Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator: Anthropology, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History
Skin-bag bellows, used for blowing air into a fire. (Photograph by author)
Bellows were regarded as the most important component in the work of African smelters and smiths. The iron-smelting process was widely referred to as ‘blowing the bellows’ and competent smiths were known as ‘men skilled in bellows’. Although iron smelting ceased in Africa after the arrival of the Europeans, smithying and forging continued, thence information on the making of bellows for smithies is published intensively.
The two types of bellows that were used for traditional smelting and forging iron found in Southern Africa were skin-bag bellows and drum bellows. Examples of both types of bellows are found and housed in the Anthropology Collection of the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History. They were collected in different parts of Southern Africa such as Zimbabwe and Namibia. The earliest bellows were collected in the 1920s in Venda, northern South Africa.
Drum bellows Skin-bag bellows (photographs by author)
Goat skin was mainly used for making bellows. Conversely, some reports mention the use of antelope skins, especially the skin of the sable antelope. The skin-bag bellows were prevalently used in South Africa as opposed to drum bellows which have been reported to be found largely in Namibia and northern Botswana. A distribution map revealed that skin bellows were used mainly in the eastern part of central and southern Africa. Nonetheless, little is known about drum bellows that were common in tropical Africa, southwards and westwards to the Congo and northern Angola.
Both types of bellows have technical advantages and disadvantages. The drum bellows appeared to be in some respects a more efficient type in that they are easily operated and are durable in handling and in storage. However, their manufacture required the availability of large-diameter hardwood trees and the skill of experienced wood workers. The skin-bag bellows on the other hand could be made from skin and horns, therefore materials were easily available everywhere in Africa. This may explain the high proportion of skin-bag bellows in the poorly wooded regions of Africa south of the Zambezi. The disadvantage of skin-bag bellows is that they have a low resistance to wear and storage and their handling needed much more training and effort, but this may not have counted for much in a labour-intensive economy.
It appears that there was not much difference in the way skins were removed from the animals as the skins were always taken off as a ‘whole’. At times, goats were skinned alive as it was believed it would ‘strengthen the power of the bellows’. In the case of skin-bag bellows, the skin was obtained by first cutting at the hindquarters and pulling the skin over to the neck. Secondly the skin was softened by scraping, pushing, and stretching. The skin would only occasionally be rubbed with tree bark or cattle manure. For any stitching required, a sinew-thread that was pierced into the leather with an awl-like needle, was used. Thereafter, the thread would be inserted with the hand followed by fastening each stitch to make it strong. A wooden handle-valve, consisting of two slats or sticks, was then fastened with leather thongs to the hindquarter incision of the skin bag, and a nozzle. Commonly, a straightened antelope horn from waterbuck, sable antelope, eland, or gemsbok or an ox horn was tightly bound into the neck end. The African leather workers who could make bellows in the traditional way have now disappeared almost as completely as that of the metal smelter. The skill of iron smelting highlights the scientific contribution by Africans.
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Friede, H. & Steel, R. 1986. Traditional Wooden Drum Bellows of South-Western Africa. The South African Archaeological Bulletin. 41(143): 12-16.
Murfin, B. 1996. An African Chemistry Connection: Simulating early iron smelting. The Science Teacher. 63 (2): 37.