Archive for the 'African Tribes/Cultures/Countries' Category

Object: Brass Weight

Weight for measuring gold
Ashanti (or Asante)
Africa: Guinea Coast: Ghana
Ca. 15th-19th Century
Materials: Cast Brass

This African object is a weight made out of brass that was used for weighing gold dust. It is very small, only 1.5” long by 0.75” wide, and it was cast, or molded, to look like the body of a beetle.

The “Gold Coast,” located on the Gulf of Guinea in Africa, has long been known for the large quantities of gold found there. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in this area in the 1400’s, but they were soon followed by the British, Dutch and other European explorers. The British seized the area in 1867, forming the British colony known as the “Gold Coast.” Between the 15th and 19th century, gold dust served as the primary currency for the West African country of Ghana, particularly for the Ashanti (also known as the Asante) people. Most households had their own set of weights and scales so that they could conduct their own transactions. These interesting little weights were made in a variety of shapes and sizes including  geometric shapes, animals, plants, and even common household items such as a stool or a hammer.

These tiny weights were made in a really interesting way. They were first formed out of beeswax. This beeswax was then covered in clay, which was allowed to dry and harden. It was then placed into a fire, where the beeswax melted out, leaving a hollow form in the clay. Then, molten brass was poured into this clay mold, and, as it cooled and hardened, it took on the shape of the original beeswax form. The clay was then broken away so that the solid brass weight emerged completely finished. This method, known as the “lost-wax” method has been used for centuries in many cultures around the world. This particular beetle weight from the Ethnology Collection, however, was created using an unusual adaptation of this method. Instead of creating a shape out of beeswax and then covering it in clay, a real live beetle was covered in clay. Once the clay dried and hardened, the dead beetle was burned out of the mold, leaving an impression of the insect in the clay. It was then filled with molten brass and allowed to harden just like the lost-wax method.

Because everyone had a different set of weights, both parties always had to check the value of the gold dust with their own weights so they could be sure they were getting a fair deal. These weights therefore needed to be small and portable so they could be easily carried around. Anyone who found gold dust could keep it, but large nuggets, or pieces, had to be surrendered, or handed over, to the royal court. This gold was then exported to Europe and became the basis for British currency. It was not until 1957 that the Ashanti people finally regained their independence and formed the Republic of Ghana. It was around this same time that gold dust was replaced by the coins and paper money in use today.

Take a look at this interesting video showing contemporary Asante artists working in the lost-wax casting method:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Faience Necklace

Figure 1    Egyptian Faience blue beaded necklace from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Egyptian Faience blue beaded necklace from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Blue faience necklace
Africa: Egypt
Date: Modern
Materials: Faience (glass) beads on leather

This small blue beaded necklace is 12 inches long and comes from modern-day Egypt. The leather thong (or string) that holds the beads is tied together in one spot and can be adjusted to fit the person wearing it. The irregular shaped beads are made out of faience, a type of colored glass.

Faience (pronounced “fay-ahns”) has a long-standing history in many countries, especially Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used faience (known as tjehnet) beginning in 3500 BC to make beads, statues, amulets, bowls, and a variety of other objects. One theory is that faience was invented in Mesopotamia in 4000 BC and then brought to Egypt through trade.

Faience was originally developed by ancient Egyptians out of a desire to find a substitute for lapis lazuli, a highly valued dark blue stone. The royalty and nobles of ancient Egypt wanted to show how much power and wealth they had through the beautiful and expensive objects they put in their palaces, temples, and tombs. Lapis lazuli, however, was hard to come by. So, they developed faience, a much cheaper and easily manufactured material, as a substitute.

Faience, known as the “first high-tech ceramic” is made from finely ground quartz (or sand) mixed with lime, copper oxide, water, and a binder agent (such as gum arabic). When mixed together, these ingredients form a kind of paste that can then be put into a ceramic mold, dried, and fired in a kiln (or oven). Early on, it was discovered that adding different minerals (such as manganese) instead of copper oxide would result in different colors of faience including                                                           cobalt blue, purple, and yellow.

Today, the production of faience all around the world has expanded. Artists and scientists continue to experiment with and learn from this fascinating blue glass that experienced its beginnings in ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. This beautiful beaded necklace is only one example of how faience continues to be used today.

