In many villages in rural Ethiopia, traditional crafts and specialized production still perform an important function in local economies. In particular, the hereditary role and status of the blacksmith is often subject to strict cultural controls and ritual concerns that shroud his work in mystery. But centuries of multicultural influence and rapid modern change in the Amhara region have threatened the survival of iron working crafts. For how much longer will these and other traditional skills remain relevant here?
Meeting a master craftsman
The cool, earthy shade was a welcome relief from the bleaching Ethiopian sun as we stepped through the narrow door into the blacksmith’s small round house.
The interior of the dwelling, with its mud and dung walls and circular thatched roof, felt more spacious than I expected. A thick wooden pillar, skirted at its base by a round earthen step, dominated the centre of the room and stretched up to the middle of the roof high above. On the right-hand side, over against the wall, water boiled in an iron kettle on a small charcoal hearth under the guardianship of the blacksmith’s smiling wife. Two small children stared at us in silence, seemingly transfixed by our strangeness. The blacksmith placed a small, handcrafted wooden stool behind me, draped it in a hairy goat skin, and grinned as he invited me to sit down. To me, it felt like we were guests in another world, and our welcome was both warm and extraordinary.
I was visiting the rural village of Gennata Maryam that afternoon, in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, to learn about the craft of the local blacksmith.* The settlement is well-known in the area because of the 13th century rock-hewn church situated high up on a nearby hill, from which the village takes its name. I’d hoped that by visiting the blacksmith with two archaeologist colleagues, I might deepen my own understanding of the social, economic and cultural influences that guided the practice of ironworking here. With only an hour to spend here, I could not hope to conduct anything like a formal ethnographic study. But I hoped to gain a few insights, and perhaps even observe the blacksmith in action.
Anthropological research in various parts of Africa1 has shown that metal production is often subject to strict cultural rules, and tends to be shrouded in ritual and taboo. This stems from traditional beliefs that the earth is sacred, and fire (heat) is potentially polluting. Any process that uses fire to transform earth into a different substance is very dangerous, and if mismanaged, could bring disaster upon the community. To avoid such danger, only specific people in society are allowed to engage in metal production. This role is typically hereditary—passed from father to son for generations.
My own research2 among Tswana-speakers thousands of miles to the south revealed that these cultural principles were so important—at least to an early 19th century Tlokwa community in South Africa—that they were honoured and upheld even in the midst of intense social and economic pressures to abandon them.
But the farming communities of the Ethiopian plateau and highlands—most of whom speak Amharic, a Semitic language closely related to Arabic in the Afro-Asiatic language group—are ethnically distinct from the Bantu-speaking groups in more southerly parts of Africa. The Amhara people have absorbed influences, both genetic and cultural, from south Arabia since at least the mid-first millennium BC.3 Although an indigenous African element has probably survived all along, the region has seen major economic and political developments over the subsequent centuries—not least of all the rise and fall of the Aksumite civilization in the first millennium AD. More recently, communism and a deeply-entrenched feudal system of agriculture have also had a major influence on Amhara economy and culture.
Against this historical background, I wondered if there would be any hint of a reflection or parallel up here in present-day Amhara of the cultural frameworks around metal working I had seen in the Bantu-speaking world.
Hearth and home
As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the blacksmith’s house, I started to notice more of its features. Parts of the rounded wall had been elaborated with shelving—stick-framed units, smeared in mud so that they blended organically with the walls themselves. A space at the rear had been separated from the rest of the room by a thin wall, creating a storage area that was packed with large pots and other domestic items. I asked the blacksmith how long it took to build such a house, and was slightly surprised by his answer—three days, with the help of about a dozen people.
I was silently preparing more questions for our host when a large dish of injera suddenly appeared on a low table in the midst of the group. This cloth-like flat bread—typically made from the teff grain and traditionally topped with a variety of stews or sauces—is one of the most common dishes in this part of Africa. It is the standard fare in most rural households in Ethiopia.
Our tasty and nutritious meal was closely followed by a succession of tiny cups of dense, rich coffee, capable of reviving the most sun-wearied of heads. As we started to eat and drink, I learned more about the composition of the household. In addition to the blacksmith and his wife, their two sons also lived here with their wives and children. Intriguingly, the blacksmith’s sons were both blacksmiths too, and his wife and both wives of his sons were all potters.
This revelation reminded me of research4 that had been carried out among the Tsara people, a community living near the Omo River in south-west Ethiopia. It was suggested that the production of metals and ceramics there were metaphorically linked together, because both processes involved the transformation of earth (ore and clay) into cultural objects (tools and pots). As a result of this connection, and because of the conceptual dangers inherent in these crafts, both ironworkers and potters belonged to a distinct caste or status group in Tsara society. Ironworkers were often married to potters, and these occupations were passed on from father to son and from mother to daughter. These families held a lower status than ordinary farmers, and were socially and physically isolated from the rest of the community. In fact, they were required to live out on the edge of the village.
