by Jay Spaulding



The recent historical resurrection of the precolonial Nubian-speaking communities of Kordofan invites reflection upon one of the activities for which, in their time, they were best known--the production of iron.[1] "Iron smelting is now a forgotten art in Northern Kordofan," wrote inquisitive colonial official Harold MacMichael at the dawn of the twentieth century.[2] Yet a contemporary Sudanese geographer remembered not only the north Kordofan Nubians themselves, but also the iron articles they had traditionally exported:

The Nubian Mountains are located between Dongola and Kordofan. They are numerous, and among them are countless communities. The best-known is Jabal `Abd al-Hadi [one of the peaks of the hills now known collectively as Jabal Haraza], the capital of the Nubian Mountains. Its inhabitants are Nubians. . . There are places in the mountains specially dedicated to the manufacture of iron [articles], such as swords, lances, knives, axes, throwing-blades [trumbash], arrows and sickles. Mines of iron are found in their mountains.[3]

For reasons to be discussed below, the large ironworks at Jabal Haraza itself had probably stood idle for some time. However, as MacMichael noted, farther south, among the Jawama`a community in the vicinity of the precolonial Kordofan capital of Bara, iron "used to be worked so late as the middle of the nineteenth century."[4] In 1860, for example, Guillaume Lejean commented that "At Omzerzour I entered the metalurgical district of which the large village of Tendar is the center; this district contains numerous forges in the infancy of the art."[5] Ernst Marno offered this description in 1875:

The inhabitants of this region are Jawama`a, and they obtain iron in primitive fashion from a brown ore found in the area. They erect conical furnaces about one meter in height from clay-like earth. The firing is accelerated by means of two bellows at the base; they consist of deep basin-shaped clay pots with a nozzle, over which a goat-skin is stretched loosely. The ore is mixed with charcoal of hashab wood [acacia verek] and poured into the furnace. The metal that gathers at the bottom is a rather impure product, which is reworked into malot [weeding-machetes], knives, lance-heads and the like. This refining of iron takes place only during the dry season of the year, for the furnaces must dry out thoroughly for a long time before their use, which cannot take place during the rainy season.[6]

In 1838-1839 Ignatius Pallme offered a perspective that adds valuable insight into the ironworking vocation:

The smiths are the most industrious workmen; they fabricate all the necessary household and agricultural implements, are at the same time miners, and smelters of ore; for they dig the iron from the bowels of the earth themselves, and melt it after a very simple process; but they do not understand how to harden it. They have no fixed workshops, but arrange them wheresoever they may happen to [p. 255] find work; the fitting up of the forge costs them but little trouble, for a large stone is soon found on which they place a piece of iron, this serves them as an anvil; close to this essential instrument, they construct a small furnace, to which a leather sack, answering the purpose of bellows, is attached. They make no heavy objects, for, beyond spear-heads, hashiash (an agricultural implement) [hoes, but also the small iron currency of Sinnar], double-edged and arrow-pointed knives of various sizes, they cannot produce any other article. Their work is not well rewarded; for the minerals, such as the iron or charcoal cost them scarcely anything, and thus they can only bring their manual labor into calculation. Their tools are not particularly complicated, and consist merely of a few hammers and a pair of pincers. [7]

The most extensive account of iron production among the Jawama`a was that of the Austrian mineralogist Joseph, Ritter von Russegger, who came to the Sudan as an expert in the service of the Egyptian viceroy Mehmet Ali and visited Kordofan in 1837. The passage below is a draft translation of this eyewitness account.[8] The translator is unfortunately not fluent in German and lacks both adequate scientific training and familiarity with Austrian currency. He welcomes any suggestions for ammendments and improvements to the reading offered here. Advice would be particularly welcome concerning the chemical designations Eisenoxydhydrat, kohlensaurem Eisenoxydhydrat, phosphorsauren (Eisenoxydhydrat?). He may be contacted at the address:

Professor Tom Higel of the US Air Force Academy has most graciously provided the following explanation of the abbreviated currency entries "8-9 kr. Conv.-Mze” and "13 to 15 fl. Konv.-Mze":

"Russegger’s currency abbreviations “8-9 kr. Conv.-Mze” and 13-15 fl. Konv.-Mze” refer to Kreutzers (kr) and florins (fl) in “Convention Coinage”. The particular convention is most likely the 1763 Leipzig Convention which, once again, tried to establish standards of coinage (how many coins of x denomination) could be struck from a standard weight or unit of silver (the fine Mark). This was indeed a problem as innumerable entities were issuing their own coinage in varying amounts and fineness of silver – both a money-changer’s nightmare or opportunity to make a quick profit. The “hundredweight” of “soft iron” (whatever he means by these terms) could ‘cost’ or be equal to 168.87-194.85 grams (5.95-6.87 oz.) of fine silver or around $210 at todays rate. Today’s wrought iron is around $2 per pound so it appears the then and today’s prices are comparable!"

(The full text of Professor Higel's comments may be found in the discussion section of the website below.)

The type of ore discussed is Raseneisenstein or limonite, sometimes referred to in English as "bog iron." The measures that appear in Russegger's account are translated as follows: Zoll = inch, Fuss = foot, Klafter = fathom. In Russegger's day the concept of deep time was not widely accepted. He used the now-obsolete adjective "diluvian" to denote deposits left by Noah's flood, as opposed to "alluvium," deposits left by the actions of water in the post-diluvian age.



