What just happened?

To celebrate Vikings Live, we have replaced our Roman alphabet with the runic alphabet used by the Vikings, the Scandinavian ‘Younger Futhark’. The ‘Younger Futhark’ has only 16 letters, so we have used some of the runic letters more than once or combined two runes for one Roman letter.

For an excellent introduction to runes, we recommend Martin Findell’s book published by British Museum Press.

More information about how we have ‘runified’ this site


Collection online

Additional options
Production date to

Or search by



  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    Almost life-size human head, 'mahe yafei', with pedestal-like neck carved from soapstone or steatite. Head has elaborate hairstyle with top knot and earrings.

  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 17thC-18thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 24 centimetres
    • Width: 10 centimetres
    • Depth: 17.5 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Although rare in sub-Saharan Africa, steatite or soapstone carvings are found in a small area embracing parts of the modern states of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Most of the sculptures are of human form, with some carved heads. Those found in Sierra Leone are called 'nomoli' in Mende. Other names that have been used for these figures are 'pompta' or 'mahe yafei'.

    The age of these sculptures is relatively unknown, however there is evidence to suggest that some may predate Portuguese encounters with the coastal areas of Sierra Leone in the 15th and 16th century. They are thought to have originally represented chiefs or group leaders. More recently, however, such figures have been re-discovered by local people buried in soil or in waterways during the course of their preparation of farm lands and used as rice gods to encourage high yields. Many believe them to be naturally formed, rather than carved.

    The pieces from Kissi country, such as this, tend to be different in style; the Kissi worship them in the belief that they represent their ancestors. Scholars have concluded that these sculptures were probably made by the ancestors of the Kissi peoples who inhabited lands currently occupied by the Mende. However, it is very difficult to date the sculptures with any certainty or to know for what purpose they were originally carved.

    T. Phillips (ed.), Africa, the art of a continent (London, Royal Academy, 1995)


  • Location


  • Exhibition history


    1995-96, London, Museum of Mankind, Made in Africa: Africa and the National Art Collection Fund

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    Collected by Captain A.W.F Fuller in 1937.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


Human head, carved from of soapstone.

Human head, carved from of soapstone.

Image description



If you’ve noticed a mistake or have any further information about this object, please email: collectiondatabase@britishmuseum.org 

View open data for this object with SPARQL endpoint

Object reference number: EAF8261

British Museum collection data is also available in the W3C open data standard, RDF, allowing it to join and relate to a growing body of linked data published by organisations around the world.

View this object

Support the Museum:
donate online

The Museum makes its collection database available to be used by scholars around the world. Donations will help support curatorial, documentation and digitisation projects.

About the database

The British Museum collection database is a work in progress. New records, updates and images are added every week.

More about the database 


Work on this database is supported by a range of sponsors, donors and volunteers.

More about supporters and how you
can help