Nigeria find is ‘new chapter in history of glass technology’

Image credit: Photo: Abidemi Babatunde Babalola

Chemical analysis of artefacts discovered in Nigeria has provided the first evidence that glassmaking technology was being used in sub-Saharan Africa centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

Anthropologist Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, a recent PhD graduate from Rice who is lead author of a paper on the work scheduled for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, came across evidence of early glassmaking during archaeological excavations at Igbo Olokun, located on the northern periphery of Ile-Ife in south-western Nigeria. He recovered more than 12,000 glass beads and several kilograms of glass-working debris.

"This area has been recognised as a glass-working workshop for more than a century," Babalola explained. "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."

That idea was challenged 10 years ago, when analysis of glass beads attributed to Ile-Ife showed 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.

Tests on 52 beads carried out by researchers from Rice University, University College London and the Field Museum 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.

A high-lime, high-alumina (HLHA) composition reflects local geology and raw materials and provides evidence that glass production at Igbo Olokun dates to the 11th through 15th centuries AD. This was well before the arrival of Europeans along the coast of West Africa, a discovery the team claim is a "new chapter in the history of glass technology."

Babalola says the presence of the HLHA glass at other important early West African sites suggests it was widely traded. He hopes 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. He also hopes his work will help researchers understand its impact on the social, political and economic fabrics of the African societies.

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