume are all acknowledged specialists in their own areas, and their various chapters provide the most up-to-date introduction to current research and debates in African archaeology. Chapters 10–18 are most relevant to the Iron Age.

  • Sutton, J. E. G., ed. Special Issue: The Growth of Farming Communities in Africa from the Equator Southwards. Azania 29–30 (1994–1995).

    A special double volume arising from a conference held in Cambridge in 1994. Contains contributions from paleoecologists, biologists, archaeozoologists, linguists, cultural and social anthropologists, oral and documentary historians, and archaeologists to present a picture of the Early Iron Age across the southern half of Africa.

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