[p. 286] West of Glèha, near the village of Domma, we traversed that part of the north Kordofan plain specially characterized by the frequent presence of limonite. For this reason, and also because of the widespread use of this mineral—taking place in almost every village—one may quite appropriately call this area the “iron district” of Kordofan. This iron district extends westward from Glèha, as far as I know to Bara, and from Chursi to the north as far as Mugnos.[9] Very probably this iron ore-bearing terrain has a much greater extent. I would imagine that the presence of limonite extends not only all across the savanna lands of northern Kordofan but also eastward to the plains of the White Nile and westwards to Dar Fur--and doubtless further all across the central and western Sudan.

The formation to which the limonite in Kordofan belongs is the previously mentioned diluvial sand and diluvial sandstone The latter is in a state of exceptional disintegration and decay into sand, so that [p. 287] except for the sandstone hills along the banks of the White Nile, only rarely are compact strata of it to be found.

This sandy ground grown over with thin mimosas and asclepias bushes, consists of a yellowish-red loose sand tinted by iron oxide and so permeated with it that wherever it is not covered by cultivation it can be recognized at a distance by its color. This iron-bearing sand is deposited in alternating layers with equally iron-bearing clay, and at a certain depth both contain concretions of limonite, nodules of various shape and size, and in great number. On the one hand these concretions, descending down to the size of grains of sand, comprise an integral constituent of a sand which otherwise consists merely of rounded-off grains of quartz. On the other hand, as they increase in quantity and size they form discrete strata of limonite that appear as clearly articulated bedded deposits of these concretions in alternation with the layers of sand and clay. The limonite of this diluvial sand, which by its outward appearance may be called "meadow ore" or "pea ore" seems on the basis of reasons given below to be a more permanent formation. Namely, one may notice that the iron-bearing sand and clay as well as the limonite itself are full of vegetable remains—pieces of root, etc., and especially of dicots—and that many of these remains have not yet been changed, though most have been transformed into iron ore. This transformation itself in part bears a very remarkable character. For example, we find branches whose outer bark, although the shape is very well preserved, consists of a mixture of clay and ironstone, while the inner part or core is a mixture of completely pure ironstone and sand. The texture of the small bodies of limonite that appear scattered amongst the sand also make unmistakable the basic vegetable model. It seems to me that one is dealing here with entirely the same processes as occur in the formation of the [p. 288] concretions of calcium carbonate through the petrifaction of organic bodies in the river mud of the White Nile. Here it is the components of the limonite, which at least as far as the iron oxide is concerned consist of sand and sandstone, that were inherited from what was there before [als gegeben vorliegen]; there it is the oxides of the underlying soil [Erdbasen]. Through the continuous decomposition of organic bodies, especially of a vegetable nature, which is found in the river mud of the most recent alluvium as well as the uppermost layers of the diluvium where that is covered by the alluvium of the present [post-diluvian] age or represents the immediate foundation for soil with growing things [Kulturboden] such as forest or pastureland, etc., acids are formed--or linkages which play the role of acids in relation to the above-mentioned oxides—and which bind together with them to form salts, in the one case predominantly calcium carbonate and in the other hydrated ferric oxide [Eisenoxydhydrat], iron carbonate [kohlensaurem Eisenoxydhydrat], ferric oxide phosphate [phosphorsauren (Eisenoxydhydrat)], etc. These salts, and their frequent formation where their elements are present, indisputably mean that from time to time the earth is permeated with water on the occasion of periodic floods or periodic rain. One may determine that these are the essential conditions through the process of concretion, which in my view is very closely related to the process of crystallization. Under various circumstances and according to different conditions of purity, they either form polyhedral masses ( nodules, concretions, clusters, etc.) or are laid down in stratified deposits, or finally, directly in the process of formation, transform the place and the form of those organic bodies they take in and take the place of, through whose destruction they actually arise. One may observe this gradual conversion especially well in those places where whole layers of root fibrils and other vegetable remains lie in the sand. Having once formed the surface of the earth, they were later covered again by iron-bearing sand and clay. While on the new surface new vegetation took root, the old clearly faced its transformation into limonite.

I was informed of 15 villages in the vicinity of Bara, Chursi and Tendar around which [p. 289] the presence of limonite may be established definitively through efforts of the natives intended to manufacture iron from ore. The circumstances in which this happens are everywhere the same. Namely, beneath the uppermost covering of sand, and usually at a depth of 7 or 8 feet, one finds the first layer of iron. [This is] either pure limonite or strata of clay and sand filled with limonite concretions. Like all the other layers of this formation these are bedded horizontally. These ironstone layers vary in thickness from 6 inches to 1 foot and rest upon iron-bearing sand. Under this sand there follows limonite again. Given the extremely limited excavation techniques of the natives the sequence of deeper layers is not known, but it is probable that the limonite alternates repeatedly with the sand and clay and appears over and over. Under the circumstances it follows that the simplest and cheapest way to investigate this terrain would be to sink a number of shafts to the base of the iron-bearing deposits.

The mining of limonite takes place in the crudest and most inefficient manner conceivable. Near the village of Farajab [Feradschaab] over an area of approximately 400 or 500 square fathoms I counted some 350 little exposed shafts, some open and others collapsed. Each such shaft is circular in cross section, with a diameter at the surface of 4 to 5 feet and a maximum depth of ten feet. As soon as one reaches the uppermost layer of limonite with such a shaft further excavation is suspended and the mining of ore begins immediately, until one breaks through the ore deposit to the underlying [stratum]. Then at the bottom of the shaft the ore round about is taken out as far as may possibly be done without having to fear a sudden collapse, since no use is made of timber revetments. If that does happen the shaft is abandoned and a new one begun nearby, usually only a few feet away. The following diagram [p. 290] provides a clear illustration of these mines. [The character] “a” indicates the layers of sand and clay, “c” the uppermost limonite layer and “b” the shafts mentioned with their widenings at the bottom.


