Monday, 4 April 2016

Stiff Beaded Necklace from Zimbabwe in UCL Ethnographic Collection

The object  is a stiff beaded necklace from Zimbabwe. It is part of UCL’s Ethnographic Collection. Its accession number is J0.41.
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Figure 1. Front view of object J0.41 from UCL Ethnographic Collection. (2016).

The necklace is remarkable for its general tube like shape. Its surface is covered in glass beads arranged in bands of various colours. At either end of the object, hide ‘caps’ are stitched to the ends, where a copper alloy triangular shaped bead that once constituted a clasp is attached with fraying thread.
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Figure 2.. Detail of clasp end of J0.41, featuring brass bead. (2016).

The substrate material of the necklace is of organic origin. Under microscopy, long parallel fibres are visible, believed to be a compressed plant material. The thread that attaches the beads appears to be sinew.
Figure 3. Detail of J0.41 featuring view of bead thread and substrate material. (2016).

The object was donated to the collection by G. Penwarden, the niece of George Henry Walker, who lived in Bulawayo around 1910. Penwarden donated many other similar objects to the British Museum that her uncle collected in Africa in the 1950s (British Museum, 2016).  A handwritten tag on the object reads ‘Rhodesia’. Denotation of the former British colony dates the acquisition, and along with its biography of collection, adds to it’s historical significance. The use of imported beads is also a facet of historical significance. Jewellery in Zimbabwe prior to colonial rule was primarily made with locally sourced materials, such as shells, and integration of glass beads denoted a shift in political climate (Labelle 2005:15). When originally worn, this necklace may have conveyed conventions of status relating to age, family, gender, marital availability, and both group and individual identity (Carey 1985:39).  It may have been created or gifted to an individual in a ritualistic or ceremonial act. These factors constitute the object’s social and spiritual significance. There are no truly similar objects in major museum collections, making its presence rare.  Finally, its housing in a teaching collection at a major London institution is a reflection of its current research value.

The object’s organic substrate is well preserved given the object’s age. Its structure is very stiff, probably due to the expansion and contraction of the materials during fluctuations in relative humidity throughout its lifetime. Soiling appears throughout the surface of the object. This could be particles from the organic substrate or soiling from use. The adjoining element to the clasp has become detached previous to this examination. The thread that formerly attached this element is frayed. In one area the bead thread has become weakened and there is a threat of it breaking, accompanied by the potential loss of one or several beads.

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Figure 4.. Detail of J0.41 displaying fraying of thread. (2016).

Figure 5. Detail of J0.41 in which surface grime is visible close to clasp ends of object. (2016).

(all images are by author)

British Museum. (2016). Collection search: George Henry Walker. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Mar. 2016].

Carey, M. (1986). Beads and beadwork of east and south Africa. Princes Risborough, Aylesbury, Bucks, UK: Shire Publications.

Labelle, M. (2005). Beads of life. Gatineau, Québec: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

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