Reconstructing the geological provenance and long-distance movement of rectangular, fishtail, and croisette copper ingots in Iron Age Zambia and Zimbabwe

Jay Stephens, David Killick, Shadreck Chirikure

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The southern third of Africa is unusually rich in copper ore deposits. These were exploited by precolonial populations to manufacture wound-wire bangles, other forms of jewelry, and large copper ingots that were used as stores of copper or as forms of prestige. Rectangular, fishtail, and croisette ingots dating between the 5th and 20th centuries CE have been found in many locations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zambia, and Zimbabwe, with isolated finds in Malawi and Mozambique. Molds for casting these ingots have been found mostly in the Central African Copperbelt, but also around the Magondi Belt copper deposits in northern Zimbabwe. For years, scholars have debated whether these ingots were exclusively made in the Copperbelt or if the molds found in Zimbabwe indicate that local copies were produced from Magondi Belt copper ore (Garlake 1970; Bisson 1976). Before the recent application of lead isotopic and chemical methods to provenance copper in central and southern Africa, there was no way to discern between these hypotheses. Rademakers et al. (2019) and Stephens et al. (2020) showed that copper artifacts from southern DRC (mostly from Upemba) and from northwestern Botswana (Tsodilo Hills) match the lead isotope ratios of ores from the Copperbelt. Building upon these previous studies, we present here the first results from a copper provenance project across the southern third of Africa, from the Copperbelt to northern South Africa. We apply lead isotopic analysis (LIA) and chemical analyses to establish the provenance of 29 croisette ingots recovered in Zimbabwe, 2 fishtail and 1 rectangular ingot recovered from sites in Zambia, and an “X” shaped ingot smelted in an experiment in Zambia in the 1970’s. Our chemistry and lead isotopic results indicate that 16 of these objects were smelted with copper from the Copperbelt, 16 objects source more specifically to the Kipushi deposit within this geological district, and only one HXR ingot sources to the Magondi Belt in Zimbabwe. Taken together, we clearly illustrate that croisette ingots were traveling significant distances to reach their eventual sites of deposition, and that there was also local production of these objects in Zimbabwe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0282660
JournalPloS one
Issue number3 March
StatePublished - Mar 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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