In previous passages I have already had occasion to speak of the originally monopolistic intentions of the viceroy [Mehmet Ali] to improve both the gathering of limonite and also its further treatment through bettering the locally customary method of smelting refined iron. [I have also spoken of] the sad fate of the Englishmen who came to Bara for this reason.[10] I saw the condition of things once again in their original primitiveness; not a trace of any alien influence having taken place was to be seen—although on the other hand I must concede that the natives would certainly not be opposed to innovations that would benefit them.

The limonite won from the above-mentioned shafts is carefully sorted. Only the purest and therefore the richest pieces are subjected to further processing, the first stage of which consists of crushing them to the size of beans.

In order to smelt, the natives make small, cone-shaped pits in the sand with the tip pointing down. The widest diameter of such a pit measures 12 to 14 inches, and the depth likewise. Once such a pit is filled with a mixture of charcoal and crushed ore, without a flux, a heap of charcoal is piled over it and set alight from the top. As the following drawing shows, the nozzles[11] of a bellows are inserted along the edge of the pit at an angle of 40 to 45° [p. 291] and the campaign begins. A man to be described below sets the bellows in motion.


After a few hours the mass begins to settle and to run together, and when this happens new ore and coals are added. After about ten hours the greatest part of the easily molten limonite has melted, and the pit is full of material [Gezeuge]. The bellows and nozzles are taken away, the fire cleared off, and the mass is left to cool. The results of this first smelting are unmelted baked-together ore, which is set aside for a new campaign, and slag. This slag is of two kinds. The upper is black, heavy, with thick cracks, and containing much iron; it is thrown away as useless. The lower is also black and heavy, but more porous, glassy in places, and mixed with grains of reduced iron, sometimes of significant size. This slag is subjected to a second smelting

The second smelting, that is, of the slag containing metallic iron, is undertaken in the same pits, with the same bellows, and under the same conditions. However, as a consequence of the nature of the material, it only lasts a few hours. Now on top one gets a thick slag that bears very much iron, and this again is thrown away. Deeper is a slag visibly mixed with metallic iron, which will be smelted again. Finally, at the deepest point, as a final result of the tiresome processes, is a granular bloom of iron [Eisenkönig], to a greater or lesser degree permeated with slag. It is painstakingly beaten with clubs and the slag systematically removed. Without further treatment the refined, soft iron is then sold to the smiths. [p. 292]

Only rarely do these naked black foundrymen succeed in producing a compact, slag-free pure bloom. I bought one of them on the spot, which weighed about 15 pounds and is a very good, completely soft iron.[12]

The bellows that serve in this operation correspond to the whole procedure, that is, [they are] still on the first step of invention.[13] Sometimes they are only ordinary leather water bags which a man pulls open and then compresses; sometimes they have a quite unique and unusual form. Namely, as the adjoining drawing shows, a basin-shaped body “b” is prepared out of clay, with a long attached tube “c” bent slightly down. The open part of the basin “b” is covered with leather “a” which is attached to the rim of “b,” partly with ties and partly by smearing with clay, in order to make it as airtight as possible. This skin has a hole at the top, into which the operator thrusts a finger.


As he alternately expands the skin (which moment [p. 293] the preceding drawing portrays) and then presses it down to the bottom of the bowl, he creates a wind that naturally has nowhere else to escape other than through the tube “c” at the tip of which the nozzles are found, except for what escapes next to the finger in the hole.[14] As primitive as the blacks are who occupy themselves with this iron production, they openheartedly recognize their lamentable condition, which they judge rationally; the means at their disposal are unsatisfactory, so that for example they pressed me to produce better bellows for them. I have made the most vigorous of representations to the Egyptian government about this. I made them aware that it is important in many regards to pioneer civilization in these lands by calling forth an industrial endeavor—but in vain. The coals for smelting are burned from mimosa. This is done in the forests of the `aqaba in a very simple manner. A small heap of wood, only 2 or three feet high, is set on fire and covered with sand to contain the blaze within an enclosure. The coals are very small, since for the most part only the wood of branches and twigs is used, but they are burned well, resonant and with little rubbing off.

The product is sold as raw material on the spot to blacksmiths or other buyers of their iron for a price of about 1 and 1/3 to 1 and ½ piaster per pound, either through barter or, at least in northern Kordofan, also for money of the Egyptian government. As high as this price is, by which a hundredweight of soft iron costs up to 13 to 15 fl. Konv.-Mze., I still find it far less than the effort and the expenditure of materials and time that the poor blacks put into their iron manufacture.

During both the raw smelting and the slag smelting (as described above) three men are always involved. Two relieve each other in the operation of the bellows while the other, in addition to adding the ore and charcoal, leads the operation. The highest luxury in equipping such an establishment consists of [p. 294] driving four poles into the sand and spreading a straw mat over them when the sun burns too hot on the reddish-yellow sand.

