Field

Iron-smelting and deforestation: an alternative ethnoarchaeological perspective

INTRODUCTION
It has long been assumed that there is a direct relationship between pre-industrial iron-smelting and large-scale deforestation. The general argument is that pre-industrial bloomery iron production depended on the consumption of huge quantities of charcoal, which over several centuries denuded the forest cover and depleted sources of wood for making charcoal. This led to a significant transformation of the landscape, ecology and environment in several regions where iron-smelting was widely prevalent. Iron-smelting was seen as one of the main agents of deforestation, desiccation and environmental change in West Africa (Goucher 1981, Haaland 1985), continental Europe and the British Isles, and recently, India (Sivramkrishna 2009). An overwhelming rate of charcoal consumption by several iron-works was responsible for adversely affecting the forest cover in different parts of pre-revolutionary United States (Muntz 1960). Due to the lack of high-grade coal deposits, charcoal is still widely used in the iron and steel industries of Brazil which is adversely affecting the ecology of the Amazonian region (Kato, Demarini et al. 2005).

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The Smelter’s Wife: women in pre-industrial iron-smelting economy in South Asia

INTRODUCTION
Pre-industrial iron-smelting is generally considered to be a craft overwhelmingly, if not entirely practiced by men. A number of ethnographic studies on iron-smelting, a majority of which are based in different parts of Africa, suggest that while adult men actively participated in various aspects of iron-smelting, women were normally prohibited from even visiting the space where smelting was carried out. A majority of these African cases also record sexualized perception of iron-smelting, where the smelters were often considered to be involved in a sexual act with their common wife, the furnace, which ultimately results in the “birth” of the new iron bloom. The exclusion of post-puberty and pre-menopausal women from the space where iron-smelting is conducted has been understood in this context. However, this cultural exclusion of women from iron-smelting in Africa has contributed in a significant way in attributing a passive (or often, non-existent) role to women in iron-smelter households. The women are mostly mentioned while discussing these taboos and prohibitions, but their economic and domestic roles were considered too obvious and therefore, overlooked. In this post, based on ethnoarchaeological research, I explore the economic roles of women in the iron-smelter households, based on two case studies from east-central India- northern Telangana and the Netarhat Plateau in Jharkhand (Fig. 1). Based on these cases I argue that even if women did not participate in iron-smelting directly, they played significant economic roles which contributed in the proper functioning of the household when the adult male members of the family were away for smelting in the forests or selling iron blooms in the faraway markets.

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Smelting Songs from Central India: the Asurs

Songs and verses are predominantly used by traditional craft-communities to store and perpetuate important social and technological information. These simple and easy-to-memorize songs are often employed as learning tools to teach crucial technical and cultural aspects of the craft to an apprentice. The songs and verses often outlive the craft in the individual or collective memory of the members of the craft-community and provide a critical entry point for the anthropologists attempting to understand the socio-cultural and technical aspects of past craft-production.

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Rice Beer, Wedding & Other Tidings

Prior to my arrival at Sakhuapani, the  only sources of information about the Asur indigenous community of Netarhat that I could access were marginal mentions by British colonial surveyor-turned-anthropologists, Elwin’s (1942) seminal research on the the Agaria (another indigenous iron-smelting community of central India) and K.K. Leuva’s amateur work on the Asurs. Most of this literature take a purely Orientalist stance and depict the Asurs as a backward, illiterate, lazy, alcoholic community urgently needing emancipation through the Word of The Lord and modern education. A rapid decline of traditional iron-smelting and recent insurgency issues that I described earlier, had pushed the knowledge about this small community to the margins. They only survive as dreadful people in tribal myth, chastised by Singbonga, the Munda Sun God, and at the center of government’s suspicion for abetting Maoist insurgents.

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