In the section that follows the main types of gold ornaments and badges of office that form the greater part of Asante regalia assemblages will be introduced and contextualized. The categories of items and their associated numbering correspond to the divisions and numbering used in this catalogue (please see A guide to types for full list).
Pendants have long been used as items of royal regalia and are cast in a variety of shapes and sizes including crescents, discs and stars. There is some evidence that crescent-shaped pendants were worn by the priests of Onyeame (the supreme creator god) but they have also been documented as being worn by soul-priests (akra) (Rattray 1923, 143). This suggests that whereas their physical dimensions and shapes have remained relatively constant, their context of use has broadened over time. Soul-priests (pl. akrafo) are responsible for the periodic purification ceremonies that ensure that the reigning Asantehene continues to be healthy and strong. During the 18th and 19th centuries these personnel performed many different roles within the court and some were customarily executed on the death of their royal master in order that they could continue to serve him in the spirit world (ibid., 154).
Disc-shaped pendants (akrafokonmu) in cast or repoussé sheet gold are the most common type of pendant and are often referred to as ‘soul-washer’s badges’ or ‘soul-priest’s’ discs in recognition of their most obvious and often noted use. Historically, many members of the royal household were chosen
when still children to serve on the basis of their physical attractiveness and the fact that they were born on the same day of the week as the reigning Asantehene, which spiritually connected them to him. They customarily wear large disc-shaped pendants and sit in front of the Asantehene on state occasions to form a human shield of protection. In addition to soul-priests, certain sword-bearers, who act as official messengers or envoys, and the royal women, children and their more important servants also wear gold disc pendants. Cast gold and silver discs, known as otadee (lit. ‘like a pool’) can also be found dominating the centre of some high-status stools.
The patterning of disc pendants seems to have changed little over a comparatively long period of time. In 1688 Jean Barbot (1655–1712), sketched examples of different types of Akan disc pendants and beads that are remarkably similar to those in the British Museum’s collection (Fig. 1).
Many of these designs, such as the interlocking cable motif, sun-burst pattern and the equal-armed cross, which is commonly known as the 'Cross of Agades’, are probably derived from North African prototypes. The presence of these designs on pieces of Asante regalia indicates a long history of trans-Saharan contact and influence. A number of pendants, which have a distinctive look, are more closely associated with the Baule, who migrated westwards from the Asante region to their present location in the Cote d’Ivoire some time after ad 1730. The presence of these pendants in Asante state regalia assemblages suggests that some sort of relationship was maintained between the two peoples after this date. European influences, some dating to the 18th century, can also be detected in both the form and decoration of other disc pendants. Damaged cast gold ornaments recently discovered on the wreck of the Whydah, which sank off the coast of Cape Cod in America in 1717, demonstrates the links that existed between the Gold Coast and the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Ehrlich, 1989).
Beads, made of a variety of materials, are a universal form of public and private decoration in sub-Saharan Africa and are commonly worn around the neck, arms, wrists, waist, knees and ankles. Cast gold beads are displayed during major ceremonies by the Asantehene, his royal wives and children, other chiefs and members of their households and can be of almost any size and shape, ranging from abstract geometric designs to miniature representations of animals, weapons, tools, teeth and bones. They are modelled on real items that were commonly used as protective amulets known as asuman.
Asuman (sing. suman) are man-made objects which are composed of disparate ingredients that derive from both cultured and uncultured contexts. Their efficacy as amulets is essentially dependent upon how their inherent properties and qualities are blended and combined together. In effect, each amulet is a microcosm that contains a unique mix of hard, soft, cool, hot, shiny and dull cosmological ingredients. Bringing these elements together causes distinctions to collapse, conflations to occur and initiates a confrontation between opposing forces.
Representations of many of the same elements are also found on other types of artefact such as gold-weights, stamped cloth (adinkra) and on the decorative friezes that adorn the external walls of important houses and shrines. Some, such as bells and keys, are faithful reproductions of European artefacts, whereas others, such as the geometrically shaped beads known as ewontomanu (lit.‘under cloth’ or ‘clothing beads’), can be traced back at least a thousand years in the Middle East and were probably introduced to West Africa through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite the fact that these elements were foreign in origin they formed part of a sophisticated and complex system of proverbial and symbolic knowledge that structured individual conduct and informed collective responsibilities within Asante cultural contexts.
There is one bead type, however, that is closely associated with a specific historical event. The square cushion-shaped bead called mankata is named after Sir Charles McCarthy, a British Governor who, in January 1824, was defeated in battle by Asante forces at Katamansu and subsequently beheaded (Garrard 1989, 64). His severed head was taken to Kumase wrapped in a white cloth, where it joined the skulls of other vanquished enemies in the royal mausoleum at Bantama. The shape of the bead appears to be modelled on his wrapped head.
Other cast gold beads in the British Museum’s collection are modelled on items of regalia that are intimately associated with the Golden Stool of Asante. These include a drum (sika akua), a harp (sika sankuo) and an axe (sika akuma). In 1881 Asante messengers arrived at Cape Coast Castle bearing a real golden axe, one of the most revered items of regalia, which had been sent by Asantehene Mensa Bonsu (1874–83). Initially, the British authorities were uncertain how to interpret this sign. In fact the axe, which was only dispatched on very special occasions, had a specific double-edged meaning. It was said to be able to cut through any obstacle put in the way of a peaceful outcome, but it was also a warning that if the state to which it was sent proved recalcitrant, it could be destroyed by being hacked to pieces by the Asante army. The golden axe was eventually presented to Queen Victoria by the Asantehene on the conclusion of negotiations with the British.
The distinction between disc pendants worn by priests and other cast or repoussé discs, which are similar but smaller in size, is not always clear. Except for their reduced dimensions, most of these discs are made with the same care and complexity of design as the larger disc pendants, but they are more likely to be bi-facial. They function in the same capacity as other bead types and are commonly worn by the Asantehene, the royal family and other high-ranking individuals.