In the most favorable instances the blacks, in about 12 to 14 hours time, succeed in producing 15 to 20 pounds of refined iron. Although derived from ore by furnace [aus Erzen erblasen], out of which by our methods would typically come a brittle product, [theirs] is of exceptional quality, distinguished by softness and flexibility. For the most part the smelters themselves undertake the further working of this iron, its smithing into lanceheads, daggers, agricultural implements, coins [15] etc. To do this they use the same pits and bellows already mentioned, although a few times I had occasion to observe the application of a double bellows, namely two old leather bags. The nozzles of the smithing fire are inserted at an angle of from 25 to 30°. A large piece of refined iron serves as an anvil, and an iron club as a hammer. There exists no conception of hardening the iron, nor of steel, etc. According to our investigations the iron content of the ore subjected to the processing amounts to 60 – 70%, and out of this amount the blacks—if one believes their statements—bring in at least 20, maximum 40%. Although limonite is well-known to be a very easily melted ore, the blacks do not succeed in transforming it into a fully liquid state in their pits; rather, they only change it into a half-molten, doughy mass. Because the iron reduced in this way is not transformed, it is not in a position on the one hand to enter into bonds with the carbon or the alkali of the soil. On the other, through the strong piercing wind and the repeated smelting (slag smelting) the oxidation of the phosphorous of the limonite either takes place quickly or its disoxidation is blocked from the beginning so that it passes completely into the slag. This explains exactly how out of [p. 295] the very nature of this process, extremely wanting in its characteristics in regard to the expenditure of time and material and loss of metal, [comes] the remarkable phenomenon that the blacks succeed in producing a completely flawless soft iron out of ore which by our manipulations would usually result only in brittle iron.



The author will begin a list; everyone is encouraged to contribute.

  1. The furnaces observed by Russegger do not resemble those of Jabal Haraza and Meroe.
    However, the long-necked clay pot bellows he portrayed (FIGURE 3) is clearly similar to those used at Haraza and Meroe, where the extended neck was placed into a suitably designed groove in the front wall of the furnace, leading back into the firing chamber.
    Discussion of ironworking at Meroe (see note 16 below) has not been able to describe the functioning of the long-necked pot bellows found there. Based on analogies with ancient Egyptian practice, it has been argued that the bellows were operated with the feet. It has also been suggested that the bellows were perhaps operated in pairs, each covering skin being lifted and depressed in turn via an attached stick. Either interpretation must postulate the existence of some form of valve, no tangible evidence of which remains.
    Russegger's account suggests that the bellows were not operated with the feet, but with the hands.
    They were probably not worked in pairs by a single operator using sticks; rather, a team of men taking turns might well be required to run a single bellows.
    The operator's finger inserted into a hole in the bellows cover served as the valve.



Interpretive Essay

The ancient Sudan is internationally famous among students of early Africa for its ironworking in Meroitic times.[16] Yet ironworking is not an aspect of historical tradition that modern Sudanese culture has chosen to remember and cherish. In part, this may be attributed to the absence of any conspicuous inventory of existing artifacts to be appreciated. This may partially be due to the ease with which metal could be repeatedly reworked as older iron objects became expendable and were reforged into new ones. Moreover, within the Nubian tradition of Kordofan, there existed a cultural rule that further inhibited casual neglect or discard of what might otherwise have become precious archaeological artifacts:

A superstition prevails now that if the iron implements are allowed to lie on the land they will attract the strong north wind and the corn will be overwhelmed by the sand: in consequence they have diligently been collected and with due formalities stowed away by 'fekis' [Sudanese Arabic fuqara', Islamic holy men] in deep fissures of the rocks [at Jabal Haraza]: it was here that I unearthed a lot of them, covered by stones. [17]

(As the subsequent experience of rural folk resident northwest of Bara dramatically demonstrated, the threat of innundation by wind-borne sand was real enough.)[18] When MacMichael searched the remains of the very ironworks visited by Russegger seventy-five years before, he found only a few overlooked fragments.[19] The meagre tangible remains of precolonial ironworking, to be sure, are hardly sufficient to generate much romantic cultural nostalgia. Yet it seems probable that the venerable tradition of Sudanese ironworking was not merely forgotten, but actively rejected. At least three important historical themes have contributed to the demise of indigenous Sudanese ironworking; two are familiar and predictable, but the third is new and potentially controversial.

Sudanese ironworking, like many forms of African industrial and craft production, may in part have succumbed to competition from imported goods.[20] The late precolonial visitor John Lewis Burckhardt observed that sword blades were a conspicuous northern import in his generation; one of these may well be the weapon attributed to the late eighteenth-century Hamaj strongman Muhammad Abu Likaylik and now displayed in the National Museum in Khartoum.[21] While detailed analysis of iron imports during the Turkish period of Sudanese history is not at hand, even superficial impressionistic evidence may perhaps suffice to indicate that the trends of this age harmed, not relieved, Sudanese ironworking.

Sudanese ironworking in Kordofan may also have suffered through a long process of progressive desertification that gradually removed the trees upon which the industry depended for fuel in the form of charcoal. Both changes in the climate and overexploitation by humans may have contributed. Unfortunately, this hypothesis would seem difficult to confirm. While the study of past environments in the Sudan has contributed significantly to scholarly understanding of very early times, few attempts have been made to bring forward comparable analyses into historic days.[22] Studies based upon twentieth-century data might perhaps be projected backward to imply the presence of progressive desertification.[23] The result of such reasoning however remains speculative.