Take a look at this cool video that shows step-by-step out to make faience objects using ancient Egyptian molds from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Camel Bell

Camel bell

Figure 1    Camel bell from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Somalia, Eastern Horn of Africa
Materials: Wood, twine

This wooden bell was collected in Somalia in the 1950’s and now resides in the Ethnology collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. The oval-shaped bell is constructed of rough, unfinished wood. There are no designs or decoration, no paint, and no varnish on the bell. Holes have been drilled through the top in order to attach a long twisted cord. The cord is threaded through the interior of the bell to attach the narrow wooden cylindrical clapper that strikes the inside of the bell to produce noise.

This type of bell is regularly strung around the neck of domesticated camels to alert the owner of the animal as to its presence, much like a bell around the neck of a cow serves the same purpose for a dairy farmer. Why a camel? Well, there is an ongoing and vibrant camel trade in Somalia, Ethiopia, and the surrounding area, commonly known as the Eastern Horn of Africa.

In fact, the Eastern Horn of Africa has the world’s largest population of camels (about 7 million).  The camel is the backbone of the economy for the nomadic herdsmen in these counties, and they use camels for a variety of purposes. Female camels are commonly kept for their milk while male camels are used primarily as pack animals.


Camels play such a vital role in Somali life, that these fascinating beasts have long been the subject of oral stories, myths, and poems.




For example, this Somali poem illustrates the vital role of camels:

O’ God the victorious
Camels never to man
Who is unable to manage them well
by inferior goats are kept
Not much value has they
for in droughts severe
worthless goats are
no better cattle are
without maintenance constant
it is Goha that life sustains
O’ pride of the home
antelope-like she-camel
noblest of animals all surely she
the furry-necked she-camel
with belly huge
sour milk abundant produces she
You, curly-furred camel of mine …

~ Sayyid Mohammed Abdile Hassan

[Ahmed Ali Abokor, The Camel in Somali Oral Traditions, Uppsala, 1987]


So, this seemingly plain-looking camel bell allows us a little insight into the ongoing importance of camels and the camel trade to the Somali people.

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Mummified fish

Mummified fish
Ancient Egyptian
unknown date
Materials: Fish, cloth, resin, salt or natron

Ancient Egyptian culture is best known today for its mummies but, humans weren’t the only ones being mummified in Ancient Egypt. Animals were also commonly mummified. Animals were mummified for a variety of reasons, all connected to the Egyptian belief in an afterlife. The Ancient Egyptians viewed death as the beginning of a new life in the underworld, and much like an extended vacation, in order to enjoy this new life one would need to pack accordingly. Only those items properly persevered and stored within the tomb would be available to the deceased in the afterlife, this would include one’s own body and internal organs. Some animals were mummified because they were pets, and their owners wanted them to enjoy the afterlife with them. Any item or animal that one wanted to have in the afterlife had to be included in the tomb, so some animals were mummified to become food for deceased humans in the afterlife. Other animals were mummified because they were considered sacred to a particular deity. These animals were often associated with specific religious cults throughout Egypt, like the Apis Bulls at Memphis and the crocodiles at the Kom Ombo Temple.

The mummification of fish went on throughout much of Ancient Egyptian history but is thought to have reached its peak in the Ptolemaic period. The fish were mummified by removing their internal organs through a slit in the belly of the fish and then either soaked in brine or packed with salt or natron to dry out and preserve the fish. The fish would then be either packed in mud or covered in papyrus stalks and then wrapped in linen and covered in resin. This group of fish were unwrapped after they were discovered and only part of their original wrappings can be seen, on fish C/1957/4/1.

The following video shows a modern attempt at recreating fish mummification.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Mat

Mat or fai-fai
ca. 1970
Materials: Grass, and dyed strips of doum palm leaves

This object is a mat made of grass that has been wrapped with dyed strips of doum palm leaves, sometimes called a fai-fai. Mats like this one are common in Nigeria and are typically used in the kitchen, where they have many uses, including being a fan for a fire, a pot holder, or lid.

