Thursday, 31 May 2018

Object Assessment of J.0097: copper alloy pin from Igbo, Nigeria

The object J.0097 is a copper alloy pin with a length of approximately 90 mm, bent by a whole copper alloy strip from the middle into a U shape with the width of approximately 35 mm, which has an oval curvature and two parallel branches with the width of approximately 15 mm. The cross section of the strip is generally a 3 mm*4 mm rectangle, and it is not completely straight. The tips of the two branches used to be sharpened. There are curves on one of the branches. With an uneven layer of corrosion, it has a rough surface covered by metal oxides, which give the surface a green and brown appearance. From the places that are not covered by metal oxides, it can be seen that the metal inside has a dark grey colour. There is a group of number 328 197 written by ink on one of the branches of the object and is partly covered by a thin layer of transparent resin as protection. There is no decoration on the object. Nor does it contain other kinds of materials.

It is made by brass produced in local area. The construction of the object is simple and clear. It is complete and generally in good condition. The resin might be possible to fall off from the surface. The metal oxides layer acts as a protection for the inner metal, while there is abrasion on the edges of the object. The manufacture of the object involves casting, bending, hammering and quenching.  

By comparing with similar objects from the same region, it can be demonstrated that the object is a kind of general equivalent which can be used as both sacrifice and currency by the Aro people during the past centuries. The functions as religious offering and currency demonstrate rarity of the object, making it still have a high value in academic studies as well as in museum collections, because it is a precious sample for the researches about the culture, religion, and the metalworking manufacture of the Aro people in Nigeria. Moreover, it is also an evidence of the slave trade. As a witness of slavery supported by indigenous Nigerian people, it is not only a significant evidence of the Aro people and the Nigerian history, but also an alert to the future and to the entire world. 

Copper Anklet Calabar Province

Object Assessment Project 
No. J0014

This twisted copper alloy anklet is attributed to the Ibibio people of the Calabar Province in Southern Nigeria.  According to UCL records the anklet is categorised as body decoration and currency. 

The anklet consists of a single strand of copper alloy, which would have been heated to become more malleable then folded and twisted around itself.   The anklet would then have been shaped into a coil around the wearer.  The anklet is in a stable condition with small signs of corrosion.  There is however an extensive amount a dirt caked into the creases of the twist. 

Fig 1:  Two views of the copper alloy anklet (Top and bottom)

In pre-colonial Africa currency bracelets also known as manillas or ‘okpoko’ to the indigenous of Calabar, were considered a form of currency.  The oldest examples of this type of currency were usually copper or bronze and originated within the Calabar province.  Copper was considered the ‘red gold’ of Africa and was the primary metal for exchange within the province. 

However, manillas used for trade were traditionally more simple in design then this.  A basic horseshoe shape with enlarged oval shaped flat ends.  They were also quite small barely large enough to fit around an adult human wrist.  Larger more elaborately decorated manillas such as this object were a very different type of currency.  These “king and queen” manillas; as they have become known to the historical and collector community; were used for ceremonial purposes rather then trade.  They were a display of wealth and a representation of an individual of high status.  Manillas such as this anklet would have been given as gifts for major events such as a birth or marriage.  

Manillas and currency bracelets were replaced by western currencies by the end of the 19th century however the use of manillas in a ceremonial context extended until present day.  For this reason it is impossible to date the above anklet.  The anklet was donated to the collection by an M.D.W Jefferys, a South African anthropologist, at some point before his death in 1975.  However he most likely acquired the anklet during his travels to the Calabar region as part of the British Cameroons in the 1940s. 

The anklet is an important addition to the collection in that as a ceremonial manilla, it represents a tradition of a display of wealth, which was adopted and warped into a form of intercontinental currency, that would later financially support the African slave trade. 

Edwards, E.  (2010)  Rethinking Pitt-Rivers, Object Biographies. Balfour Library:Pitt-Rivers Museum.  Accessed: March, 23, 2018.
Reese, A. (2000) ‘Manillas’, Coin News, 46-47 April, 2000.
Einzig, P. (1949)  Primitive Money, in its ethnological, historical and economic aspects.  Eyre & Spottiswoode: London.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Object Assessment of R.0025 - Hausa Skin Bottle

Figure 1. R.0025 with description tag and scale 

This small skin bottle (R.0025) is part of the Material Culture teaching collection, Department of Anthropology, UCL. The bottle is noted as being from the Hausa people in Northern Nigeria and was donated to the collection by M. G. Smith.

The bottle is quite small, only 77mm in length and 28mm at its widest point. This bottle was likely used as a container for traditional Nigerian lead based eye makeup, such as Tiro. Although described as a bottle there is no obvious join where a lid might meet the body and the top of the bottle is not ‘loose’, indicating the lid may have fused to the body with age or changing humidity in the Material Culture room.

The bottle is adorned with strips of leather with black and orange dyed hair as well as denuded green dyed leather. The underlying material appears to be moulded skin and is most visible at the top and base of the bottle. The bottle is in good condition although it demonstrates loss of black and orange dyed hair on the back of the body. Additionally some of the black hairs at the bottom of the bottle and base of the neck are coming away, although there doesn’t appear to be active loss (See Figure 2.). The leather strips seem securely affixed to the skin bottle underneath.