Historians have often postulated a relationship between innovations in metalurgy and political, social and cultural development out of a remote prehistoric "stone age" into better-documented recent ages of bronze and iron. In regard to Africa specifically it could thus be said that "quite apart from the increase in productivity which the use of metals offers (and hence the possibility of maintaining a more complex administrative system), it is possible to supervise the technology itself, the weapons and the trade in weapons; some effective central control of force becomes feasible for the first time."[24] This interpretive insight, however, has not yet been properly applied to the post-Meroitic Sudan. For the medieval period the impediment has been a tradition of scholarship grounded in Egyptology that found it difficult to expand its vision far beyond the banks of the Nile; to the best of the author's knowledge, for example, no extant treatment of medieval Nubia includes a discussion of the ironworks of Jabal Haraza.[25] For the early modern age the problem has been the intellectual hegemony of an Orientalist reading of history that overemphasized tribes and denied any significant role to central authority.[26]

The present study proposes three working hypotheses as a basis for further investigation and discussion:

  1. The first hypothesis is that in the North Sudan cultural tradition from Meroitic times until the colonial age the government has played a central role in the organization of iron production and the distribution of iron objects, conspicuously though not necessarily exclusively armor and weapons--those articles designated "instruments of state" in surviving government records.[27] In the case of Sinnar, for example, the production and distribution of iron might thus be visualized in terms analagous to the production and distribution of slaves.[28] (The proposed hypothesis may be contrasted with alternative and otherwise-plausible suggestions that perhaps ironworking might have developed in locations especially favored by natural circumstance, or in situations rendered conducive socioeconomically through the operations of market forces.)

    The evidence known to the author does not suffice to prove the proposed hypothesis. However, it provides a few bones which, when arranged in order, do begin to resemble a skeleton.

    • The last independent governments maintained substantial arsenals (known in Sinnar as the bayt al-`udda, in the Mahdist State as the bayt al-mal and in `Ali Dinar's Dar Fur as the warsha [English, "workshop"] where articles important to the government were stored, from which they were dispensed to the deserving, and in some cases where these articles were manufactured. The skills preserved in the Mahdist bayt al-mal, for example, included the venerable tradition of crafting suits of iron chain mail.[29]

    • Although the large ironworks for which ancient Meroe was famous are located in an area where iron ore is abundant, the local material in fact was not smelted. Production depended upon ore imported from elsewhere, and since that production was extensive, so must also have been the arrangements for the importation of ore, and perhaps charcoal likewise.[30] Who made these arrangements, and for what specific purposes? The government would be a plausible candidate for both the roles of producer and consumer.

    • The ironworks at Jabal Haraza invite comparison in this regard to those of Meroe. MacMichael described them as follows:

      Old ironworks are still to be seen. . . . Some are at Arangóg on the south of El Haráza; others at Kaysay: the former are at the foot of the mountain in an inlet, the latter are some 400 feet above the plain and the old stone village, in a high pass in Jebel Kaysay. The backwalls (which are of fine burnt brick and two feet high) are arranged in tiers like the seats of a circus, each higher up the slope than the others, and in the form of a shallow semi-circle. The backwall is in each case about 20 yards from point to point, and consists of four or five smaller consecutive concave divisions, each of which were presumably used by a different person. The refuse was thrown on to the top of the backwall. The ground is strewn with cylinders of very hard burnt clay, one end of which obviously rested among the molten iron, and to the other the bellows were presumably applied. These cylinders lay horizontally side by side on a low brick rest built into a series of hollows on its upper surface, into which the cylinders fit. There are similar ironworks at Kobé at the east end of El Haráza. [31]

      Jabal Haraza possessed absolutely no natural or economic advantages that could have inspired the establishment of an iron industry there; the only plausible motives for its existence were political.

      The Jawama`a region does not seem to possess ironworks comparable in magnitude or sophistication to those of Jabal Haraza. Its primary role may have been the mining of ore and burning of charcoal for use elsewhere. Alternatively since Bara, perhaps even more than Haraza, was a political center for extended periods, it is possible that greater ironworks once existed in the vicinity but later disappeared or have eluded rediscovery.

    • If iron production and the crafting of weapons, sometimes in unexpected places, were significant aspects of the command economy of precolonial states, then the destruction of those states would itself be a significant contributing cause to the decline of Sudanese ironworking in colonial times.

    One of the duties of a precolonial Sudanese ruler was to serve as a talent scout, to attract to his capital and court individuals with uncommon and valuable goods or skills. Royal patronage toward Islamic holy men is probably the best-documented example of this activity, but a close reading of primary sources from the age reveal a similar preoccupation with physicians, traders with unusual merchandise, and artisans of all descriptions. For some foreigners this royal interest could provide the opportunity of a lifetime, but it could seem threatening to those who might wish to leave the Sudan some day. Representing the latter viewpoint Burckhardt commented:

    Travellers in these countries ought to avoid shewing their capacity in the most trifling things that may be of use or afford pleasure to the chiefs, who will endeavour to force them into their service.[32]

    Yet the fact that many of the extant primary sources happen to concern aliens such as Burckhardt should not obscure the probability that most of the artisans gathered to the capital by contemporary Sudanese governments were Sudanese.

  2. The second proposed working hypothesis is that the vocation of smith in the North Sudan cultural tradition was casted. At the moment, evidence concerning this theme is either circumstantial or fragmentary to the point of evanescence. Yet one must start with what is available. (New information or advice would be greatly appreciated. Please contact the author at:

    • Ironworking in most Northeast African societies has been organized on the basis of blacksmith castes.[33] This should encourage observers of the northern Sudan to become alert to the possibility that a similar situation may well have prevailed there in earlier times.

    • The author's fieldwork during the early 1970s (Dongola, the Shaiqiyya and Rubatab country) included occasional encounters with elderly people in marginal situations whose special status was associated with a craft occupation either practiced in their youth or by their families in previous generations.[34] Blacksmithing was one of several occupations associated with such individuals.

