Technology and Identity: an ethnoarchaeological study of the social context of traditional iron-working in northern Telangana, India
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Ethnoarchaeological research of indigenous iron-working in Africa and, more recently, in parts of Asia, has attempted to interpret past technology through the lives and memories of blacksmiths and smelters. In India, recent archaeological and historical research of iron-working and other forms of craft production has examined the social position of specialized craft producers within regional caste-structures. This thesis incorporates both these approaches to study traditional iron-working communities in northern Telangana, a region in south-central India. Anthropological theories of craft production and power are employed to provide a nuanced interpretation of the archaeometallurgical and ethnographic data from the study area. Medieval travelogues and colonial documents attest the presence of a thriving preindustrial iron and crucible steel-manufacturing tradition in northern Telangana. Initial archaeological and historical investigations in the region by Lowe (1989) and Jaikishan (2009) identified a significant number of sites related to early iron and crucible steel production. The Pioneering Metallurgy project of 2010 (Juleff et al., 2011) surveyed within the four districts of northern Telangana to investigate the origin and development of these technologies. Besides locating and recording archaeometallurgical evidence, the project also conducted ethno-metallurgical enquiries to record the members of rural blacksmith communities at work. This highlighted the potential for an in-depth ethnoarchaeological study to understand the socio-cultural context of these indigenous technologies by unraveling the lives of the descendants of iron-smelters and steelmakers of northern Telangana. This was the starting point of the present research project. My research investigates a dynamic set of relationships between craft, people and space—physical and social. The ethnographic data for this research is collected through 63 formal and numerous informal interactions with the iron-workers of the region. These interactions and other collected data are presented in appendices. The lives of five practitioners with different specialized skills provide the entry point into this research which is presented in two-parts. After setting the background, Part A investigates the intricate relationship between indigenous smelting technologies, smelters and place. Based on interactions with older members of the Mudda Kammari (smelter) community, this study attempts to reconstruct the practices of iron-smelting from their individual and collective memory. Where possible, elderly smelters led me to the rivulets where ore was mined and showed the surviving pits for preparing charcoal, while explaining technological details. The spatial locations of these were recorded and analyzed in relation to the smelting sites and present habitations of the Mudda Kammari (smelter) communities. Apart from technological detail, their memory also provided insight into the social and economic networks in which indigenous iron-smelting operated. The demise of indigenous iron-smelting in the first half of 20th century compelled the Mudda Kammari to adopt blacksmithing on a full-time basis. As a result they lost their distinct smelter-identity. A host of specialist iron-working groups like the scissors-smiths, sword-smiths and firearm makers in the area also lost their specialized skills and distinct identities faced with competition from industrial products and government prohibition onthe domestic weapon manufacturing industries from the 1950s. All of these groups were obliged to take up manufacturing agricultural products, and therefore, became homogenized as Kammari (blacksmiths). Lopsided agrarian development, marketization of harvests and recent mechanization of agriculture have ruptured the traditional relations of exchange between the Kammari and the agrarian community. This has significantly reduced the demand for their services, and resulted in displacement of their craft and lives. Consequently, the identity and position that the Kammari enjoyed in rural social space and reinforced through cult performance has degenerated. This led to a further homogenization of artisan identities, supported by a new eclectic identity narrative, which replaced the older, individual craft-community focused identities. Part B of this research deals with this homogenization process in detail. It interrogates the relationship between the decline in craft and the evolution of artisan identity. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and archival studies, this section examines how identities of ironworking communities in northern Telangana are reconstituted and articulated over time with the enfeeblement of their craft. In the final section of the thesis I bring the diverse data together to form a nuanced understanding of the social, cultural and economic context of iron working in northern Telangana. Based on the complexity of iron-worker identity in northern Telangana, this section cautions against drawing straightforward ethnographic analogies to study the archaeological record. I conclude by proposing how this research can benefit future ethnoarchaeological research of craft production and in studying traditional craft and craftsmen in a growing market economy.
University of Exeter: Exeter/NIAS Intangible Histories Studentship
PhD in Archaeology