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CyI’s Thilo Rehren Part of International Research Team That Demonstrates First Glassmaking in Sub-Saharan Africa

An international research team has found evidence for the making of glass nearly 1000 years ago in Nigeria, West Africa. Up to that time, almost all glass was made in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, where glass was first invented some 3,500 years ago. In the form of beads, glass was an important medium to conduct international trade, in particular in regions without coinage. While glass beads were widely used across Africa as jewellery, for commerce, and for ritual decoration, until recently it was assumed that these early beads were made in the glassmaking centers of the Middle East and India and traded into Africa, in exchange for gold, ivory, slaves and other merchandise.
The new research is presented in ‘Chemical analysis of glass beads from Igbo Olokun, Ile-Ife (SW Nigeria): new light on raw materials, production and interregional interactions,” which will appear in an upcoming volume of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Lead author Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, who earned his PhD with this research at Rice University in the US and is currently a visiting fellow at Harvard University, came across evidence of early glassmaking during archaeological excavations at Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria. He recovered more than 12,000 glass beads and several kilograms of glass-working debris.

“This area has been recognized as a glass-working workshop for more than a century,” Babalola said. “The glass-encrusted containers and beads that have been uncovered there were viewed for many years as evidence that imported glass was remelted and reworked.

”However, 10 years ago this idea was first challenged when analyses of glass beads attributed to Ile-Ife showed that some had a chemical composition very different from that of the known glass production areas. Researchers including Professor Rehren, then at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, raised the possibility of local production in Ife, although direct evidence for glassmaking and its chronology was lacking. “The Igbo Olokun excavations have provided that evidence,” Babalola said. For the analyses of the glass, he teamed up with Dr Dussubieux of the Field Museum, Chicago and Professor Rehren, who is now director of the Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center, The Cyprus Institute, Nicosia, Cyprus.

The new work for the first time unequivocally demonstrates the unique nature of this glass, excluding any possibility that it could have been imported from elsewhere. Dr Babalola and Professor Rehren are planning to continue their cooperation this summer at the Cyprus Institute in order to study the glassmaking process in more detail, based on Dr Babalola’s most recent finds in Ile-Ife.

The paper was co-authored by Susan McIntosh, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Anthropology at Rice University; Laure Dussubieux and Thilo Rehren. The research was funded by Rice's School of Social Sciences and the Qatar Foundation.

The paper is Open Access and freely available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440317301851