Crafting in the In-Between: Production and Political Economy Across Zambian Socio-Economic Mosaics, 700-1700CE

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McKeeby, Zachary, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
LAVIOLETTE, ADRIA, AS-Anthropology (ANTH), University of Virginia

This dissertation studies frontier dynamics in one ‘in-between’ location between emergent state systems in southern Africa: the Machile Valley in Western Zambia. I bring together historical, ethnographic, metallurgical, archaeological, and geophysical data to reconstruct the work of craftspeople – and particularly of iron workers – over the longue durée along internal frontiers in Western Zambia between the 8th and 18th centuries CE. In doing so, I situate crafting within its larger context during periods of dramatic social, political, and economic change taking place across southern Africa. Rather than being ahistorical abstractions, I show frontier interactions in southern Africa are historical, dateable events that left discrete and localized archaeological traces.

Comparison of village layouts and iron production areas from late-1st and early-2nd millennium indicated how specialized knowledge related to iron working was converted into other symbols of status and prestige. Changes in global and regional political economic systems in the early-2nd millennium intertwined with the increasing importance of kinship ties in village life and new conceptions of landscapes, as seen in increasing nucleation of village layouts and rapid village reorganization. I show how craftspeople experimented within the technical parameters of their work and identify at least two periods over the last 1000 years where distinct communities of iron-working knowledge and practice co-existed within a stretch of the valley only c. 40km long. The specific socio-technical decisions iron workers employed during production and the ways that iron production practices shaped local and regional political economies are always historically specific and culturally mediated. Archaeometallurgical and spatial comparisons of Machile iron smelting sites over the past thousand years suggest beliefs around secrecy and access to specialized knowledge fluctuated in Machile, underscoring the historical specificity of the strictly gendered practices documented in 18th-early-20th-century ethnographic and ethnohistoric texts.

Incorporation of oral and historical records explains dramatic increases in the scale and organization of production in Machile c.1600CE and shows how Machile craftspeople were affected by the formation of the Lozi state during the turbulent 16th-18th centuries at the start of the colonial period. Broadening my focus beyond Machile, I used optical microscopy and X-ray florescence spectroscopy to analyze and compare metallurgical slags from other Zambian Iron Age sites and reconstruct the chaîne opératoire of iron production across large parts of Zambia. I show how the types of localized variation in knowledge in practice seen in Machile are, in fact, not unique to Machile. As a significant north-south tributary of the Zambezi, the Machile may have been a significant region of Iron Age village life and of the movement of people, but it was certainly not the only one. I argue that rivers in general played an outsized role in southern African frontier dynamics. Identifying communities of practice and knowledge in specialized crafting offers a quantifiable mechanism through which to understand the interactions of southern African frontier communities at multiple spatial and analytical scales.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Iron Age, Southern Africa, Geophysics, Archaeometallurgy, Craft Production, Household Archaeology, Archaeology of Frontiers
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