Tuesday, 9 May 2017

OBJECT ASSESSMENT OF BOLAS FROM SOUTH AMERICA, Ethnographic Collections, Department of Anthropology, UCL

Description of Object 

The object C.0018, in the UCL Ethnographic Collections, consists of three separate sets of bolas and is dated between the 16th and 20th century (Cowper, 1906, pp. 199–203). Bolas are weapons that had been used almost exclusively in the continent of South America by the Tehuelche (indigenous people of Patagonia) and later by the Gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) who utilised them for hunting and killing (both animals and people). Due to their formation, they were named after the Orion constellation as “the three Marys’’ (Mitchell, 2015, p. 7). Each set is comprised of three stones that are encased in one or two leather pouches and are attached to a common centre by twisted leather cords. However, the design and use of each set are slightly different in detail. Two of them belong to the category of ‘’manejo’’ which has two rounded balls and one of an elongated shape which functioned as a handle (Lothrop, 1929, p. 7). The third set has three matching balls of a rounded shape which had to be held by their nexus.  Their leather components could be either from horse, bull or guanaco skin (Cowper, 1906, p. 199). Their use was quite sophisticated as it demanded accuracy and coordination. The user had to simultaneously aim at the target and whirl the bolas above his head until they gained enough velocity to wrap around their victim's legs (Stone, 1999, p. 123, Cowper, 1906, p. 200).
Figure 1: Images of the three sets (from the left to the right set A, set B and set C).

The following Tables illustrate the construction techniques that were utilised for the creation of the leather balls of the three sets:

Table 1: This table shows step by step the construction of the leather balls of set A. For the construction of the leather balls of set B, only the first three steps were applied.

Table 2: This table illustrates step by step the construction of the leather balls of set C

Assessment of Condition 

Set A:
The leather cord of set A is significantly dehydrated and stiff. Its elongated ball is bearing evidence of use with one of its rear sides having a part of its leather pouch missing, exposing its distorted interior stone (see figure 3). Additionally, it has a split on one of its widest sides (see figure 4).
Figure 2: Image of set A, illustrating its stiff dehydrated cord

                 (Left) Figure 3: Image of the missing part of the leather pouch on the elongated ball of set A.
(Right) Figure 4: Image of the split on the elongated ball of set A.

Set B:
Its leather cord is in a very poor condition as it is rather tangled and its ends are starting to unravel.The leather pouches of its balls are bearing splits, cracks and debris of dirt and dust (see figure 6, figure 7 and figure 8).
Figure 5: Image of set B, illustrating the poor condition of its detached leather cord. 

(Left) Figure 6: Image of one of the balls of set B showing the debris of dust and dirt on its exterior.
(Centre) Figure7: Image of the elongated balls of set C showing the splits and cracks on its exterior.
(Right) Figure 8: Image of one of the rounded balls of set B showing the splits and cracks on its exterior.

Set C:
Despite the good condition of its leather cord, its three balls are bearing cracks and splits while a big part of one of them is missing (see figure 10, figure 11 and figure 12). Additionally, two of them are bearing evidence of original repairs (see figure 10 and figure 12).
Figure 9: Image of set C.
(Left) Figure 10: Image of one of the balls of set C showing on original repair consisted of leather stitches.
(Centre) Figure 11: Image of one of the balls of set C showing the splits and cracks of its leather pouch.
(Right) Figure 12: Image of one of the balls of set C showing the missing part of its leather pouch.

Statement of Significance 

Their aesthetic value is highly appreciated as the bolas constitute a powerful weapon which is fabricated by delicate components and by many they are considered as works of art (Lothrop, 1929, p. 7). Their acquisition by the Wellcome collection is a milestone to their history, as through this event, the three sets transformed into one object as part of the comparative collection of Henry Wellcome (Larson, 2010, pp. 95–97). Despite the fact that the leather bolas appear to be relatively common, the sets complement one another and together they reflect the different manufacturing techniques of their people. Their invention is of great historic value as it marks the partial replacement of bows by different weapons like bolas and the introduction of horses in the Tehuelche history (Cowper, 1906, pp. 123–124)

Figure 13: Image of a Gaucho using the 'manejo' bolas on his horse (F-YEAH HISTORY, 2012).

The following table illustrates the known history of the three sets in chronological order:


Cowper, H. S. (1906) The Art of Attack: Being a Study in the Development of Weapons and Appliances of Offence, from the Earliest Times to the Age of Gunpowder. Ulverston: W. Holmes
F-YEAH HISTORY, 2012. Horse Rider With Boleadoras, 19 June. http://fyeah-history.tumblr.com/post/25441114831/horse-rider-with-boleadoras-bolas-from-spanish (accessed [05/02/2017])
Larson, F. (2010) ‘The Things About Henry Wellcome’, Journal of Material Culture, 15(1), pp. 83–104. doi: 10.1177/1359183510355225.
Lothrop, S. K. (1929) Polychrome guanaco cloaks of Patagonia. New York: Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation.
Mitchell, P. (2015) Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492. New York: OUP Oxford.
Russell, G. (1986) ‘The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum’s Dispersal of Non-Medical Material’, Museums Journal, pp. 3–15.
Stone, G. C. (1999) Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Wellcome Collection (1936) Museum accessions register Vol 13: 10861/1936-12350/1936.

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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