Ancient history of mining protected by modern mine

A view of an ancient abandoned mine.
Ian Withnall

A mining company might be thought to be an unlikely custodian of archaeological treasures, but people have been mining in the town of Phalaborwa since the ninth century.

By Melissa Wray
In Phalaborwa


Initially only copper was mined in the early Iron Age, but later copper and iron were worked from the 17th to the 20th century.

Phalaborwa Mining Company (PMC) has made a register of all the artefacts found on their premises in recent years, and have a longterm target of creating some kind of museum celebrating past mining endeavours. They hope to tie in with the Kruger National Park (KNP), which has its own tribute to the late Iron Age in the form of Masorini, 11km from Phalaborwa. Recently renovated and restored, three smelting furnaces and two areas for working metal were found on the terraced hill.

The Masorini complex is much younger than some of the sites found on PMC land, where carbon dating has found artefacts from around 800AD, or the early Iron Age. There are several separate sites within the PMC complex, typically located on hills, many of which are from the Late Iron Age.

About 53 metal working sites have been found in the Phalaborwa region altogether. Along with potshards, common artefacts found include terrace structures built into the hills, the remains of clay furnaces, stones for grinding ore, anvil stones for purifying smelted metal, ash middens and the remains of building floors.

The mining activity in the Phalaborwa region created a society that obtained most of its necessities from trade. Today's high tech machinery may bear little resemblance to the primitive clay furnaces, decorated with symbolic reproductive organs, that smelted ore in days gone by, but the products of mining are still a source of income. There is little evidence to suggest that they were involved in any kinds of farming activities, but the metal workers had an intricate culture based on their metalworking activities.

The Sothospeaking metal workers, branches of the Malatji family, were able to trade with other Sotho people from closer to the Drakensberg Mountains for foodstuffs. Trade was also engaged in with people from other nations, some of whom took the metal products to the East Coast of Africa. One of the unique things produced by the lowveld metalworkers were marale (singular lerale), or copper ingots, which were used as currency and in bridal negotiations.

A typical lerale was about 50cm long, and just over a centimetre thick. At the end of the rod was a broad flattened cone of about six by six by two centimetres. Some marale had small bars projecting off the ends. Many questions remain unanswered about these peculiar looking objects. The preservation of the archaeological sites varies within PMC, and Dr Julius Pistorius has created an inventory of all the known finds.

He comes regularly to assess the degradation of the sites and check for further research potential. Pistorius is also contacted if new finds are uncovered as the mine goes about its business. The mine's cultural heritage programme is empowering members of the local community, by training selected individuals to become cultural heritage field guides.



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