DER Documentary

The Tree of Iron

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by Peter O'Neill and Frank Muhly, Jr.
with Peter Schmidt
color, 57 min, 1988

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This is one of the few films to document archaeological work on ancient civilizations in Africa. It also deals with an important subject, African iron smelting, and presents convincing evidence for early indigenous technologies far more complex than previously expected. The Tree of Iron is set in Tanzania, East Africa, on the western shores of Lake Victoria, where Haya people have lived for centuries.

The film follows the work of Peter Schmidt, an archaeologist and historian whose two decades of study in the region have revealed ancient, 2000+ year old iron industrial sites, as well as extensive oral traditions that illustrate the role of iron in agriculture, political power, and mythology. The tree in the film's title refers to an enormous tree of great antiquity that is the symbolic center of Haya iron production. Linked to a rich iron symbolism, to a vibrant mythology, and to ancient iron forges and furnaces, the site of this iron tree produced the first evidence for an ancient sophisticated technology. Schmidt's work with African iron smelters who build and operate reconstructed versions of traditional iron smelting furnaces, demonstrates the technological principles that the ancients also used to obtain high furnace temperatures and to produce a high carbon steel. It also illustrates the degradation of the environment caused by this ancient industry.

The experimental and comparative approach takes the viewer through all the technical steps involved, from charcoal production to furnace construction, and illustrates the capability of the ancients to produce a high carbon steel. The 80 to 90 year old Haya smelters are the primary actors in the remarkable process.

This film combines archaeology, ethnography, and metallurgy in an exemplary interdisciplinary approach that overturns faulty ideas about the history of technology in Africa and replaces them with a more humanistic understanding that emphasizes African technological achievement.

"This important film deserves a wide audience . . .it is one of the very few films to document archaeological work in sub-Saharan Africa and the only one to examine ethnoarchaeological research and experimentation there. Peter Schmidt has combined the talents of archaeologist, ethnologist and metallurgist in his quest to understand early African iron smelting. This entire project is an exemplary model of interdisciplinary archaeology, and we are fortunate not just to have a record of it on film, but to have a record of such high quality." — Peter Allen, ARCHAEOLOGY

Related Resources:
Blooms of Banjeli
Inagina: The Last House of Iron

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