Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A Naga 'battle axe' from Arunachal Pradesh, India @ the Ethnographic Collections of the Department of Anthropology at UCL

Figure 1. One side of the axe (dao) showing the hair secured through holes into the handle.

Figure 2. The reverse side of the axe (dao).

The object (cat. no. A.0042) is described on the label as a 'Battle axe' and as being  'SE Asia. Nagas Wellcome Trust' and the place as 'India/Arunachal Pradesh'. It was acquired from the Trust in 1954 without documentation. In other collections similar artefacts are called chopper, hatchet, dao or knife. The terminology is significant as they are both weapon and tool. Dao is commonly used in ethnographic studies.

Figure 3. Detail image showing the distinctive end grain of bamboo and the tufted hair.

Figure 4. Detail image showing the red and black cane work on the haft and the metal ring with rivets.

The dao comprises a forged single edged iron blade hammered into an ornamented haft. The entire length is 772 mm. The haft (handle) is bamboo and coated in a dark resin. It is wrapped around by two bands of woven plant fibre, one dyed red probably from a plant in the wider madder family Rubia sikkimensis (Hutton 1921, 51). The second band has an alternative weave which is almost a 'herringbone' pattern. The most extravagant ornamentation is comprised of rows of bunched hair secured into neatly drilled holes. The hair is of two sorts: one dark, the second pale straw coloured and dyed with bands of red. Typically the hair is identified as goat or occasionally human. This example is as yet unconfirmed.

The dao was used exclusively by men and was an indispensable article throughout an entire life with no distinction made between a war dao or one for everyday use. Naga material culture is extensively represented in UK collections. The word 'Naga' was first applied to various peoples with different cultures and languages who had seemingly more differences than similarities. They defined themselves by reference to family, village or clan. Yet following the end of colonial rule 'Naga' has been used as a term to define nationhood and seek independence from India. The British used the cultural material as a way of classifying groups within the larger designation of Naga (West 2011, 182). Tribal names are often used as a prefix to 'Naga'. In this way it can be said that the blade shape and decoration are more typically Sema Naga and the other ornamentation Konyak Naga as in figure 5.

Figure 5. Described as a Konyak dao (Jacobs et al. 1998, 245).

Figure 6. The blade with forged repair 

Figure 7. Detail image of the forged repair.

The dao is structurally sound and apparently complete. The blade and riveted ring show considerable signs of use wear. The cane work and hair are in a stable condition. Under magnification damage to the hair is visible. The dao is safe for display and loan. The hair is vulnerable and care should be taken when handling.

Figure 8. Detail image of a hair at taken with Leica DM LP at 40 x magnification showing the scale pattern of the hair and a dark line of damage running down the hair. Possibly the acetone used in taking the cast has stripped the dye from the hair.


J.H.Hutton. 1921. The Sema Nagas. London: Macmillan & Co.
J. Jacobs, S.Harison, A.Herle, A. McFarlane1998. The Nagas - Hill people of North East India: Society, Culture and the Colonial Encounter. London: Thames and Hudson.
A. West. 2011. Museums, colonialism and identity: a History of Naga Collections in Britain, (Contribution to critical museology and material culture). London: Horniman Museum and Garden.

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2016-17), 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.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Ornamental blade from the Belgian Congo (UCL Ethnographic Collections)

Ornamental blade from the Belgian Congo (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Throughout history weapons served various purposes as implements of war and hunting tools. They were also employed as symbols by different cultures to communicate certain messages. The ornamental blade shown here is exemplary of the various styles of decorative or status-related weapons created in the Congo. This item measures 41.5 cm long. The blade is 6.9 cm wide, 18.8 cm at its widest. Towards the bottom the blade flares out into two points. It is most likely iron, which corresponds with its silver color and the popularity of the metal in Central Africa in previous centuries (Anon. 2017, 2; Kriger 1992). This theory is upheld by the dark color of the decorative carved lines running the length of the object’s center (Anon. 2017, 2). The wooden handle is enveloped in a long, thin strip of metal. Its light brown, reddish hue hints at a copper alloy as its identity. The catalogue card declares it to be brass. Due to the flatness of both metal portions it could be surmised that they were hammered into shape. The catalogue confirms this possibility.

Carving detail on blade (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Brass strip wrapped around wooden handle and held in place by rivets (by Maria Melendez 2017)

This object shows signs of damage in the metal components and the wooden handle. The blade itself has dark brown spots of inactive corrosion. One of the points at the bottom is bent upward. Part of the brass strip coiled around the handle is misshapen, as if it was dropped or pulled. In this area a fragment of the handle has broken off. There are no clues of previously performed treatments. The condition of the whole is good and stable. It does not require urgent attention.
Portion of brass strip that has been deformed (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Corrosion stains on blade (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Wooden handle with portion missing and misshapen brass strip (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Bent tip of blade (by Maria Melendez 2017)

This type of weapon is known as an ingóndá knife and is representative of a person’s title and authority in a society (possibly a chief or other high-ranking figure). While a similar shape had been used for hunting, this model’s blunt edges reinforce the idea that its use was ornamental. How this object was incorporated into the Ethnographic Collections is unclear yet its alleged provenance, the Belgian Congo, points to certain likelihoods. Considering the colonial context of this location during the 19th and 20th century it’s feasible that this ingóndá was taken out of the Congo by a missionary, scholar, or government official and sold or gifted in England. In fact, Daryll Forde, British anthropologist and founder of the Ethnographic Collections, worked in this region of Africa and given the little information provided by the record it is possible that it belonged to him. The historic, aesthetic, and technical values have always formed part of its significance; its social value, regarding the symbolism of status, has been stripped from it. The main stakeholders evidently are the people of Congo and the descendants of the object’s creators.

