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: [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Anonymous. Metal Identification. King Saud University. Available: 
[Accessed 4 April 2017]

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