The Archaeological Materials Laboratory is unique in Africa. It is the only research laboratory on the continent to employ a modern materials science approach dedicated to the study of the history of African indigenous technology.

The 56 square metre laboratory includes the office of the laboratory manager, student workspace 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.

Archaeology Materials Laborator

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 the diversity and broad-based nature of our expertise.

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 archaeology and technology of Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe, Khami, Mapela, and other former states and capitals. The project has already started to expose those metals that 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 newcomer. Most existing studies on the metallurgy of our region are concentrated on furnaces, slag, and occasionally ores and finished objects. Crucibles that 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 process 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 project is funded by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA. It focuses on the well-known Rooiberg Valley, located in the north-western 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.

Staff at the Archaeological Materials Laboratory:

Students at the laboratory:

  • Bedone Mugabe (PhD)

Selected publications

Nyamushosho, R.T. and Chirikure S. 2020. Archaeological implications of ethnographically grounded functional study of pottery from Nyanga, Zimbabwe. Quaternary International. 555: 150–164

Chirikure S, Nyamushosho, R, Bandama, F, Dandara, C. 2018. Elites and commoners at Great Zimbabwe: archaeological and ethnographic insights on social power. Antiquity 92, 364, 1056–1075.

Chirikure, S., 2018. Early metallurgy and surplus without states in Africa south of the Sahara. Tagunden des Landesmuseums fur Vorgeschite Halle 18: 431–444.

Bandama, F., Moffett, A. J., Thondhlana, T. P. and Chirikure, S. 2016. The production, distribution and consumption of metals and alloys at Great Zimbabwe. Archaeometry 58 (1): 164-181. doi:10.1111/arcm.12248.

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.


Dr Robert T Nyamushosho
Archaeology Department
Beattie Building, Room 3.20