The Glass Making Crucibles from Ile-Ife, SW Nigeria

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Crucibles to melt glass are very rare in archaeological contexts in sub-Saharan Africa. Recent archaeological excavations at Igbo Olokun, Ile-Ife (Southwest Nigeria) revealed abundant fragments of glass crucibles from 11th-15th century AD deposits, matching the complete and near complete examples earlier reported from Ile-Ife. This paper provides an in-depth examination of these crucible fragments in order to understand the material quality of the crucibles, their typology, and their functions in glass- working/making. Optical microscopic and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) with energy dispersive spectrometry (EDS) analyses were carried out on ten crucible samples. The composition of ceramic fabrics and the adhering glass are presented and discussed in view of their function. The crucibles were produced from specifically selected highly refractory clay and used for melting glass from its raw materials; colorants were added to the melt in the crucible. The useable capacity of the crucibles varied from 1 to 7 liters, equivalent to about 2.5 to 17.5 kg of finished glass for each crucible. Compositional analysis of a sample of the thousands of glass beads from the excavations indicates that the crucibles were used to melt the glass used in the beads. Archaeological evidence of glass bead making at this scale has not previously been reported from West Africa. The crucibles are unique evidence of indigenous glass-working/making in Sub-Saharan Africa from early through mid-second millennium AD.



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  • Location of Ile-Ife in southwest Nigeria.
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  • Map of Ile-Ife showing the location of Igbo Olokun and other sites mentioned in the text (modified from Willett 2004).
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  • Aerial view of the northern part of Ile Ife, covering the area known as Igbo Olokun, indicating the remaining protected site and the excavated units. (Google Earth image.)
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  • Natural Stratigraphy and excavated levels of Unit IO-B.
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  • Natural Stratigraphy and excavated levels of Unit IO-D, the adjoining unit to IO-B.
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  • Excavated unit IO-B (east half ) and its western expansion, IO-D.
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  • Crucible fragments from Igbo Olokun excavations showing different interior glass colors. Representative selection of finds from units IO-A to IO-D. (Photo: Babalola, A. B)
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  • Sample profiles of Ile-Ife glass crucible fragments (Rim a-d; base e & f; lid g).
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  • Selected crucible fragments from Igbo Olokun. Top – Profile view showing the thickness of the glass encrustation. Middle – Showing the ridges/striations on the interior glass. Bottom – Example of crucibles with multi-color glass on the inside.
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  • Frequency of glass color categories on the interior surface of the crucibles.
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  • Thickness distribution of Ile-Ife crucibles with regard to color of attached glass.
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  • Prepared samples for SEM/EDS analysis (see details in Table 3 above). For practical reasons each sample was cut in half and mounted so that the inner glass layer and the outer glaze layer face each other.
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  • BSE images of the matrix of the crucible fabric. a. Fabric near the center of the fragment (sample IF0074). b. Fabric near the outer glaze. Note the higher degree of vitrification compared to the fabric near the center (Sample IF0073). c. Elongated voids suggesting burned off organic temper (Sample IF0078). d. Titanium rich inclusion (bright, center) and organic remains (upper right corner) (Sample IF0077). Also note the quartz grains in Figure 13 a-c (darker gray, often fractured).
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  • Comparison of soda vs potash content in the major segments of the crucibles. Note how the crucible glass matches the glass beads, while the outer glaze is much richer in potash and lower in soda. The crucible fabric is low in both alkalis, indicating that it is not the source of the alkalis in either the glass or the glaze. Bead data from Babalola et al. (2018).
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  • BSE image of examples of the matrix near the outer surface. a. Thin outer corroded glaze. Note the difference between the highly vitrified area of the fabric next to the glaze and the area farther from the glaze (sample F0074). b. Compositional analysis shows that the outer encrustation in this case is glass rather than glaze, indicating spillage of melted glass. Also note the highly vitrified area fronting the glaze (Sample IF0075).
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  • Alumina vs lime content in analyzed crucible segments. The lime and alumina content of the crucible glaze matches the composition of the glass within the crucibles and also the glass beads.
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  • BSE image of the inner glass with quartz grains preserved in the glass matrix (light gray layer on the right). This, and the presence of swirls of different bulk composition (different gray shades in the glass) indicate that glass may have been made in these crucibles from raw materials, resulting in incomplete reaction and heterogeneous glass melt forming (sample IF0074).
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  • Comparison of alumina vs FeO content of Ile-Ife crucibles, Ile-Ife domestic pottery and post-medieval European crucibles (post-medieval European data from Martinón-Torres & Rehren 2009; Central Asian data from Rehren & Papachristou 2003).
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  • Projection of the composition of Ile-Ife crucible fabrics (circles) into the ternary phase diagram for kaolinitic ceramic. The composition falls into an area with very high theoretical melting temperatures. Actual melting temperatures would be somewhat lower due to the presence of minor oxides, primarily iron oxide, working as fluxes. See table 5a for actual data.
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  • Projection of the composition of Ile-Ife domestic pottery (red circles) into the ternary phase diagram for ferruginous ceramic. The composition falls near a cotectic trough indicating relatively low theoretical melting temperatures. Actual melting temperatures would be even lower due to the presence of minor oxides such as potash and others working as fluxes.
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  • Comparison of alumina vs alkalis of Ile-Ife crucibles and Central Asian and post-medieval European crucibles (data from Martinón-Torres and Rehren 2009; Central Asian data from Rehren and Papachristou 2003).
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  • Comparison of magnesium vs phosphorus content of the areas in the crucibles with the glass beads, showing much higher values of both oxides in the outer glaze, typical for fuel ash.
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  • BSE image of copper particles in the inner red glass of a crucible from Igbo Olokun (sample IF0077). The lighter area in form of swirls is an indication of incomplete mixing of the colorant, in this case, metallic copper, into the glass matrix.
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  • Schematic drawing of the recognized Ile-Ife glass crucible types, showing the difference in size. There is variation in the overall morphology of the crucible beyond what is represented in these drawings. The scale is estimated based on images in Willett (2004). (Drawing by Oluseyi Agbelusi).
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  • West African sites with HLHA glass beads. 1. Diouboye (Dussubieux pers. comm); 2. Kumbi Saleh (Davison 1972); 3. Essouk (Nixon 2017); 4. Gao (Robertshaw pers. Comm.); 5. Kissi (Robertshaw et al. 2009); 6. Bura (Magnavita 2016); 7. Igbo Ukwu (Lankton et al. 2006; Robertshaw in prep): 8. Elmina (Brill & Stapleton 2012). The star indicates the production site of Ile-Ife.
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