Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Object Assessment Project : Medicine bottle from Igboland




Figure 1: Photo of the object standing up and orifice.

The object comes from the UCL Ethnography Collections with the inventory number: M.0095.

This is a small bronze bottle (5 cm height and 70.53 gr weight) which originates from central Nigeria, Igboland from Onitsha province, according to the written label tied to the neck of the bottle. This artefact seems to be an African medicine bottle. It might have been brought to the UK by MDW Jeffreys (a famous anthropologist) between 1934 and 1954.

The bottle may be made of bronze or brass, because of the typical colour of the patina.
Its base is not totally round nor flat, which makes difficult to get it standing up right. In addition, it has no seam, which might confirm the use of the lost wax casting technique.


Figure 2: x-ray of the bottle, standing up and orifice

Also, there is a 1 cm hole on the body of the bottle. This is former to the making process and prior to any act of conservation. It seems to have been fixed with a non-metallic material, maybe organic, such as terracotta. 

Four black residues remain on the neck and the body of the bottle, maybe some former glue traces.



Figure 3: The bottle under normal and UV light.

Figure 4: Bottle neck and shoulder view under microscope.

The surface of the object is very smooth and shiny. This shininess might be the result of a former treatment method. At its base, there are two reference numbers. 211 (black ink) is the former one, M 95 (white ink) is the current reference number. 

The little green mark (3 mm long) might be a corrosion trace, maybe a verdigris oxidant which testifies the presence of copper oxides.

Figure 5: Zoom on black and white numbers, on the base of the bottle.


At the top of this bottle there is a small orifice but no stopper anymore, also the bottle is empty, but might have contained some palm oil. The top of this stopper may have been carved, representing a face, such as a calabash medicine container.


Figure 6: Calabash medicine container from Tanzania from http://www.randafricanart.com/Calabash_medicine_containers_Tanzania.html

Usually a calabash is made of the fruit from the calabash tree. Here, we are facing a more precious replica, named a skeuomorph.


Figure 7: Young fruit from a calabash tree, from https://www.omcseeds.com/lagenaria-siceraria-giant-calabash-6.html.


Knowledge of medicinal plants combined with spirituality have always been linked. The belief in witchcraft, divination and spiritual healing has come to coexist with Christianity and colonialism.

The overall condition of the object is good and remains stable, it doesn't need any specific treatment despite the presence of some museum or renaissance wax. Currently, the flask is displayed with other wooden and metallic artefacts. 

As the bottle might be affected by verdigris, it should be kept separately. That is why I would strongly recommend placing the bottle into a small plastic box padded with acid-free unbuffered paper, with a HR (relative humidity) below 35%.



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 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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