Monday, 4 April 2016

A Multicultural Sword (Object A.55 - UCL Ethnography Collection)

Object A.55 in the UCL Ethnography Collection is a Touareg sword - known as a takouba - with a long, slim, single edged, curved iron blade, and a short hilt and cross guard culminating in a pyramid pommel made from three layers of metal. The base of the blade is decorated with chiseled flame shaped designs on both sides and several Tifinagh characters are represented midway up the blade. The short cross guard is wrapped in dyed red leather, while the grip is thin, short and wrapped in a sheet of metal with a large solder seam. The hilt features another Tifinagh character and the characteristic Touareg starburst motif. The blade sheath (most likely brass) is sheet metal wrapped and soldered around a leather or cardboard interior. Two decorated sheet metal loops are soldered to the sheath. 
The history of this sword is undocumented. Like most iron found in North Africa, the blade is almost certainly of European origin. The flame-like decorations are attributed to the Nigerian Hausa people while the characters on the blade are the Touareg script. This may suggest that the weapon is of Hausa origin but has been repurposed as a Touareg blade and marked by its new owner with a re-wrapped hilt and added Tifinagh characters. Further, the characters on the blade, the letters ‘g,’ ‘s,’ and ‘z’ have no clear meaning, suggesting a name or form of incantation.
The hilt of the blade is decorated with Touareg symbols associated with weapons. The starburst is the Touareg symbol for protection against the evil eye, while the lightning bolt may be either the Touareg sickle character symbolizing the Inaden, the Touareg blacksmith class, or the character Yaz, symbol of the Touareg people, signifying freedom.
The use of soft iron, symbols on the guard, Tifinagh characters on the blade, and the care taken in replicating the 20th century takouba style hilt and sheath without blacksmith tools or expertise, is telling with regards to the owner and speak to the amateur nature and ‘personality’ of the blade. Without a full understanding of these intangible ethnographic significances, this object may be easily described as a rather unskilled example of an Ethiopian tool of combat, rather than an object with ties to Europe, the Hausa people, and the Touareg, representing cultural pride and heritage.
The blade is structurally sound save for the loose hilt and shows some corrosion to the leather guard and some small areas of active degradation on the blade. 

*All images by the author unless otherwise noted


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“Appendix O: Curatorial Care of Metal Objects.” 2002. NPS Museum Handbook Part 1. National Park Service. Available from: <>

Briggs, L. 1965. “European blades in Tuareg swords and daggers.” Journal of the arms & armour society, vol. 5, no. 2. Arms and Armour Society. London. 

Dirksen, V. 1997. “The Degradation and Conservation of Leather.” Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies: 6–10. Available from:  <>
Logan. J. 2007. “Recognizing Active Corrosion.” CCI Notes 9/1. Canadian Conseravation Institute. Canada. Available from: <>
Lhote. H. 1954. “Notes sur l’origine des lames d’épée des Touareg.” Notes Africaines, no. 61. Paris: 9-15.
Morel. M. 1943. “Essai sur l’épée des Touareg de l’Ahaggar (takouba).” Travaux de l’Institut de Recherche Sahariennes 2. Algiers: 121-168

“Sword and scabbard -REDMG : 1998.56.310.” Reading Museum Collections. Available from: <>

“Takouba - 1936.67.1.” Pitt Rivers Museum. Available from: <>

“Takouba sword and scabbard -MO 63.2344a-b.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Available from: <>

Vale. M. 2015. Siwa: Jewelry, Costume, and Life in an Egyptian Oasis. The American University in Cairo Press.

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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