Impressive Metalworking in Burkina Faso Goes Back 2,800 Years
One of the most fascinating World Heritage Sites is the Ancient Ferrous Metallurgy Sites of Burkina Faso. Metallurgy in Burkina Faso was a common practice throughout this area of Africa that dates back to around 800 BC. Evidence of these sites illustrates the importance of metalworking for ancient humans living in these regions around that time. Iron production was a significant aspect of Burkina Faso’s culture, and it contributed enormously to their economy.
But exactly how did these individuals start metalworking, and how did they build the necessary tools and buildings required to make this work possible nearly 2,800 years ago?
The two furnaces of Kindibo are representative of the later style of Burkina Faso metallurgy sites and are attributed to Nakomsé metallurgists who invaded the area in the 15th century AD. (Lassina Simporé / © DSCPM/MCAT)
The Five UNESCO Burkina Faso Metallurgy Sites
While clear evidence of metallurgy can be dated back to 800 BC, other evidence suggests that Burkina Faso metallurgy manufacturing started as early as the 18th century BC. Though iron was the primary metal extracted from this work, they likely found other useful minerals, including gold and marble, while mining. These goods would then be used to produce other items such as jewelry and weapons before being brought to a local trade spot. Things produced at Burkina Faso metallurgy sites were often considered luxuries to nearby regions of Africa that did not have access to raw metal materials nor the technology to process them.
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The Burkina Faso metallurgy sites consist of five metalworking complexes, each of which was responsible for its own iron extraction. These sites are located in the towns of Békuy, Yamané, Kindibo, Twiêga, and Douroula. Across these sites are fifteen ruins containing natural draft furnaces that were essential in ancient iron manufacturing. These natural draft furnaces would be used to melt the iron ore and remove the gangue slag from the iron itself. The final iron could be used to create items or be sold as a raw material. Miners at the mining settlement sites likely also worked with local blacksmiths to produce the tools required to mine, melt, and purify the iron.
Smaller furnaces surrounding the natural draft furnaces can also found in these towns . On average, the natural draft furnaces are approximately five meters (16.4 feet) tall and only needed ambient airflow to function, while the smaller furnaces were shorter and needed bellows to function. Local craftsmen or traders likely created or obtained the bellows for these furnaces. Each of the furnaces is estimated to be from a different time period, so it appears that the site expanded over time to mine more iron as demand increased.
The oldest furnaces are located in Douroula and are estimated to be from around the 8th century BC. This is considered the starting location for the iron extracting sites. The next site was the Békuy site; its furnaces are estimated to be from around the 5th century BC. Many of these furnaces are partially underground, so the majority of them required bellows to function.
These first two sites expanded into Yamané and Kindibo with additional furnaces built around the 10th century and later in the 13th century. Some smaller furnaces were added around the 15th century AD to expand the sites without expanding into new territories. The last of the sites, Tiwêga, had its furnaces built between the 15th and 18th centuries AD. Since these furnaces are the most recently built, they are in better shape compared to the older furnaces in other locations.
The still-standing ancient Ronguin furnace of Burkina Faso. (Sébastien Moriset / © DSCPM/MCAT)
Iron Smelting: An Endless Tradition
Since the oldest furnaces are located in Douroula, any preservation work will be done primarily there to preserve as much as possible of the ancient remains. Since the brick of these earliest furnaces is more broken down than at other locations, more care and effort will need to take place to keep them from further decomposition. The newer furnaces will also need preservation work, though not as much as the older locations.
Though the giant natural draft furnaces are located at just these five sites, additional small furnaces can be found throughout the rest of the country. It is likely that some smaller mining efforts were done in other areas of Burkina Faso, or that raw materials were transported from the primary five sites to smaller locations for additional purification or processing. The existence of these many furnaces is significant evidence that iron ore smelting was an essential aspect of the ancient way of life in Burkina Faso. This work then became a tradition and was passed on to later generations, all the way to today.
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Today, metallurgy is still an essential aspect of Burkina Faso’s culture and economy. Locals engage primarily in gold mining, but they also mine granite, dolomite, phosphate, and marble. Most of these products are exported to other countries, which brings in a high profit.
However, there is also a significant amount of illegal gold trafficking occurring to avoid high fees and other legal obligations. The Special Customs Brigade seizes hundreds of kilograms of gold annually from these traffickers.
The Ancient Ferrous Metallurgy Sites of Burkina Faso have been a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site since 2019. This designation offers the site protection from further destruction and assists with the preservation of the furnaces and the mining sites.
If you ever find yourself in Burkina Faso, be sure to check out this World Heritage Site if you can. Being able to see this small piece of history for yourself is a fascinating experience !
Top image: The UNESCO West-African Burkina Faso metallurgy site’s Tiwêga furnace, near Kaya. Source: Sébastien Moriset / © DSCPM/MCAT
By Lex Leigh
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Primitive Technology. 2017. Natural draft furnace. Available at: https://primitivetechnology.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/natural-draft-furnace/
ScienceDirect. n.d. Gangue mineral. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/gangue-mineral
Somda, E. n.d. Burkina Faso: The problem of gold smuggling. Available at: https://mag.wcoomd.org/magazine/wco-news-86/burkina-faso-the-problem-of-gold-smuggling/
UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2019. Ancient ferrous metallurgy sites of Burkina Faso. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1602/