Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Object Assessment: Leatherworking Awl from Igboland, Nigeria

Object Assessment: 
Leatherworking Awl from Igboland, Nigeria

This object comes from the UCL Ethnographic Collections, based in the Anthropology Department. 

It is labelled as Iron Lancet with Wooden Haft with the inventory number: J.0099.

    Figure 1: Image of the Leatherworking Awl - J.0099

The tool is 8.1cm in length and 0.8cm in width. The object consists of two main elements, an iron blade and a wooden haft. 

The blade is magnetic and blackened in colour. This colour suggests a lack of refinement during the melting process. The blade is thin, 0.2 cm, in the shape of a rhombus, has a blunt edge and appears to have been hammered and then cut to form the shape. 

The wooden haft may have been cut from the Ube tree, often used for making tool handles in Nigeria (Sousa, 2017). It varies from dark to lighter colours. 

    Figure 2: Two images of J.0099 showing how the blade enters the haft. Notice the cracks in the haft in the right image.

An X-Ray was taken to see how the blade enters the haft. It appears to be pointed on both ends suggesting the blade is pushed into the soft wood, which may be soaked. This will then dry potentially causing the cracking where the blade meets the haft.

    Figure 3: X- Ray of J.0099 showing how the blade is pointed on both ends.

The object comes from Igboland in Nigeria. It was donated to the collection by M.D.W Jeffreys an Anthropologist who spent time there in the 1930s. Due to the nature of tool use and how often they can break this suggests that the age of the object may also be from that time. The tool is very similar to leather working awls from Western Africa that are used to make holes in leather to allow for stitching. Tools such as these often have multiple uses and are sometimes also used by carpenters.

    Figure 4: A selection of awls from the toolkit of Soninke leatherworker Makan Yafa. Kayes, Mali, 1983. (Frank, 1998).

The haft has a number of chips indicated by the lighter colours which may be caused by the way it is stored, lying on top of other objects. The blade has orange coloured areas which suggest oxidation has occurred at some point. The point of the blade is slightly misshapen which was potentially caused during manufacture.

      Figure 5: A close up of the blade showing the misshapen tip.

The object is not actively friable and overall is in good condition. It is important to improve the storage conditions and to create a mount with card and plastazote to stop abrasions occurring. A stable relative humidity of 40%RH is recommended. 


Frank, B. E., 1998. Mande Potters and Leatherworkers Art and Heritage in West Africa. London: Smithsonian Institution Press

Sousa G. 2017. Native Plants Of Nigeria. Retrieved on 25 April 2018 from World Wide Web:

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2017-18), 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 EthnographyCollections 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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