Iron ore mining is mainly found on the Ngwenya mountain massif. It contains deposits of high grade iron ore which have been worked continuously for the past 50 000 years. The site includes the oldest recorded mining operation in the world, Lion Cavern, alongside the modern open cast mining.
It is now widely accepted that sub-Saharan Africa is the cradle of mankind from which Homo sapiens emerged some 100 000 to 200 000 years ago and there is abundant evidence in Swaziland of early Homo sapiens' activity
During recent mining in the Ngwenya mountain range, so many ancient tools were found lying around that when news reached the famed archaeologist Professor Raymond Dart in South Africa, he sent Adrien Boshier to investigate.
Adrian Boshier visited the Lion Cavern site and collected stone tools, made of dolerite which is foreign to the area. The tools were unlike those normally found on a stone age site, being more specialised, consisting of choppers, picks and hammerstones. Professor Dart identified them as mining tools. The tools were not confined to the surface layers but were scattered throught huge depressions which should have been solid haematite. They were lying among and beneath thousands of tons of red iron oxide, down in depth to forty feet or more. Enquiries by Boshier among the Swazis elicited the information that haematite deposits had been mined in historic times and that it was the custom to fill in the excavation to avoid offending the spirits of the underworld. Boshier theorised that if the holes had been refilled with haematite then the mine workers must have wanted something else, other than the ore.
The high points of the ridge were points named Lion and Castle. Below Castle Beacon, Boshier found an adit 42 feet into the mountain and 25 feet at its widest point narrowing vertically to a point. The question was why would people interested in haematite go to all the trouble to mine a material that could easily be got by opencast. Specularite (a different ore) was the answer. Specularite is considered to have great power by traditional Swazis and only chiefs and the most qualified priest diviners are permitted to wear it, smearing the whole body and hair with it. In one of the adits they even found a mortar and pestle to grind the specularite. In fact, these ancient mines were cosmetic mines producing cosmetics for ceremonial occasions.
The next question was how old were these mines? The archaeologist, Peter Beaumont, produced evidence of mining in the middle stone age, later stone age and iron age. At Ngwenya, Middle Stone Age man tunnelled adits into the precipitous western face in search of iron pigments, the weathered ochreous forms of haematite (libomvu) near the surface, and the harder black glistening form of the ore called specularite (ludumare). In 1967 charcoal nodules from some of the more ancient adits were sent to both Yale and Groningen radiocarbon laboritories where Carbon 14 testing was carried out on it. A date of about 43 000 BC or 41 000 BC was obtained, making this the oldest known mining operation in the world. It is thought these ores were mined until at least 23 000 BC. At Lion Cavern it is estimated that at least 1 200 tons of soft haematite ore, rich in specularite, had been removed in ancient times.
Despite the enormous amounts of ore which must have been removed, no traces of iron smelting have been located in the Ngwenya area, although it is possible that more intense investigation would reveal some.
The finds have also synthesised our understanding of the origins of ceremony and symbology, for in the Swaziland mine the excavators found the skeleton of a child buried at least 50 000 years ago, together with a perforated sea shell pendant, the first recorded evidence of personal adornment suggesting aesthetic appreciation for Homo sapiens.
Unfortunately all these ancient relics can no longer be found in Swaziland as excavation took place before Swaziland's independance, and most ended up in South Africa.
Around the BC/AD watershed, iron began to make its appearance as part of the new technology and life style. The new mining took the form of huge quarries extending over about 12 hectares and dug into the platform of Ngwenya. It is estimated that from one of these quarries, 2 000 tons of 'soft' red haematite ore had been removed. Regrettably, these quarries have been removed in the course of modern mining, but C14 dates obtained beforehand place the beginnings of iron ore mining at about 400 AD although it is thought that ancient opencast mines date to about 2 000 BC. It is known that iron ore workings at Ngwenya continued to supply ore for smelting until cheap imported iron made the effort no longer worthwhile, probably sometime in the late nineteenth century.
Castle Cavern is no more, but the ancient mine at Lion Cavern is now listed as a national monument and may be visited provided one is accompanied by a game ranger from the reserve.
The area, which is now known as the Bomvu Ridge, was first explored in 1946 when the Geological Mines and Survey department first started prospecting the Ngwenya massif. The Bomvu deposit had been recorded on a map of the Swaziland Corporation in 1889 but had been forgotten for over 50 years. By 1957 prospecting operations had identified reserves of ore in excess of 30,000,000 tons with a mean value of 60% metallic iron content.
The holder of the mineral concession, the Anglo American Corporation of South Africa, decided to develop the ore body in 1958 and formed the Swaziland Iron Ore Developmet Corporation. It commenced production in 1964. By 1977 the richer ores had all been extracted and by 1980 (once all stockpiles had been removed) about 20 000 000 tons of high grade haematite had been removed. The mine closedin 1980.
During the modern mining period much archaeological evidence was swept away, but the SIODC should be given credit for sacrificing a million or more tons of ore which underlie the ancient mining adit at Lion Cavern.
The modern mining was also responsible for much of the modern road system in Swaziland. The location of the iron ore on the western border, with the export outlet on the eastern border led to the creation of a road and rail infrastructure across the country.
The mine was also responsible for a great deal of international cooperation. The market for the ore was Japan, and to get it there it was shipped in three large (77 500 ton) ore carrying ships built by a Norwegian company in Japan. To accommodate these ships, a new berth was built and the harbour channel deepened by the Portuguese authorities in Lorenco Marques (now Maputo). To get the ore to Maputo two railway lines were built, one in Swaziland to the border (218 km) and one from the border to the railhead at Goba in Mozambique. Rail trucks were bought and the Portuguese railway system had to supply engines and staff until Swazis could take over.
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