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

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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