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


helmet mask

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    Sowei mask. Carved wooden helmet mask in form of human face, stained black. Small facial features, tiny ears and four parallel scarfication marks beneath each eye. Hairstyle with carved geometric panels. Surmounted by European-style crown and a state umbrella. Two neck rings, compressed under the chin. Mask stands on slightly flaring base, there are no holes for the attachment of a raffia fringe.


  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 20thC (early) (?)
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 43.5 centimetres
    • Width: 23.5 centimetres
    • Depth: 26 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Carved wooden helmet mask used by the exclusively female Sande (Mende) or Bondo/Bundu (Temne) societies. The mask is traditionally worn by a high-ranking member of the society, the dancing sowei, known as the 'ndoli jowei' among the Mende or 'a-Nowo' among the Temne.

    Worn with a raffia costume, the masks typically have a polished black finish, with neck rings, elaborate coiffure and dignified facial expression. The mask is thought to represent conceptions of idealised womanhood.

    Masks carved with crowns are associated with chiefly authority. This example is wearing a European-style crown and a state umbrella. European-style crowns are thought to have been inspired by the crowns given to paramount chiefs by Queen Victoria at the time of the establishment of the Protectorate in 1896. The umbrella on this mask is similar to that used by the Asante King Prempeh I, when he was exiled to Sierra Leone in the late 19th century.


  • Exhibition history


    2012 9 Jan-24 Feb, London, UCL

  • Condition


  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


Sowei mask carved of wood. Stained black. Surmounted by a European-style crown and a state umbrella. Section of fibre hair for tying round the neck and overhanging.

Sowei mask carved of wood. Stained black. Surmounted by a European-style crown and a state umbrella. Section of fibre hair for tying round the neck and overhanging.

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: EAF4488

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