  3. The third proposed working hypothesis is that in addition to the casted smiths, some miners or ironworkers were individuals of slave status. This idea is supported in the case of Sinnar by the conspicuous presence of slaves in the central government establishment, including the bayt al-`udda.[35] Nothing presently known concerning the comparable institutions of the Mahdist State or Dar Fur contradicts the probable validity of this assumption there also.

Adoption of the three hypotheses proposed for heuristic purposes points toward several new interpretations for the historical experience of the Nubian community of northern and central Kordofan. Part of that experience included the formulation and reformulation of ethnicity. Two examples follow.



Interpretive Essay

Approach to a discussion of ethnicity and history in the North Sudan context requires some historiographical decisions.

The twentieth-century North Sudan communities self-defined through Arab genealogy appear most commonly from an historian's perspective as the descendants of either a precolonial ruling house or a group of precolonial subjects.

To choose examples from the Nile valley, the `Abdallab were the ruling house of the large northern province, and the Rubatab a community of their subjects.

It is important to avoid primordialism, for the fortunes of groups might well rise or decline with the vicissitudes of history. During the later eighteenth century the leaders of the Jamu`iyya rose from subject to elite status, only to fall back again within decades; the elite immigrant followers of Hashim of the Musabba`at were reduced to subject cultivators, and the conquering Turks threatened the Shaiqiyya nobility who resisted them with a similar fate.

To return to Kordofan, the Sinnar provincial ruling house of Kordofal became a colonial Arab tribe called the Ghudiyat, while their subjects in the eastern ironworking environs of Bara became the Jawama`a.[43]

This study will propose, as a working hypothesis, that the history of the subject community who became the Jawama`a of colonial days requires consideration of an earlier elite who established--or perhaps emphatically reconfirmed out of a still more remote past--a forgotten but longstanding political and socioeconomic order of precolonial times.


The Tunjur of the twentieth century were a small, Arabic-speaking community of Dar Fur who considered themselves to be descendants of the followers of Abu Zayd al-Hilali who had immigrated to the medieval Sudan from the northwest via the Maghrib.[44]

Historically, the Tunjur have been seen as a ruling dynasty of Dar Fur, who supplanted an earlier Daju ruling house and annexed also the Chadian lands that would eventually become the kingdom of Wadai. Chronological estimates suggest that the Tunjur dynasty in Dar Fur came to an end near the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the rise of a new Fur-speaking dynasty, the Keira, and the birth of modern Dar Fur. One may therefore place the Tunjur in the sixteenth century and perhaps before.

Alternative traditions have long suggested an eastern, Nubian origin for the Tunjur; however, late medieval Dongola was hardly more plausible than Tunis as a potential source for a conquering dynasty of Dar Fur and Wadai.

But the rediscovery of the extensive Nubian-speaking community of precolonial North Kordofan invites a reconsideration of the alternative traditions, which specifically link the Tunjur dynasty not only to North Kordofan Nubian archaeological sites but also to ironworking:

Some Zagháwa from Dárfûr say the Tungur were once great workers in iron, and it may be that some of the old iron-workings, whose sites are still to be seen in Northern Kordofan, are traceable to the Tungur.[45]

This study would suggest that the same Tunjur kings who were reputed to have mobilized their subjects to level the tops of mountains in order to construct elaborate stone capitals such as `Ain Farah in northern Dar Fur would also be plausible candidates for the organization of ironworking at Jabal Haraza (and perhaps elsewhere.)

The sixteenth century witnessed not only an age of Tunjur hegemony over Dar Fur and Wadai, but also the rise of the new Nile valley kingdom of the Funj. The present author has argued that the Funj were southern Nubians from the White Nile region.[46] This putative homeland may now wish to be extended westward into Nubian Kordofan.

The interpretation proposed here would ask for three revisions in the received tradition of historiography.

  1. The most significant theme that marked the transitional age in North Sudan history from 1300 to 1500 was not an invasion of Arabs from Egypt nor the decline of the medieval riverine kingdoms, but the rise of new Kordofan-based dynasties, the Tunjur in the west and the Funj in the east.

  2. Upon reexamination, precolonial Kordofan does not appear to be peripheral to anything, but rather a womb of Nubian rulers.[47]

  3. Since the ironworks excavated at Meroe seem in fact to be post-Meroitic in date, it may be possible to correlate the rise of Nubian-speakers to medieval prominence with an early efflorescence of the Kordofan iron industry.[48]
The community that was to become the Jawama`a should be visualized as participants in the ironworking organization of the kings who ruled Kordofan before the eighteenth-century incursions from the west of Fur-speaking Musabba`at and Keira.


Before the Dar Fur incursions of the late eighteenth century the ironworking zone introduced above formed a part of the Funj province of Kordofal, whose ruling house, the Ghudiat, was based at Bara.[49]

No primary sources concerning ironworking in that place and age are known to the present writer.

However, some tentative inferences may be drawn through comparison with other parts of the Funj kingdom.[50]

The subjects were normally taxed in kind, and the subjects of southern districts were often taxed in the form of non-agricultural items that diverted attention from life-giving crops and livestock.

It is known that subjects in gold-producing districts were forced through taxation policy to pan for gold; it would seem likely that the subjects in the iron-mining zone may have been similarly constrained to produce ore, and perhaps charcoal also.

Southern subjects were ruled through a system of "institutionalized insecurity" in which the threat of enslavement was the basic tool in the discipline of labor. Under these circumstances it is easy to imagine the gradual concentration of enslaved individuals in locations where less desirable activities such as mining were conducted.