Figure 2. Loss of black and orange dyed hair at back of vessel as well as loose black hairs 

In Nigeria skin vessels were shaped by placing wet skin of a clay mould, and R.025 was likely made in this fashion. Leather strips were then attached to the vessel and seem to be purposely cut to fit the bottle (see Figure 3.)

Figure 3. Close up of base showing joins of leather strips 

R.0025 was donated by M. G. Smith, likely Professor Michael Garfield Smith who studied at University College London after the WWII, conducting fieldwork in Northern Nigeria between 1949 and 1950 and later served as the Chair of Social Anthropology at University College London between 1969 and 1974. Although not documented it is likely R.0025 was accessioned between 1969 and 1974.

This bottle is unique in the Material Culture collection and few examples are documented in modern literature. The Hausa prized dyed green leather, developing multiple techniques utilising combinations of brass, mineral salts and sour milk as well as using the best cuts of leather to create premium dyed leather for local use and export. The inclusion of green dyed leather, as well as other visual elements such as the dyed black and orange hair, may signify this vessel as having cultural significance or status on top of its use as a utilitarian piece.

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.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Object Assessment: Mma nwuli from the Igbo culture of Southeastern Nigeria

Object J.0096 (Figure 1) consists of two iron knives (mma nwuli), used by Igbo women of southeastern Nigeria to paint uli designs on other women or on walls (Jeffreys, 1956; Willis, 1989). The knives are small (4.5 cm long and 0.5 cm wide), dull, and somewhat corroded (Figure 2), although their condition is stable. The knives are identical in shape and design, both with an upward curving blade and an anticlockwise spiral pattern on the handle, and nearly identical in dimensions although one knife (J.0096A) is slightly thicker (and heavier) than the other (J.0096B).

Figure 1: J.0096 (a) front and (b) reverse. In both photos J.0096A is on the left and J.0096 B is on the right.

Figure 2: Close-up of corrosion on (a) J.0096A and (b) J.0096B.

These knives were collected by M. D. W. Jeffreys in Nigeria and became a part of the Wellcome non-medical collection (Jeffreys, 1956). This collection was acquired for UCL in the 1940s by Darryl Forde (UCL Ethnography Collections, 2018), and J.0096 has remained a part of this teaching and handling collection since then. Jeffreys likely collected these mma nwuli because they represent uli painting, an important part of Igbo cultural practices. An example of an Igbo girl being painting with uli is seen in Figure 3. The greatest significance these knives have is their social significance to the Igbo people.

Figure 3: Application of uli with mma nwuli to the face and torso of a young Igbo girl. "A girl is painting with uli patterns. Ugbene, 1983" (From Willis, 1989).

Uli tattoos are painted by well-respected women (Omenka) who are endowed with their painting ability by the earth goddess Ala (Willis, 1989). Typical recipients of the Omenka's paintings are young women, often painted with uli before marriage, childbirth, or other important life events (Willis, 1989; Utoh-Ezeajugh, 2009; Sanders, 2010). Ala herself is associated with things that are "natural," "normal" or "good," including birth, life, and beauty (Willis, 1989; Sanders, 2010; Onwuakpa, 2016). Being painted with uli before an important life event is a signal to other members of the community that a woman is beautiful, youthful, normal, healthy, and a good potential wife or mother. Some examples of typical uli patterns can be seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Some typical uli designs (From Willis, 1989).

To preserve the importance of these mma nwuli as a representation of traditional Igbo body painting, a practice which has been on the decline in recent decades (Sanders, 2010), conservation treatment should focus on preventing damage from occurring to these objects. The knives are, other than some corrosion, which itself is not active, in good condition and require only minimal preventive conservation. Proper handling procedures, maintenance of stable (non-fluctuating) environmental conditions, re-housing, and light dusting with a fine brush to remove surface dust is the proposed treatment for J.0096 to preserve their current stable condition (Canadian Conservation Institute, 2007).


Canadian Conservation Institute. 2007. Care and cleaning of iron. CCI Notes 9/6, 1-4.

Jeffreys, M. 1956. Negro abstract art or Ibo body patterns. South African Museums Association Bulletin 6(9), 93-111.

Onwuakpa, S. 2016. Visuality and representation in traditional Igbo uli body and mud wall paintings. African Research Review 10(2), 345-356.

Sanders, R. R. 2010. A phenomenology of uli as a communication expression in four Nigerian villages: Exploring its motifs, practitioners, and endangerment. PhD thesis, Robert Morris University Pittsburgh, PA.

UCL Ethnography Collections. 2018. The UCL Ethnography Collections. [Online]. [Accessed 22 March 2018]. Available from:

Utoh-Ezeajugh, T. 2009. Body adornment practises in Nigerian culture: A multi-ethnic investigation. Creative Artist: A Journal of Theatre and Media Studies 2(1), 117-132.

Willis, L. 1989. Uli painting and the Igbo world view. African Arts 23(1), 62-67+104.

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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