At low concentrations near the ground surface, iron-bearing minerals, or iron ores can be found and have been used all over Africa. Recent research has shown that iron has been made in Africa for as long as it has in Europe.
Iron is obtained from its ore by smelting, that is heating the ore in small lumps in a furnace, using charcoal as fuel, until it almost melts (about 1200ºC). It must then be reheated in a forge and hammered hot into a recognisable lump of metal by blacksmiths, from which a huge variety of tools and others objects can be made.
Smelting iron from local sources is no longer done in any part of the continent, mainly due to the ease of getting ready-made iron. But blacksmiths are still important craftsmen in thousands of villages and towns throughout Africa. This is because they make tools which other people need to do their daily work – mainly farm tools, hoes, cutlasses and knives, but also weapons for hunting as well as tools for many other crafts. An increasing number of smiths contribute to the repair of cars, carts, and bicycles.
Blacksmiths were well known for their ability to re-forge outworn tools into ‘new’ items: on old hoe blade might be made into an axe-head; when that was worn out it might become an arrowhead or part of a musical instrument. Lorry springs make good raw material for cutlass blades.
Although iron smelting is no longer done in the traditional way in Africa, it was given up within living memory. Here is a series of images showing how this complicated operation was performed in a re-creation in the northernmost part of Ghana in west Africa, in the 1970s, from the preparation of the ore and the smelting furnace to the manufacture of iron tools.
Visit the Gallery to view the objects in our collection that are made of iron.