Lesson 6: Middle Benue Iron Works

Background Information

The use of metallurgy in Western Africa dates to about 1500 bce and in the region of the Benue River Valley evidence of blacksmiths’ work has been found from the sixth century bce. The earliest known civilization to possess the knowledge of the manufacture and use of iron in sub-Saharan Africa is that of the Nok culture (so named after the village where works of art in terracotta and metal were first found in 1944). The Nok area, in fact, is not far from the Benue Valley, northwest of the Niger/Benue confluence.

Across the region—historically and still today—the most powerful markers of ritual authority included forged iron rattles (fig. 6.1), spears (fig. 6.2), knives, and wands. Iron has provided the material for affirmations of regal status and power and it has been fashioned into essential tools of everyday living including weapons, hunting gear, and farming implements, most notably the hoe. Iron, with intrinsic supernatural power, serves as means of communication with powerful natural and ancestral forces.

Consequently blacksmiths, those who worked with iron, acquired a distinct position in society as they created such charged implements drawn from the raw materials of nature itself.Important members of their community, blacksmiths often moved into other areas where their skills were needed, and even though the iron pieces were produced by local or regional specialists, their very portability led to widespread distribution among neighboring groups. 



This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the first section of the exhibition called The Middle Benue: Visual Resemblances, Connected Histories


In this unit the topics and lessons are

Lesson 5: Ritual Intermediaries in Human Form

Lesson 6: Middle Benue Ironworks

Lesson 7: Masquerades in the Middle Benue


Related Exhibition