Friday, 29 March 2019

E.0074: A Zande Axe from South Sudan

Object E.0074 from University College London's ethnographic collection is an axe made with an iron blade attached to a wooden handle. Weighing 220 grams, the axe is 47 cm in length while the blade is 11 cm long. Both the handle and the blade are decorated on either side, as seen below in Figures 1 and 2, and both were made and decorated by hand. The handle was shaped and carved, possibly from a tree branch, before the blade was attached.   

Figure 1 showing the "front" of the axe                           Figure 2 showing the "back" of the axe, the      
with the carvings on the head of the axe                          decorations on the blade are less visible, but
and the incisions on the blade visible,                             the shaping of the handle and carvings on the
along with the shaping of the handle                               axe head can still be seen

Donated to UCL's collection by the Church Missionary Society, the axe is originally from the Zande culture of South Sudan and is now held in the Material Culture Room. The Zande are a multi-ethnic society that inhabit a region that includes areas of the Republic of the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic (Baxter and Butt 1953). Many of their crafts reflect the multicultural nature of their society. The shape of this blade, as seen in the X-ray below in Figure 3, is similar to blades held in other museum collections that were influenced by the Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and which were used as currency by the Zande (Evans-Pritchard 1963, 1967). In particular these blades were used as bridewealth, given the high value of iron.  

 Figure 3 showing X-rays of the blade taken at 100 KV for 90 seconds (top) and 50 seconds (bottom). These reveal the full shape of the blade, which is similar to iron blades held in other collections that were used as bridewealth

This particular blade was likely forged after the colonization of the the region by the French, Belgian, and Anglo-Egyptian governments, as it is decorated with the letters “E B”  in addition to a pattern of lines and dots, seen in Figure 4 below.  
                                 Figure 4 showing the inscribed decoration on the blade, including the letters "E B"
Because of its historical significance and current use in the teaching collection of UCL’s Material Culture Room it is important to conserve the axe in a legible state. There are signs of previous wear and damage visible in certain areas. Some areas of the wooden handle show signs of breakage for example, namely in the crosshatch decoration seen below in Figure 5. 

Figure 5 showing a detail of the axe head where the crosshatch decoration is damaged, with lighter wood showing through 

Also visible is some kind of surface deposit, which does not appear to negatively effect the material of the axe. 

Although there is corrosion present on the iron blade which obscures some of the details of the inscribed decoration, the axe appears to be stable and structurally sound. The blade is securely joined to the handle, and while there are some areas of damage from when the metal was inserted into the wood it is not overly fragile in its current state. With careful handling and storage the axe should maintain its value as part of the teaching collection and as a record of the complex craft traditions of the Zande.

Figure 6 showing the axe in the MCR with its inventory card


Baxter, P.T.W. and Butt, A. (1953). The Azande and Related Peoples of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Belgian Congo. East Central Africa, Part IX. Volume 9 of Ethnographic Survey of Africa. Edited by Forde, D. London: The International African Institute

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1963). “A Further Contribution to the Study of Zande Culture.” In: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol 33, No. 3 [online]. Available at: [Accessed 18 January 2019]

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1967). “Zande Iron-Working.” In: Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde Bd. 13 [online]. Available at: [Accessed 18 January 2019]

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