South African Glass

There are two main areas in sub-Saharan Africa that feature prominently in glass studies: East Africa and South Africa. Unfortunately, there are not very many people looking at glass in sub-Saharan Africa and I haven’t actively searched for material related to sub-Saharan glass in several years, making these entries far less informative than some of my other regional summaries.

More recent research has been done on African glass, and my list is certainly not exhaustive, but I know of three main published sources for South African glass studies.  One looks at beads form Mapungubwe and Bambandyanolo in the Limpopo Valley of South Africa and Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe.  The second looks at beads specifically from Mapungubwe, and the third looks at sites from Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The Objects

All three studies focus specifically on glass beads.  My understanding is that beads form the primary body of glass material from this region.


Davison 1972 analyzes the chemical compositions of glass beads from Mapungubwe and Bambandyanalo (K2?) in the Limpopo Valley of South Africa as well as those from Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe. Prinsloo and Colomban 2008 focus on beads from Mapungubwe, South Africa.  Robertshaw et al 2010 analyze beads from various sites in Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The three main sites in Davison 1972 date to between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.  Dussubieux et al 2008 look at beads from two different chronologies. Prinsloo and Colomban 2008 look at beads from around 1000-1300 AD.  Sites analyzed by Robertshaw et al 2010 date between the 8th and 16th centuries AD.  Similar to studies from East Africa, the beads themselves generally come from contexts dating much later than those in Asia or Europe.


All studies discuss wound and drawn beads, but evidence for manufacture is rare.  Davison mentions that moulded beads are rare in Southern Africa.


Interestingly, Davison has identified a Mapungubwe chemical group (a m-Na-Ca subtype) and an M1 group found in Bambandyanalo.  Others identify glass at Mapungubwe as being a plant ash soda-lime glass rather than mineral soda-lime (v-Na-Ca, not m-Na-Ca), and link it to glass from Egypt and the Middle East.  Robertshaw also identifies a m-Na-Al subtype and the possibility of a v-Na-Ca-Al variety, but it’s a bit uncertain in the sources I have.

Social Structure

As with East Africa, there is not enough accessible research for me to make many comments on social structure.  Some of the chemical types mentioned seem fairly distinct, suggesting the possibility of manufacture or at least recycling, but I don’t know of any direct evidence for manufacture in the area.

We do see a connection to South and Southeast Asia in these materials, particularly in the identification of m-Na-Al glasses.  There is also a possible connection to the Middle East through the m-Na-Ca and v-Na-Ca glasses.  Some sources suggest European connections, which are understandable, given that many of these beads come from contexts dating to the time of European exploration.

Regarding the different sources, it seems that there is a shift from using objects that are probably Middle Eastern in origin to objects that are probably South Asian.  That is, these chemical types and geographical connections we see are not necessarily all happening at once, but may be occurring to different degrees at different times.


Davison, Claire C.
1972    Glass Beads in African Archaeology: Results of Neutron Activation Analysis, Supplemented by Results of X-Ray Flourescence Analysis.

Prinsloo, Linda C and Phillipe Colomban
2008    A Raman spectroscopic study of the Mapungubwe oblates: glass trade beads excavated at an Iron Age archaeological site in South Africa.  Journal of Raman Spetroscopy 39:79-90.

Robertshaw, Peter, Marilee Wood, Erik Melchiorre, Rachel S. Popelka-Filcoff, and Michael D. Glascock
2010    Southern African glass beads: chemistry, glass sources, and patterns of trade.  Journal of Archaeological Science xxx(2010): 1 – 15.



About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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