But did this example have any relevance to Amhara society? The Tsara are an Omotic-speaking people. The Omotic language group in Ethiopia is older than the Semitic cluster here,5 and although both are considered Afro-Asiatic languages, the Tsara people are culturally distinct from the Amhara to the north. But the two groups are nevertheless related, and they are likely to have had some cultural influence on one another over the past few millennia. Perhaps the situation in our blacksmith’s family did indeed reflect a cultural principle that shared common roots with the traditions described among the Tsara.
A distinct caste
One thing was obvious as we stepped out of the house, blinking, into the sunshine. In contrast to the dense concentration of houses and compounds in the main village, the blacksmith’s homestead was relatively remote—situated a notable distance from the rest of the community.
During lunch, the blacksmith had explained that he practices iron smithing or forging only. He does not smelt the metal from ore. Neither his father nor grandfather actually smelted iron. Nor had that ancient craft been practiced anywhere in the area within living memory. If there had been a source of smeltable ore in these parts, he assured us, he would have known about it. Instead, most of his iron comes in the form of scrap metal from the capital Addis Ababa, where it is easily obtainable.
In African societies, iron smithing seems to be subject to fewer ritual concerns than smelting6. After all, the iron forger is not transforming one substance into another as the smelter does, he is simply reshaping the same substance. But the forger does create a transformation, nevertheless, from a formless substance (the iron bloom) into a socially meaningful object (an implement). This—combined with the fact that fire is also involved in forging—means that some conceptual control is sometimes still imposed over the activity.
Among the people of Dawro, who live about 600 km away in the Omo region, this concern is reflected in the existence of a distinct “forgers’ caste” in society, which is considered higher in status than the caste of smelters and potters below it.4 There, the forgers cannot quite occupy the same status as ordinary farmers, but they are considered to be closer to the rest of the community than those who engage in transforming the earth itself.
As we followed the blacksmith and his two sons out of the main homestead and out towards his workshop, which was situated about 30 metres away, I wondered how long ago traditional iron smelting had died out in the Amhara region.
Archaeological evidence from Aksum indicates that smelting was probably practiced there in the 3rd or 4th century AD,7 but what had been the story of the craft since then? In Dime, south-western Ethiopia, iron smelting continued up until the mid-1970s,8 but a comparable example of longevity does not seem to have been found in the Amhara region. More archaeological fieldwork clearly needs to be done.
An ancient craft
The blacksmith’s workshop was a small, round stick-built structure built on top of a low, circular drystone wall. It had a vaguely conical loosely-thatched roof, and the floor inside was covered with a carpet of grey ash, probably generated by years of forging in this tiny enclosed space. As we prepared to witness the blacksmith in action, I quickly realised that this was a three-man job that would involve both of his sons.
One of the young men operated the bellows. These consisted of two goatskin bags connected to short iron pipes (tuyeres), through which air was forced into the fire as the bags were rhythmically extended and contracted. The pipes were held in place by an arrangement of four stones, the smallest of which was positioned on top of the pipes at the point where they made contact with the charcoal. The other son acted as the striker, responsible for beating the hot iron with a large, rather unwieldy-looking hammer.
At the centre of the operation, the blacksmith controlled the heating process by periodically burying the iron in the burning charcoal. When it was hot enough, he withdrew it with iron tongs and held it in the desired position on the anvil as he directed the striker to deal a series of blows. This process, from fire to anvil, was repeated every few minutes as the piece of iron gradually morphed into its destined form.
As we only glimpsed a work in progress, it was never entirely clear what the finished iron object was intended to be. The blacksmith told us that the bulk of his work consisted of making and repairing objects for the church up on the hill. But whether this particular piece was to be an elaborate ritual item, like an Ethiopian Orthodox cross, or something a little more functional like a carpenter’s chisel or part of a chair, I felt privileged to have witnessed a master craftsman in action.
This was no reconstruction, acted out in accordance with the distant memories of village elders, but a working specialist and his apprentices performing their daily jobs. We had observed the end result of hundreds, if not thousands of years of specialized production—perfected and adapted through an endless process of trial, error and refinement to serve the specific needs of this community.
But as we left the blacksmith’s homestead and started walking back towards the village, I wondered for how much longer such traditional skills and services would be needed by communities like Gennata Maryam. They currently seem to play such a vital role in rural societies—an importance probably prolonged by the absence of a major colonial influence in Ethiopia’s recent history. But as economic development continues its determined—if sluggish—march forward, and overseas commercial interests contribute new roads, communications and other infrastructure, it seems likely that the final hammer blow at the Gennata Maryam forge will be struck by one of the blacksmith’s sons, rather than by one of his grandsons.