Most historians concur that the Iron Age commenced on the African continent, predating its introduction to other regions by Arabs and Indians from Europe.
Even today, the significance of iron and other metals remains deeply cherished and held in high regard across various communities.
Origins of Iron Production
The Akweya ethnic group, situated in Otukpo LGA of Benue State, presents an intriguing narrative of discovery and innovation as they traversed from Kwararafa to their current settlements. Before their settling, their tools were rudimentary—consisting of pointed wood, stones, and bare hands for various activities such as digging, hunting, and agriculture.
Legend has it that during their stay in Otukpa, the Akweya conceived the idea of iron production out of necessity. A historian, Elder Egyeh Odugbo, recounted in an oral history session with AkweyaTV:
“The making of iron was a divine thought. Akweya settled in Otukpa and initiated the process, a method that spanned at least a decade. The community joined forces to excavate a vast hole, filling it with hardwood logs like mahogany, iroko, and locust beans. Layer upon layer of wood and stones were stacked, forming a ‘Uturo.’ The fire, once lit, blazed relentlessly for years. The stones, subjected to intense heat, eventually melted, forming balls of iron in diverse shapes and sizes. After a decade or more, when the fire subsided, men unearthed the Uturo, revealing iron in varied forms.”
Legacy Beyond Otukpa
The practice extended beyond Akweya’s domain, notably in Benin, Nigeria, recognised for its renowned ‘Benin Bronzes.’
Techniques of Metalwork
The Cire Perdue Method (Lost Wax): This ancient technique, prevalent globally, involves creating a model in clay, encasing it in wax, and then covering it with another layer of clay. The wax is melted away, leaving a cavity later filled with molten metal, resulting in the desired figure.
Forging: Employing sharp blows to malleable metals like iron, copper, or bronze, forging involves shaping metal with hammers when heated to a malleable state.
Beating (Cold): Soft metal sheets, like gold, are hammered and applied to finished objects, showcasing intricate designs and figures.
Applique: The application of gold sheets onto a base metal, often through soldering or inlay, is used extensively for ornamentation and decoration in ceremonial figures.
Assemblage: Primitive communities assemble various objects, including nails, bells, and bracelets, onto existing structures for ceremonial or sacred purposes.
Chasing: This encompasses engraving, punching, and repousse works involving intricate surface decoration through various tools like gravers, punches, and hammers.
Legacy of Innovation
These ancient metalworking techniques exemplify the resourcefulness and ingenuity of African civilisations, leaving behind a legacy of craftsmanship and cultural richness that continues to captivate and inspire.
Extract from the archives of the late Chief Akpallah Okenyodo’s research on history.