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Archaeotechnology
Archaeotechnology

Archaeometallurgy and the Analysis of Early Sociotechnical Systems

Robert M. Ehrenreich

INTRODUCTION

Early metalwork has been analyzed and discussed for more than 90 years. The thrust of archaeometallurgy has shifted within the past 15 years, how- ever. Generally speaking, earlier studies concentrated on the technological devel- opment of the materials, whereas cur- rent studies focus more on the societies in which the materials were used. There are two reasons for this tran- sition. The first is that furthering the understanding of ancient societies is the ultimate goal of archaeology. The second reason is that sufficient data about the history of metals have now been accu- mulated to permit the formulation of valid hypotheses about the interrelation- ship of society and metal technology. Archaeometallurgists now approach early metalworking as a sociotechnical system in which the technology is not only inextricably linked to certain tools and techniques but also to social behav- iors and societal organizations. Whereas earlier work viewed technological devel- opment as an independent process that periodically affected society, current studies approach technology as an inte-

gral part of society that is developed, reproduced, and adopted for reasons that are innate to the society itself. As Bryan Pfaffenberger of the University of

Virginia said, "Technology

...

is not ma-

terial culture but rather a total social phe-

nomenon

...

that marries the material,

the social, and the symbolic in a com- plex web of associations."l This new

emphasis on metalworking as a socio- technical system was the focus of Euro- pean Metals: From Experiment to Theory, a symposium held at the Soci- ety for American Archaeology confer- ence this past April in New Orleans, Louisiana.

INDUSTRIAL ASPECTS

A key aspect of any sociotechnical sys- tem is its industrial organization. Every technology requires a system by which raw materials are amassed, refined, and distributed, and techniques are transmit- ted to following generations and suc-

cessfully repeated. Three presentations covered the industrial organization of early metal sociotechnical systems. They were delivered by Carl Blair of the Uni- versity of Minnesota, Daniel K. Higgin- bottom of the University of Minnesota, and Nancy L. Wicker of Mankato State University. Blair analyzed the industrial orga- nization of prehistoric iron smelting, based on the archaeological evidence from the Iron Age site of Kelheim, Ger- many, and the results of smelting reen- actments using small (internal diameter of 0.35 m and height of 1 m; Celtic Iron Age), medium (0.5mx 1-1.5 m; Roman), and tall (0.8-1 m x 2-3 m; Burgenland) shaft furnaces. Higginbottom, who par- ticipated in the smelting operation or- ganized by Blair, presented the results of the reenactments. The oppida, or town, of Kelheim was occupied prima- rily between 125 B.C. and 50 B.C. The site yielded evidence of extensive iron smelting, including furnace remains of approximately 1 m in diameter and roughly 50,000 tonnes of iron slag. If the assumption were made that all of the slag was produced during the 75 year primary occupation of the site, the pro- duction numbers are staggering. Even using the more efficient Burgenland fur- naces, approximately 50 smelting opera- tions would have been required, each running approximately 130 cycles per year. This effort would have required roughly 1,000 tonnes of ore, 3,440 tonnes of charcoal, and a labor force of approxi- mately 330 full-time people per year. Support of this industry would also have required the annual efforts of approxi- mately 160 colliers, 150 miners, and 125 wood cutters. Blair concludes that such an effort would have required the use of the Burgenland furnaces and the ex- istence of a rudimentary guild industrial organization to ensure the successful production of the iron and the survival of the industry through generations. There are a number of points that re- quire further clarification, however. First, was all of the slag actually pro- duced in the 75 year period? Smelting continued at many European Iron Age

and Roman sites after the main periods of occupation. Second, did the furnaces have to work convectively or could they have been assisted by bellows? The shafts of the furnace bottoms found would have to have been at least 2 m in height in order to work convectively. This would have made the Kelheim fur- naces bigger by approximately an order of magnitude than any built in Iron Age or Medieval Europe. Third, was the quantity of iron produced required to support the needs of an Iron Age op- pida, when such quantities were never produced to support larger Medieval towns? Fourth, was there a sufficient population on the oppida to run this in- dustry as well as tend the fields and maintain the other enterprises present? Fifth, were the cost and benefit advan- tages for the Iron Age the same as for today? Higginbottom stated in his re- view of the experimental reenactments that the medium, Roman-type shaft fur- nace was the most efficient when con- struction, maintenance, raw-materials, and labor demands were taken into ac- count. This conclusion seems sounder, although the slag remains may have to be reassessed to determine whether they could have been produced beyond the 75 year period of the main occupation of the Kelheim oppida. Wicker discussed the possibility of identifying the individual smiths who produced gold pendants, known as bracteates, in Scandinavia during the 5th and early 6th centuries A.D. Bracteates measured approximately 2-3 cm in di- ameter and were suspended around the neck by gold chains. A central motif was stamped on the face and surrounded by at least one punched border. The chain was strung through a loop that was at- tached to the top edge of the piece. These precious artifacts were symbols of wealth and prestige and, as such, were probably produced at a limited number of elite workshops. Although most bracteates were found in Scandinavia, examples have been recovered from Brit- ain, Hungary, and even Russia. The identification of individual goldsmiths could provide insight into the organiza-