The special role probably played by a blacksmith caste has been postulated, but in the absence of evidence this theme may not be presently pursued.

With the Dar Fur conquest the state role in iron production in Kordofan diminished, and without state organization and coercion, the industry gradually disappeared. By the twentieth century, it was only a rapidly-fading memory.

Erstwhile subjects in the iron-mining zone were delighted to abandon humble, sometimes casted or servile ancestry, for a new Arab identity that matched their more completely agricultural new livelihoods. [51]

Their community was characterized unkindly by MacMichael:

A collection of members of various tribes . . . a much debased race . . . . they have mixed so largely with other races that they are uniformly dark in color and in their features present many characteristics of the blacks.[52]

They had become Jawama`a.





  1. Jay Spaulding, "Pastoralism, Slavery, Commerce, Culture and the Fate of the Nubians of Northern and Central Kordofan under Dar Fur Rule, c. 1750 - c. 1850," International Journal of African Historical Studies 39, 3 (2006), 393-412.

  2. H.A. MacMichael, The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), p. 60, note 1.

  3. National Records Office, Khartoum. Miscellaneous 1/15/182. Hadha kitab al-dar al-farid fi al-akhbar al-mufida al-muhtawi `ala mulakhkhas ta'rikh al-umma al-Nubiyya wa-jughrafiyat biladiha [wa-]asbab dukhul al-atrak min al-sultan Salim al-awwil wa-min Muhammad `Ali basha, wa-`ala Allah ahsan al-khitam. Amin. 4 Ramadan 1330/17 August 1912.

  4. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 243.

  5. Guillaume Lejean, Voyage aux deux Nils (Paris: Hachette, 1865), p. 41.

  6. Ernst Marno, Reise in der Egyptischen Aequatorial-Provinz und in Kordofan in den Jahren 1874-1876 (Wien: Hölder, 1879), p. 235.

  7. Ignatius Pallme, Travels in Kordofan (London: Madden, 1844), pp. 254-255.

  8. Joseph von Russegger, Reisen in Europa, Asien und Afrika. (Stuttgart: Schweitzerbart, 1841-1848. The excerpt translated is from Volume 2, Part 2, Section 4, pp. 286-295.

  9. The places named are located among the Jawama`a in the vicinity of Bara. On the 1:250,000 map of the Sudan, sheet 55-I/ND36 I "El Obeid," Farajab is about 25 miles due east of Bara, Khursi about ten miles southeast of Bara, and Domma five miles north-northeast.

  10. Russegger's footnote: " I was not able to learn anything about Mehmet Ali’s attempt to have this iron ore smelted by Albanians, as Rüppell says." The reference is to Eduard Rüppell, Reisen in Nubien, Kordofan und dem Peträischen Arabien (Frankfurt am Main: Wilmans, 1829), p. 152.

  11. It has become customary among writers in English to refer to these nozzles with the French term tuyères.

  12. Russegger's footnote: "This piece of iron may be found in the mineral cabinet of the head mint administration building [Hauptmünzamtsgebäude] in Vienna."

  13. In an extended footnote Russegger correctly observes, from his reading of Mungo Park and perhaps other explorers of the Western Sudan, that a considerably more elaborate system of iron production was in use in that region at that time. Russegger compares the Mande ironworks as described by Park to those of the Turkomans of the Taurus Mountains observed by himself. Americans might wish to add as a local point of reference the reconstructed colonial ironworks at Batsto Village, where southern New Jerseyites refined bog iron in George Washington’s day using a system very similar in method and scale to those of the Mande or Turkomans.

  14. Russegger apparently did not understand that the operator would open the fingerhole to admit fresh air on the upstroke, and then block the hole with his finger on the downstroke to force air down the tube of the bellows and out through the tuyères.

  15. The reference is to hashhash, the small, hoe-shaped iron coins of precolonial Sinnar, including Kordofan. For an extended discussion of hashhash in Kordofan see MacMichael, Tribes, p. 67, note 1. For the use of this coinage in Sinnar see Jay Spaulding, The Sudanese Travels of Theodoro Krump. (Entry for 8 May 1701.)

  16. For example, see Peter Shinnie, Meroe: A Civilization of the Sudan (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967), William Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), Derek Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush: the Napatan and Meroitic Empires (London: British Museum Press, 1996).

  17. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 91 note 2. The author has not yet been able to trace the subsequent fate of the artifacts recovered at Jabal Haraza by MacMichael.

  18. Leif O. Manger, The Sand Swallows our Land. (Bergen: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, 1981).

  19. MacMichael, Tribes, Appendix V "Objects found at Faragáb in middens," pp. 242-244. "Few iron objects were to be seen, but there was a plain rough iron ring, an inch in diameter, and two iron pins with dangling rings as shewn in the accompanying illustration. These may have been used as hairpins or for applying 'kohl' [antimony] to the eyelids. There was little iron otherwise, save a few indeterminate scraps that had evidently been parts of the blades of spears or hoes. Iron is procurable in the immediate vicinity and used to be worked so late as the middle of the nineteenth century." (p. 243

  20. The importance of this historical process to the continent as a whole was emphasized in Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (London: Bogle-L'Overture Publications, 1972). The process was by no means unique to Africa; for northern North America see Harold Adam Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).

  21. John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Nubia (London: J. Murray, 1819), pp. 303-304. For the sword of Abu Likaylik see Derek Welsby and Julie R. Anderson, eds., Sudan: Ancient Treasures (London: British Museum Press, 2004), PLATE 217 p. 245.

