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.

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