Tuesday, 2 October 2012

West African copper alloy technology: Wellcome Collection, London

23 September, 2012
For a trial period, the Wellcome Collection series The thing is … is being held on a Sunday afternoon at 3 PM.  A sneak peak at a mystery object with a tour of associated items within the Wellcome Collection is provided for the visually impaired.  For further details of this series, read on ... 
An Edinburgh friend accompanied me, and Catherine Walker showed us some examples of Yoruba art and objects.  We then had a preview of a copper alloy anklet which was to be discussed and were introduced to Steve Martin, a historian, writer and journalist and who was going to present the talk at 3 o’clock.   

I mentioned to Steve that I had been to the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy, where there were many objects from the Ife and Benin cultures.  Steve didn’t want to give too much away about the mystery objects in advance of his talk, but we had an interesting discussion about metallurgy in both West Africa and East Africa, where there have been some interesting findings regarding iron and steel production in Tanzania. 

The object itself is an anklet and has a diameter of about the size of a 12 inch LP, with a depth of about 2 inches.  An image of the object is below
Nigerian copper alloy anklet
Credit: Wellcome Collection, London

Steve was joined by Timandra Harkness, a writer and presenter.  The format is similar to the series with Quentin Cooper, with many fewer puns and though less inquisitorial, was possibly more discursive. 

The metal industry in West Africa has often had the tag diffusion attached to it.  There is always an assumption that indigenous African metal working was really a result of foreign introduction, whether from North Africa or Europe.  While many of the bronzes and Ife and Benin could be based on imported copper alloys, discoveries of the area to the east of the River Niger, i.e. south-eastern Nigeria, has shown the Igbo- Ukwu culture capable of producing bronze from local raw materials.  Apparently, there are tin deposits in the area of Joss, so a copper-tin i.e. classical bronze was made.

Traders from Europe, starting with the Portuguese, found that a money based system of ‘manilla’ could be developed.  The local Africans would use these as currencies among themselves, and these manillas were to become the trading system of much of the slave trade which was later developed by the north Europeans.  Manilla production went into serious industrialisation in first the Low Countries, then England, with Bristol and latterly Birmingham being the main source of copper alloys.  This was a shift to copper and zinc – a classic brass. 

Manillas, thus, were exported to West Africa, exchanged for slaves who worked the sugar plantations in the West Indies or the cotton plantations in the USA, with the commodities returning to western Europe.  October is Black History month and provides an opportunity for reflecting on the part base metal bashing played in part of the trade routes in the past. 

The role of the anklet viewed above was described by Steve, though whether this is a form of ornament or female enslavement within a community is debatable.  I’ve checked out a few blogs and while some proclaim that these anklets were a symbol of male dominance over the females, others appear to be more apologetic saying that ‘women liked to develop an attractive gait’.  This is a question beyond my pay grade, given my replacement hip joint (steel/ceramic) !

Steve mentioned the term ‘adala’ and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has examples of these: http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/bodyarts/index.php/permanent-body-arts/reshaping-and-piercing/165-brass-anklets.html . 

Within the Wellcome Collection there is another spiral anklet which encompasses virtually the whole leg as far as the lower thigh and an image of this can be found on the Wellcome Image website, from which the image below has been taken:

Copper anklet, Ibo people, Nigeria 1880 - 1930
Credit: Wellcome Library, London


I found this a very stimulating object and talk and it neatly fits in with the Wellcome Elements series which covered gold, silver and bronze.  It also links in well with the precious metal - base metal combination raised in the recent Noble Art of the Sword exhibition at the Wallace Collection.  I attended a Study Day at the Wallace which included discussion of West  African iron production in a bloomery, with a funnel system to increase the air-flow and provide higher temperatures for iron smelting.  The current Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy has many fine examples of West African bronze/brass work. 

I have also visited the British Museum to ‘see’ for myself the Benin bronzes in the collection on display.  The Benin bronzes were taken as booty in 1897 and examples of manillas can also be found in the British Museum. 

Little work has been done on checking the metal content of some of the alloys.  It should be easier to check copper alloys in a non-destructive way, unlike steel. 

The next talk in The Thing Is ... series is on 14th October. More information is available on:  http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/events/the-thing-is-mad-dogs-bite.aspx

To book a place or for more information, you can email access@wellcomecollection.org or call 020 7611 2222.