Photo of Dr Gillian Juleff

Dr Gillian Juleff

Public engagement

After more than 20 years of research into the wind-powered iron smelting furnaces of 1st millennium AD Sri Lanka the work has reached a wide national and international audience. In the summer of 2013 a third series of smelting experiments were conducted in the field in Sri Lanka. This time the work was initiated and sponsored by the engineering community of Sri Lanka. The success of the work lead to a submission to the Exeter Impact Awards in the category of outstanding public engagement ( ). Here is the text of our submission.


Exeter Impact Awards 2013 submission

Monsoon Steel: Ancient Technology Inspiring Sri Lanka’s Engineers and Power Generators

Sri Lanka, famous for some of the world’s oldest and largest Buddhist monuments, is also home to one of the most novel and sophisticated early iron and steel production technologies recorded. Discoveries made by Gill Juleff, first published in Nature (1996, 379), underpin continuing research (World Archaeology, 2009) and widespread public dissemination of ‘Monsoon Steel’ in a country emerging from civil war and competing in the rapidly developing Asian sphere.

The research described here has matured over two decades and through public engagement its impact now extends far beyond archaeology. Monsoon Steel began as an impact survey of an area due for inundation by a hydro-electric scheme. Subsequent archaeological excavation evidenced a large-scale iron and steel smelting industry of the first millennium AD using a technology that harnessed monsoon winds to power furnaces the design of which departed radically from known examples across the world. Experiments in reconstructed furnaces established the veracity of the data and led to a paradigm shift in archaeometallurgy.

Following the initial fanfare of publicity, dissemination within Sri Lanka gathered momentum. In 2007, Exeter’s Annual Fund supported a second series of field experiments. Open to the public, these were widely covered on national television and in the press, with public lectures at the British Council, Royal Asiatic Society and the principle universities.

In 2008, with joint support from the Annual Fund and the Martin Wickremasinghe Trust, the first permanent furnace replica and display was constructed at the popular Koggala Folk Museum which has the highest attendance figures in Sri Lanka with coach-loads of school children visiting daily. In addition, a senior member of the museum’s trust popularised the Monsoon Steel story in a children’s comic book, published in the three official languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English.

More specific impact is seen in the partnership developed with Sri Lanka’s professional engineering institution (IESL; Through its newsletter, circulating to over 10,000 members, editors have used Monsoon Steel to invigorate a dialogue on indigenous development. The wind-powered furnaces were included in the IESL centenary publication on the History of Engineering and the Sri Lankan Government’s Sustainable Energy Authority’s Energy Balance of 2010 opens its 75-page analysis of energy sector performance with an introduction drawing on the use of monsoon winds to smelt iron as evidence of the potential for power generation (

In June this year the National Museum, Colombo, in collaboration with IESL, opened a new permanent gallery dedicated to Ancient Technology showcasing five major engineering achievements, including Monsoon Steel, with a replica furnace and animated explanatory video created by the Open University of Sri Lanka (

In July IESL members instigated a further campaign of experimental smelts sponsored by Colombo Dockyard Plc, Sri Lanka’s largest heavy engineering company (with 2% of the island’s exports). Personally led by CEO Mangala Yapa, the project saw collaboration with CEB (Ceylon Electricity Board), IESL, Gill Juleff and members of the original archaeological team. The three smelts conducted were attended by over 100 industrialists, metallurgists, environmental engineers, academics, students and the media. Continuing television and press coverage is largely in Sinhala thus not accessible to English speakers but bears testament to the grassroots reach of the research within Sri Lanka.

At the time of submission the Standing Committee on Postgraduate Studies and Research of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka has opened discussions, facilitated by  Mangala Yapa, on a project to reproduce an inexpensive student copy of ‘Early Iron and Steel in Sri Lanka’, which describes the research.

In a further new development, L.A.I. Perera, Sepa (Pvt) Ltd., consultant environmental/ecological engineer, is actively exploring new uses for the technology. In his words, ‘ask a contemporary engineer to generate 1450 deg.C of heat for industrial purposes and it becomes a challenge. That two millennia ago Sri Lankan steel smelters did it using charcoal, wind and a simple but precisely-aligned furnace is remarkable. The process can be adopted using biomass fuel for renewable power and climate change mitigation. The project to take it from conceptual to actual has coined the term 'windsteam' and, with simplicity and cost-effectiveness, it has the potential to be widely deployed in developing countries by villagers for local and national grid power generation.’


Contribution to discipline

I a co-editor of The Crucible, the newsletter of the Historical Metallurgy Society

I am a council member of the Historical Metallurgy Society and was their National Chair between 2001-03.

I am a permanent member of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission panel of Academic Advisors.

I am adjunct faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), IISc, Bangalore

Peer review and referee activities

Journals, books and conferences: Journal of Archaeological Science, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, Historical Metallurgy, World of Iron, Beginnings of the Use of Metals and Alloys (BUMA)

Grants and funding: AHRC peer review, Commonwealth Scholarship Commission


My work in Sri Lanka and India has been widely covered in the local media in both countries and in both print and television. Here are some links to recent newspaper articles and videos in Sri Lanka.


During a recent trip to Japan I was interviewed by Chinese state television for a documentary they are producing with Professor Jianjun Mei of the University of Science and Technology Beijing as presenter.