The dyed outer surface of the mat is made from the leaves of the doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica). This type of tree is native to Africa and grows from Mauritania to Egypt, from Senegal to Central Africa and east to Tanzania. They tend to grow close to groundwater and can be found in oases and wadis, and is widely distributed near rivers and streams. These palm trees produce an edible fruit but are also prized for their leaves and roots which are widely used for making baskets, nets, brooms, and even some rough textiles.

Aside from its basic identification, the museum catalog contains very little information on this object, can you help us? Do you know anything about this type of mat or the people who made it? [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: African Sowo Mask

Mende: Sowo Mask
Guinea Coast, Africa
Date Unknown
Materials: Carved wood, paint

The Sande Society is made up of female members throughout the western coast of Africa. The Mende are one of the several cultures that practice the Sande ideology. Mende groups live in the regions presently known as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This mask exemplifies the characteristics of “secret society” masks that are used among the Mende members.

The Mende term for this type of mask is Sowo Mask. The mask is used in Sande ceremonial and ritual activities. The Sande Society is perceived as secret because many of the actual rituals and values are not shared with outsiders. Every Mende female goes into the Sande Society. Sande influences the social, physical and emotional development of a woman during her lifetime. Members of the Sande Society promote female empowerment, beauty and personal identity as well. Female Mende members are young girls when Sande members initiate them. During the initiation rituals, elder members actually wear masks like the one pictured above. Raffia and cloth from the neck down complete the Sande dress.

The Sowo mask itself is not the symbol of Sande. The mask does, however represent ideal images of wealth, good health and status. During the initiation ceremony, it also possesses the spirit of a water deity. The mask pictured above is adorned with elaborate and tightly rolled coils of hair. The largest and most highly decorated elements of the masks are the coiffures. Some masks are embellished with birds or snakes on the hair. Many of the masks share characteristic slit eyes. The mask pictured above has a single, vertical line that lies through each eye. It may possibly symbolize cicatrization, which is common with Sowo masks.

The production of Sowo masks are often commissioned to local men. They make the masks out of wood because it is functional and durable. They are painted with black paint, shoe polish or oil. This provides a shiny appearance and keeps it cleaner. In the Sande Society, it is very important that the masks are elaborate and have aesthetic appeal. By conservative estimates, the Sande Society has been active for several hundred years! Sowo masks are unique in that the Sande Society is the only indigenous organization in Africa in which women customarily wear masks.

[Alana Cox]

Object: Coin

Tunisia, Carthage
AD 203
Materials: Silver

This object is a Roman coin that is made of silver. Roman coins were made in mints by many different workers. Roman coins had minting marks on them to inform the people that used them where the coins were made. Silver coins in the Roman Empire were used from around 800 BCE until the fall of the Roman Empire. During this period, coins were used similar to the way that newspapers are used today. The coins spread throughout the Empire to inform people about the Emperor and depict events during his reign. This specific coin, struck in AD 203, has a depiction on the front of the coin of the laureate head of Denarius of Septimus Severus. The reverse of the coin has Fortuna seated with a rudder in her right hand, a cornucopia in her left, and a wheel under the chair (Brown et al.).

Coins in the Roman Empire tell a story about Roman life and economy at the time that they were minted. This coin would have been valued as a denarius because it was made from silver.  Most Romans would have been paid using denari. For example, a fortune teller, or Haruspex, would make around 10 denari per month. A Roman guard, or Praetorian, would make about 60 denari per month. One denari was equal to four sestertii. One denarius was equal to sixteen “as.” The sale of food and other items were denominated in as and the price of food in the Roman economy  was very high. The price of wheat, which was a primary source of food, could sell for as high as 32 as for one modius! A modius is a unit of weight used to measure the wheat. A modius is equal to 6.67 kilograms in today’s measurement.  A typical Roman male ate about two pounds of bread a day, or 16 to 20 pounds per month! Thus, a typical Roman would need four modii per month to produce the 16 to 20 loaves of bread that they ate. Today, wheat is not as much of a staple food as it was in the Roman economy and it sells for $3.00 per 170 metric tons!

[Sarah Dumas]

References: Brown,Frederick L., Mario A. Del Chiaro, Barbara L. Gunn, A.J. Heisserer, A. Jamme, Daniel C. Snell. Classical Antiquities. The Collection of the Stovall Museum of Science and History . A.J. Heisserer. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, pg. 115-135.

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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