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The exploitation of manganese-rich ‘ore’ to smelt iron in Mwenge, western Uganda, from the mid second millennium AD.

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Publication details

JournalJournal of archaeological science
DateE-pub ahead of print - 9 Jun 2014
DatePublished (current) - Sep 2014
Number of pages19
Pages (from-to)423-441
Early online date9/06/14
Original languageEnglish


By the later second millennium AD, iron production was a key economic industry in western Uganda, and Mwenge was a prominent centre of production, highly regarded for the quality of the iron it produced. Between 2007 and 2011, excavation and analysis of iron production remains from six smelting sites in Mwenge enabled the reconstruction of local smelting technologies in operation there from the fourteenth century AD onwards. Chemical and microstructural analysis of approximately 100 samples revealed that slag from some of these sites is typically characterised by a bulk chemistry high in manganese oxide (up to 12 wt%) and knebelitic olivines. Slag samples from the remainder of the sites contain low levels of manganese oxide (below 4 wt%) and fayalitic olivines. The majority of the slag samples also contain notable levels of phosphorous (1–2 wt%).

This sample set provided an opportunity to discuss the impacts of manganese and phosphorous on the smelting systems in operation in Mwenge. Principal component analysis suggests that smelters in this region were deliberately combining an iron ore with a separate manganese-rich flux, rather than using a naturally manganiferous iron ore. This use of two ‘ores’ has parallels with ethnographic literature from the region, which link the use of a second ore to the production of a harder metal. It is believed that this is the first analytically documented example of the use of a manganese-rich flux in sub-Saharan Africa. In the absence of analyses of surviving iron artefacts, the data also provides an opportunity to consider the quality of the iron metal that would have been produced.

    Research areas

  • Bloomery iron, Slag, Manganese, Phosphorous, Uganda, Africa

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