Unpacking the Iron Age

2008-01-04 00:00

The newly published Handbook to the Iron Age — The Archaeology of Pre-Colonial Farming Societies in Southern Africa by Thomas N. Huffman has been hailed as a landmark book. According to Peter Mitchell, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Oxford: “This long-awaited text will establish itself as the principal source on the matters with which it deals.”

Considering that Huffman has held the Chair of Archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg since 1977, his Texas accent comes as something of a surprise. “I grew up there, then went to Denver University and then on to Illinois. There I met Brian Fagin, an archaeologist from South Africa, and went with him to Zambia in 1967 — and that got me to Africa.”

Huffman caught the sixties wave of interest in African archaeology. “It coincided with African independence, everyone was saying ‘go and study there guys’.”

At the time the hot topic was the deep-time origins of humanity so most archaeologists were working on the Stone Age, which preceded the Iron Age. “The Iron Age is really just a technical term for pre-colonial farming societies, as reflected in the book’s sub-title. In southern Africa there were also Bushmen and Khoisan running around at the same time.”

Huffman’s book grew out of a Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism project investigating the state of heritage resources on South African mines. “That was the egg, then it just grew way beyond that,” says Huffman. The result is an impressively hefty handbook of nearly 500 pages. Copiously illustrated — and featuring photographs never published before — it should find a ready audience among those interested in African prehistory as well as amateur and professional archaeologists.

“The book looks at the last 2 000 years in southern Africa and covers parts of eastern Botswana and South Africa, and most of Swaziland and Zimbabwe,” says Huffman. “Unfortunately Mozambique is not included, there just isn’t the data. And there is a little more attention on places that people visit — like Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami.”

In pre-colonial times, various Eastern Bantu-speaking people inhabited southern Africa, including Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Shona and Tsonga. About 1 800 years ago, the ancestors of some of these Bantu-speaking people brought a new way of life to the area. “For the first time, people lived in settled communities, cultivating crops such as sorghum, millet, ground beans and cowpeas, and they herded cattle as well as sheep and goats.”

Because these early farming people also made their own iron tools, archaeologists call this block of time the Iron Age. For convenience and to mark widespread events, it’s divided into three periods: the Early Iron Age (AD 200-900), the Middle Iron Age (AD 900-1300) and the Late Iron Age (AD 1300-1840).

“Archaeologists studying these three periods use ceramic style to establish culture-history sequences — the who, where and when of early farming societies,” says Huffman. “Ceramic sequences are thus the framework for all other domains of Iron Age research, be it life ways — incorporating technology, subsistence and settlement patterns — or the explanation of cultural change.”

The book is divided into three parts. The first, titled “Concepts and Topics”, looks at the essentials such as settlement organisation, stone-walled patterns, ritual residues, long-distance trade and ancient mining. “This provides what you need to know of what happened over the last 2 000 years,” says Huffman. “Most of it is generally known. But absolutely new is the classification of stone-walling among what are known as the Central people and the Zimbabwe people. The walling section pulls together other peoples’ work but shows the relationships and the connections — how it all fits together.”

The second section of the book, “Cultural History Units”, presents a comprehensive culture-history sequence through ceramic analyses, showing distributions, stylistic types and characteristic pieces. Each ceramic unit is described in detail and a colour code makes for easy reference. It’s rather like an archaeological equivalent of the Roberts’ bird book. “This is the core of the book,” says Huffman, “and it’s done in tree-book style or like a botanical flora. The approach is contentious in some circles, but I explain how and why this approach works.”

Huffman says this section of the book will be useful to both amateur archaeologists as well as professionals involved with archaeological impact assessments. “It will help them record what’s there, so they can decide what needs to be saved.”

The third part of the book, “Pre-Colonial History”, reviews and updates the main debates over the last 30 to 40 years about black prehistory, including migration versus diffusion, the role of cattle, the origins of Mapungubwe, the rise and fall of Great Zimbabwe and the archaeology of Venda, Sotho-Tswana and Nguni speakers. “It reviews the debates — although I thought I won the debate before I wrote the book,” laughs Huffman. “It contains material that has appeared before but it’s been updated with new information. I argue more deeply about connections I made 20 years ago and it takes the debate a step further.”

The great strength of Huffman’s handbook is that it brings together not only new material but also material previously only available in specialist journals, thus allowing for a complete overview of the current state of South African archaeology in this area of study. “The book fills a gap and ties it all together,” says Huffman, who is in no doubt that more work lies ahead. “Pulling all this material together will provide a catalyst for further research.”

It will be a catalyst for amateurs as well as professionals. “People visiting places take a bird book or a tree book, they want to know what’s there,” says Huffman. Now they have a handbook that can identify archaeological material — and there’s plenty simply lying about in this part of the world just waiting to be found. “I hope the book gets people finding things and bringing them in.”

• Handbook to the Iron Age — The Archaeology of Pre-Colonial Farming Societies in Southern Africa by Thomas N. Huffman is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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