  22. For example, see David N. Edwards, "The Archaeology of Sudan," in Peter Gwynvay Hopkins, ed., The Kenana Handbook of Sudan (London: Kegan Paul, 2007), pp. 41-64.

  23. Two serious attempts to address the recent history of climate in the western Sudan may be found in Dennis Tully, Culture and Context in Sudan (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989) and Alexander De Waal, Famine that Kills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). David Sterling Decker contributed a useful analysis of nineteenth-century conditions based upon the considerably more limited primary sources of that period in his 1990 Michigan State University PhD thesis, "Politics and Profits: The Development of Merchant Capitalism and its Impact on the Political Economy of Kordofan." All the authors cited believe in the progressive desertification of the region, though with somewhat different emphases, degrees of certainty, and sense of time-depth involved.

  24. Jack Goody, Technology, Tradition and the State in Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 46.

  25. Brief hints may be found in Jay Spaulding, "A Premise for Precolonial Nuba History," History in Africa XIV (1987), 369-374 and "Early Kordofan," in Michael Kevane and Endre Stiansen, eds., Kordofan Invaded: Peripheral Incorporation and Social Transformation in Islamic Africa (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 46-59.

  26. An extended critique may be found in Lidwien Kapteijns and Jay Spaulding "The Orientalist Paradigm in the Historiography of the Late Precolonial Sudan," in Jay O'Brien and William Roseberry, eds., Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 139-151.

  27. Lidwien Kapteijns and Jay Spaulding, "Gifts Worthy of Kings: An Episode in Dar Fur - Taqali Relations," Sudanic Africa I (1990), 61-70.

  28. Jay Spaulding, The Heroic Age in Sinnar (Trenton and Asmara: Red Sea Press, 2007), pp. 41-47,219-231.

  29. A. J. Arkell, "The Making of Mail at Omdurman," Kush 4 (1956), 83-84.

  30. P.L. Shinnie and F.J. Kense, "Meroitic Iron Working," Meroitica 6 (1982), 17-28.

  31. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 95.

  32. Burckhardt, Travels, p. 286.

  33. For the tumaal of the Somali-speaking world see I. M. Lewis, A Modern History of Somalia (Boulder: Westview, 1988). For the central Ethiopian tradition see Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965). For southern Ethiopia see Dena Freeman and Alula Pankhurst, eds., Peripheral People (London: C. Hurst, 2002). For Dar Fur see R. S. O'Fahey, State and Society in Dar Fur (London: C. Hurst, 1980). For South Sudan see Stephanie Beswick's forthcoming Southern Sudan's Slaving Grounds.

  34. Author's notes, 1970, 1977-1978. The most significant encounters took place in Dongola and the Shaiqiyya country early in 1970. The artisans concerned were potters, elderly female individuals whose livelihoods were threatened by the sale to China of the Sudanese cotton crop in the year of the May Revolution, which led to an innundation of even rural districts with a tidal wave of Chinese tupperware and enameled bowls. Sudanese-made clay drums and pots became collectors' items overnight. The only pottery artifact that seemed to survive the age of Sudanese Socialism was the clay incense-burner. Most of the few blacksmiths encountered were identified as "Gypsies" (Halab), and although unquestionably a caste group, in the author's opinion they may well have been recent immigrants from the Middle East rather than Sudanese of long historical standing.

  35. Spaulding, Heroic Age, pp. 41-48.

  36. For an extended discussion see Jay Spaulding, "The Chronology of Sudanese Arabic Genealogical Tradition," History in Africa, 27 (2000), 325-337.

  37. Kapteijns and Spaulding, "Orientalist Paradigm."

  38. For a discussion of the historical context see Spaulding, "Pastoralism, Slavery, Commerce, Culture."

  39. Lidwien Kapteijns and Jay Spaulding, "The Conceptualization of Land Tenure in the Precolonial Sudan: Evidence and Interpretation," in Donald Crummey, ed., Land, Literacy and the State in Sudanic Africa (Asmara: Red Sea Press, 2005), pp. 21-41.

  40. Spaulding, "Early Kordofan."

  41. Spaulding, "Premise."

  42. Spaulding, "Pastoralism, Slavery, Commerce, Culture."

  43. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 77; A History of the Arabs in the Sudan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), I, 224.

  44. MacMichael, Tribes, pp 52-60. "The Tungur no doubt were at one time a great tribe," he wrote, "though little is known of their history or whence they came."(p. 52)

  45. Ibid., p. 60, note 1.

  46. Jay Spaulding, "The Funj: A Reconsideration," Journal of African History XIII, 1 (1972), 39-54.

  47. Contrast the central theme of Kevane and Stiansen, Kordofan Invaded, which is sound analysis of colonial and post-colonial situations but is not a good guide to precolonial realities.

  48. Shinnie, "Meroitic iron working," p. 24. Shinnie believed that ironworking had been practiced on a small scale in the northern Sudan as early as the fifth or fourth centuries BCE (p. 21); however, the large works for which Meroe has enjoyed perhaps unjustified historiographical prominence seem to date from the sixth century CE, and are therefore more likely early Nubian than (extremely) late Meroitic.

  49. For the Funj rulers of Kordofal see Jay Spaulding and Muhammad Abu Salim, Public Documents from Sinnar (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1989), p. 385.

  50. For a discussion see Spaulding, Heroic Age, pp. 49-62.

  51. Compare the new identities forged by former slaves during the twentieth century; see Ahmad Alawad Sikainga, Slaves into workers: emancipation and labor in Colonial Sudan (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996).

  52. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 76