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Materials Laboratory

The Archaeology Materials Laboratory at the University of Cape Town is unique in Africa. It is the only research laboratory employing a modern materials science approach dedicated to the study of the history of African indigenous technology. The Materials Laboratory is run by Associate Professor Shadreck Chirikure. The 56 square metre laboratory includes the office of the laboratory manager, student work space and a dedicated, air-conditioned, microscope room. It is purpose fitted with an extraction fume hood, sink, sorting bench and storage cupboards, and is equipped for specimen preparation of a range of inorganic and organic materials by diamond sawing, grinding and polishing. The analytical equipment includes two research microscopes, optical refractometers, photographic equipment and computers.  This equipment is complemented by XRF, XRD, ICP-MS, SEM and Electron Microprobe facilities situated in our sister departments such as Geology and the Electron Microscope Unit. We take full advantage of our unique position on the African continent to carry out leading and diverse research and consultancy on indigenous mining and metallurgy. Our projects reflect this diversity and broad based nature of our expertise.

Current Projects:

Metals and states in southern Africa

In conventional interpretations of the last two thousand years of the southern African past, ideology, long distance trade and cattle are some of the factors that have received prominence in understanding the development of socio-political complexity. Despite its ubiquity, and pivotal role in sustaining local and long distance trade, the role of metallurgy in state formation has not been explored in detail. This project is aimed at addressing this gap in our knowledge by studying the archaeology and technology of Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe, Khami, Mapela and other former states and capitals. The project has already started to expose that metals played a more prominent role in the society of southern Africa’s early states than is currently believed.

Southern African crucible metallurgy

When compared to other regions of the world such as Europe with more mature studies of pre-industrial technologies, southern Africa is a relative new comer. Most existing studies on the metallurgy of our region are concentrated on furnaces, slag, and occasionally ores and finished objects. Crucibles which played an important role as reaction vessels in non-ferrous metallurgy have only been cursorily investigated. This project documents the diachronic development of crucibles used in southern African metallurgy and in the processes teases out issues associated with technological improvisation and innovation. Samples of crucibles ranging from domestic pottery to the more specialised sandstone types are the focus of study. From a comparative point of view, southern Africa has crucibles comparable to those used in Europe and parts of Asia, but also contains some unique varieties which asks significant questions about interaction, cultural exchange and independent invention in pre-industrial metallurgy.

Tin production at Rooiberg, South Africa – 

This NRF (South Africa)/NSF (USA) funded project seeks to understand the extractive metallurgy and distribution of tin in southern Africa. It focuses on the well known Rooiberg Valley, located in the northwestern part of Limpopo Province in South Africa. Rooiberg, is one of the two known sources of pre-colonial tin in sub-Saharan Africa. The other one is the Jos-Plateau in Nigeria. However, in contrast to iron and copper which were introduced to the sub-continent in the early first millennium AD, tin was only worked a millennium later when it was alloyed with copper to produce tin bronzes. The tin working evidence at Rooiberg consists of pre-colonial mine shafts, and smelting sites littered with slag and broken tuyeres. It is believed that about 20 000 tons of cassiterite were mined pre-colonially, producing an estimated 2 000 tons of metallic tin. While this some of this metal consumed locally, the remainder was exported into the Indian Ocean trading networks via trading towns such as Great Zimbabwe. Our work at Rooiberg is dedicated towards understanding the little known process of tin smelting in antiquity and tracing the movement of tin in southern Africa using trace element analyses and isotope geochemistry.
Metals beyond frontiers – The consumption of metal were an important aspect of Iron Age communities in southern Africa. Often, the direction in which metals moved is unknown owing to lack of research into the subject. Through a grant from the National Research Foundation, this project seeks to provenance metals found at southern African archaeological sites using trace elements and lead and strontium isotopes. It also strives to build a database of excavated metal objects archived in museums.

The Phalaborwa Copper Project, South Africa – This project is a result of collaboration between the Materials Laboratory and the Institute for Archaeometallurgical Studies (Institute of Archaeology), University of College London. It was initiated to re-orient studies of pre-colonial metallurgy from iron extractive metallurgy towards copper metallurgy. Currently, the ubiquitous amount of data on pre-colonial iron smelting technologies and the associated socio-cultural metaphors contrasts significantly with the limited information on copper production. Yet, South Africa has ubiquitous amounts of copper production debris. This project seeks to explore the technology of copper smelting and fabrication in and around the Phalaborwa area.

Opportunities for students – from time to time we get bursaries for students interested in studying ancient technologies. Contact Associate Professor Shadreck Chirikure for more information.

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Selected Publications:

Chirikure, S. (2015). Metals in society: indigenous African metallurgy in a global perspective. New York: Springer.

Chirikure, S. Hall, S. Rehren, Th. 2015. When ceramic sociology meets material science: technological and sociological aspects of crucibles from Mapungubwe, southern Africa. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

Chirikure, S., Manyanga, M., Pollard, A. M., Bandama, F., Mahachi, G., & Pikirayi, I. (2014). Zimbabwe Culture before Mapungubwe: New Evidence from Mapela Hill, South-Western Zimbabwe. PloS one, 9(10), e111224.

Chirikure, S. (2014). Land and Sea Links: 1500 Years of Connectivity Between Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean Rim Regions, ad 700 to 1700. African Archaeological Review, 31(4), 705-724.

Chirikure, S. (2014). Geochemistry of Ancient Metallurgy: Examples from Africa and Elsewhere. In Cerling, T and Turekian, K (eds) Treatise on Geochemistry: Vol 14 Archaeology and Anthropology. Elsevier. P. 169–189.

Bandama, F., Chirikure, S., & Hall, S. (2013). Ore sources, smelters and archaeometallurgy: exploring Iron Age metal production in the Southern Waterberg, South Africa. Journal of African Archaeology, 11(2).


Post-doctoral research fellows
Dr Foreman Bandama

Ms Abigail Moffett
Ms Pauline Chiripanhura
Mr Tawanda Mukwende
Mr Pascal Taruvinga
Ms Jeannie Walker
Mr Steven Walker


Ms Michelle House
Mr Robert Nyamushosho
Ms Gertrude Matswiri
Ms Liesl Sonneberg
Ms Catherine Schenck
Ms Nokukhanya Khumalo