Kriger, C. (1992). Ironworking in 19th century Central Africa. Doctor of Philosophy. York University. Available: http://search.proquest.com/docview/304019201/ [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Anonymous. Metal Identification. King Saud University. Available: http://fac.ksu.edu.sa/sites/default/files/Metal%20Identification%20Ready%20_unprotected.pdf 
[Accessed 4 April 2017]

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

OBJECT ASSESSMENT OF CARVED BARK BELT FROM PAPUA NEW GUINEA, Ethnographic Collections, Department of Anthropology UCL

The Carved Body Belt, called a Kava, is dated circa 1900 and is from the Gulf of Papua New Guinea, between Kerema and the Fly River, the region of the Elema People (Lewis 1931 31-32). It is used in male initiation ceremonies and consists of a coiled piece of bark with carved human face motif on the outside with added pigment and a twine fasting attached at the outer end of the belt. The bark is from the Sago Palm and the pigments are made from charcoal, a white lime based pigment made from oyster shell and a red pigment from burnt clay (Barton and Giblin 1910, 160). The main bark body appears structurally sound however a lack of binder has contributed to the loss of a great amount of white pigment.

Fig:1, Image of Bark Belt, J.0044 showing side of the overlap, twine loop and the carved face design.

Fig: 2,  Image of J.0044 demonstrates the significant loss of pigment and the prominent four star pattern that features three times. 

Fig: 3, Image shows the coiled structure and how it overlaps, inside end of the belt is also visible.

Fig: 4, Image of Bark Belt from above, showing the tight  wound coil structure.

This Kava belt was a significant part of Elema male society, reflecting hierarchical status and rite of passage. The belts were part of a coming of age ceremony known as ‘Hevehe and Kovave’ (Eoe 1984, 13) and represented the initiation into a man cult. When boys were of puberty age, they went into seclusion away from their family and stayed in the back part of the Eravo (man’s house) for around three years. There they were taught how to become warriors and complete a number of unpleasant trials. Once the confinement ended the boys went through their initiations ceremony where they now become semese warriors signified by the Kava belt, made during their confinement (Barton and Giblin 1910, 259-261). The ceremony signified physical strength, bravery and solidarity between men when going into battle (Keesing 1998, 8-10). The width of the belt signified status and stylistic designs represented affiliations to tribes.  The carved face embodied the ‘ancestral spirits’ (Lewis, 1931, 1)  which possess deep spiritual significance (fig.3). It is likely that renewing pigment gave significant spiritual value as this was a belief for the retouching of shields, give  renewed  ‘spiritual strength during battle’ (Head and Willet 2014, 150) (fig.7).

Fig: 5, Shows a detailed image demonstrating the carving of the design and the rough areas of the carved surface. oyster shell may have been used for the fine decretive carving of the belt, although knifes began to surpass shell as the preferred carving tool.

Fig: 6, Shows a photograph from the 1930s of a man from Orokolo (village near Kerema, along the Papuan Coast) Credit: Lewis  1931 26. Men of the Elema people wore the belts drawn tightly around their waist, however there are regional differences on how the belt was worn.

Fig: 7, The white pigment could have been  re-applied for ceremonies. Microscopic analysis with the Dino-lite/AM7000 (approx. 30X-magnification) revealed different layers of varying white pigment indicating different stages of renewal.

During the 1880-1930 there was great surge in the collecting of Papuan art like this belt, valued as curiosities.  Colonial pacification saw a reduction in warfare between tribes, which in turn saw a reduction and rarity in the type of associated objects (Boylan et al. 2002, 30).  The object is now valued as part of the Ethnographic teaching collection and has been displayed in the UCL Anthology Galleries in The Bodily and Material Culture of Religious Subjectivation conference, exploring ‘the transformation of the body to express spiritual connections’ (Mercier 2014). 


Eoe S. M. 1984. The Elema People of Papua New Guinea. Bathhurst: Robert Brown & Associates (Aust) Pty. Ltd. 

Barton F. R. and Giblin, E. I., 1910. The Melanesians of British New Guiana.  Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press

Boylan. C, Moriarty, S. and Wilson, N., 2000. The Moriarty legacy, collecting New Guinea highlands art. A conversation between Chris Boylan, Simon Moriarty and Natalie Wilson.  In: Wilson. N (ed) Plumes and Pearlshells, Art of the New Guinea Highlands.  Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 27-32

Haddon A. C 1920. Migrations of Cultures in British New Guinea. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 50, 237-280.

Head K, and L.Willet, 2014. Approaches to the conservation of art from the New Guinea Highlands, in Wilson. N (ed),2014. Plumes and Pearlshells, Art of the New Guinea Highlands.  Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 149-151

Lewis. B. L., 1931. Carved Painting Designs from New Guinea. Anthropology Design Series No.5,  Field Museum of Natural History Chicago.

Keesing. R. M., 1998, Introduction In: Gilbert, H. H (ed). Rites of Manhood, Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea. California: University of California Press, 1-43 

Mercier. D., 2014. The Bodily and Material Culture of Religious Subjectivation conference. Ethnography Collections, Just another blog. Accessed 7th of April 2017 from the  World Wide Web: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/anthropology-news/religious-subjectivation

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2016-17), 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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