Researchers find first evidence of sub-Saharan Africa glassmaking

January 18, 2018, Rice University
Sub-Saharan Africa glass. Credit: Abidemi Babatunde Babalola

Scholars from Rice University, University College London and the Field Museum have found the first direct evidence that glass was produced in sub-Saharan Africa centuries before the arrival of Europeans, a finding that the researchers said represents a "new chapter in the history of glass technology."

The discovery is discussed in "Chemical Analysis of Glass Beads from Igbo Olokun, Ile-Ife (SW Nigeria): New Light on Raw Materials, Production and Interregional Interactions," which will appear in an upcoming volume of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Lead author Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, a recent graduate of Rice with a Ph.D. in anthropology and a visiting fellow at Harvard University, came across of early glassmaking during archaeological excavations at Igbo Olokun, located on the northern periphery of Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria. He recovered more than 12,000 beads and several kilograms of glass-working debris.

"This area has been recognized as a glass-working workshop for more than a century," Babalola said. "The glass-encrusted containers and beads that have been uncovered there were viewed for many years as evidence that imported glass was remelted and reworked."

However, 10 years ago this idea was challenged when analyses of glass beads attributed to Ile-Ife showed that some had a very different from that of known glass production areas. Researchers raised the possibility of local production in Ife, although direct evidence for glassmaking and its chronology was lacking.

"The Igbo Olokun excavations have provided that evidence," Babalola said.

The researchers' analysis of 52 from the excavated assemblage revealed that none matched the chemical composition of any other known glass-production area in the Old World, including Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia. Rather, the have a high-lime, high-alumina (HLHA) composition that reflects local geology and , the researchers said. The excavations provided evidence that glass production at Igbo Olokun dates to the 11th through 15th centuries A.D., well before the arrival of Europeans along the coast of West Africa.

Babalola said the presence of the HLHA glass at other important early West African sites suggests that it was widely traded. He hopes the research will cast more light on the innovation and development of glass in early sub-Saharan Africa and how the regional dynamics in glass production connect with the global phenomenon of glass invention and exchange. He also hopes his work will help researchers understand its impact on the social, political and economic fabrics of the African societies.

Explore further: Gorilla Glass debuts in car windshields

More information: Abidemi Babatunde Babalola et al, Chemical analysis of glass beads from Igbo Olokun, Ile-Ife (SW Nigeria): New light on raw materials, production, and interregional interactions, Journal of Archaeological Science (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2017.12.005

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mackita
3 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2018
The first African colonists did utilize the string of beads like widespread payment - which would be hardly possible, if they wouldn't already had a value for natives.
mackita
4 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2018
the beads have a high-lime, high-alumina (HLHA) composition that reflects local geology and raw materials
Such a glass would have high melting point, difficult to manage in primitive conditions. It's possible that these beads were formed by sintering and vitrification of beads made of pure kaolinite like enamel, i.e. without smelting and casting of glass in bulk.
rrwillsj
3.5 / 5 (4) Jan 19, 2018
Both comments, good points, Mack.

I think we need more digging and analysis of the probable manufacturies before we speculate as to the level of technology and capabilities of the craftsmen.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Jan 19, 2018
First point is just wrong: glass beads are 'pretty'. Second, how did the Egyptians manage, thousands of years earlier ? IIRC, use a blow-pipe or bellows...
mackita
not rated yet Jan 19, 2018
Nik_2213: Yep, the blowpipes were used by old Egyptians already.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Jan 20, 2018
Don't forget pearls, river and sea...
maholmes1
not rated yet Jan 22, 2018
Nik_2213: Yep, the blowpipes were used by old https://i.imgur.com/dr7sXmN.jpg.

And the Chinese were using gunpowder long before Europeans were.
mackita
not rated yet Jan 22, 2018
Except that Egypt is in Africa and its roots are in Sudan, i.e. sub-Saharan Africa. Nubian necklace from late meroitic period, ca. 100 BC.

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