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JOM • July 1996
tion of sociotechnical systems and the training, itineracy, and social status of smiths during this period.

tion of sociotechnical systems and the training, itineracy, and social status of smiths during this period. Preliminary analysis of die and punch impressions on 850 artifacts identified three artifacts with identical tool markings and, there- fore, workshop affinities. Although these results confirm that it is possible to identify early artifacts that were made with the same tool, many is- sues require resolution before real hy- potheses about individual goldsmiths, specialist workshops, and sociotechnical systems can be formulated. Tools could have been shared among members of one workshop or between workshops if either the master smiths or the appren- tices were itinerant. Also, the life span of tools could have lasted decades, dur- ing which time a smith or workshop could have dramatically changed styles. Thus, although the preliminary results show potential, further research is re- quired before any real conclusions can be reached.

CULTURAL ASPECTS

Many times, the societal aspects of sociotechnical systems are most clearly seen in the rituals associated with death. Deborah J. Sheperd of the University of Minnesota and Barbara Scott both dis- cussed the cultural implications of met- als technology based on artifacts recov- ered from burials. Shepard discussed the significance of the presence of slag in Finnish burials. Iron slag has been found in both inhu- mation and cremation burials in Finland

1996 July • JOM

between the 5th and 12th centuries A.D. and in Sweden between the mid-6th and 11th centuries A.D. The presence of slag was not restricted on the basis of gen- der, social status, wealth, or faith (Le., pagan or Christian). For decades, archae- ologists have debated whether the slag was intentionally placed in burials and what its significance was. Some ar- chaeologists believe that the slag was not intentionally added but was a contami- nant of the fill earth. Other archaeolo- gists argue that the accidental inclusion of settlement debris in burials would be unusual since cemeteries and settlement sites are rarely in close proximity to each other. A number of burials with slag were also discovered in areas in which no other slag was found. Thus, some archaeologists believe that the slag was a deliberate addition to the burials as a symbolic metaphor for the process of death. The production of slag as a by- product of the liberation of iron from ore by smelting can be equated with the Christian belief that the corpse is a by- product of the release of a disembodied spirit with death. Iron and humanity were also closely linked in the pre-Christian folklore of Finland. One of the three main heroes of Finnish folklore was Ilmarinen, the ar- chetypal smith. Ilmarinen took iron, which was believed to be a living being that was culpable for the harm it did, and tamed it. He made iron swear an oath not to harm its "tribe." By doing so, Ilmarinen links iron and humanity in a tight bond. This combination of the

Christian body-and-spirit belief and slag-and-iron symbolism with the pre- Christian linking of iron and humanity would have made slag a very forceful image in Finnish society. Scott discussed the distribution of oval bronze brooches in women's graves in the Orkney and Shetland islands of Scot- land during the late 8th and 9th centu- ries A.D. and the suitability of these arti- facts for the identification of Viking women. She cautioned against the use of these brooches alone as ethnicity markers for a number of reasons. First, the manner of periodic mass production prevents the tracing of the different types to particular Viking sites. Second, it cannot be ascertained whether the women who were buried with these ar- tifacts actually viewed them as indica- tors of "Viking" identity. These brooches could have been viewed as indicators of other attributes such as social rank, or simply as the most reasonable method for attaching the shoulder straps of the women's dresses.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I thank Carl Blair and Deborah J. Sheperd for inviting me to participate in the sympo- sium on European archaeometallurgy. I also thank Vincent Pigott for his insightful com- ments. Finally, I express my gratitude to John and Maureen McGill for their gracious hospitality in Ireland.

Reference

1. Bryan Pfaffenberger, "Felished Objecls and Humanised Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology," Man, 23 (1988), pp. 236-252.

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