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First evidence of glassmaking in sub-Saharan Africa discovered

An excavation in Nigeria, a part of sub-Saharan Africa, has found evidence of the earliest glass manufacturing.

By: PTI | Washington |
January 22, 2018 8:47:26 pm
Glassmaking, sub-Saharan Africa, Rice University, University College London, archaeological excavations, Nigeria, Harvard University, chemical composition, the Old World, West Africa They recovered more than 12,000 glass beads and several kilogrammes of glass-working debris. (Image Source: Abidemi Babatunde Babalola/Harvard University)

Glass was produced in sub-Saharan Africa centuries before the arrival of Europeans, a study has found. Researchers from Rice University in the US and University College London in the UK came across evidence of early glassmaking during archaeological excavations at Igbo Olokun, located on the northern periphery of Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria.

They recovered more than 12,000 glass beads and several kilogrammes of glass-working debris. “This area has been recognised as a glass-working workshop for more than a century,” said Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, from Harvard University in the US. “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,” said Babalola, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

However, 10 years ago this idea was challenged when analyses of glass beads attributed to Ile-Ife showed that some had a chemical composition 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 glass beads 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 beads have a high-lime, high-alumina (HLHA) composition that reflects local geology and raw materials, the researchers said.

The excavations provided evidence that glass production at Igbo Olokun dates to the 11th through 15th centuries AD, 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. 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.

It may help understand its impact on the social, political and economic fabrics of the African societies.

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