There are currently 220 items of Asante state regalia made of cast, sheet and solid gold in the British Museum, making it one of the largest collections outside of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast). This collection was assembled over a 165-year period, from 1817 to 1982, and is historically very important as its unique breadth and depth offers potentially significant insights into the evolution of forms, symbolism and gold-working techniques during the pre-colonial (before 1898), colonial (1898–1957) and post-colonial (1957 onwards) periods.
The term ‘state regalia’ is used in this catalogue to describe both the personal items of adornment worn by the Asantehene (King of Asante) and all of the insignia and symbols of royalty worn or carried by his many attendants and officials. Regalia functions on a number of different levels within Asante society and reflects and promotes, in its physical forms and functions, important aspects of the state’s history and values. Items of regalia are considered precious and unique because they are important symbols of statehood or have individual histories that are rooted in the founding of the state. Their most noted purpose is to impress upon the public, through dramatic and magnificent display of their rich colour, costly or rare material, superior workmanship and exclusive design, the power and prestige of the Asantehene and the Asante people.
In other West African states, such as Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) and the kingdom of Benin (now part of modern-day Nigeria), brass, an alloy of copper and tin, was considered a royal metal because of its relative scarcity and durability. In Asante, gold has customarily been reserved for the creation of items of state regalia due to its natural abundance in the area, its value as the most important trade commodity and its symbolic meanings. Over time, gold has come to stand for kingship and immortality and is generally associated with abundance, sanctity, preciousness, wealth, spiritual vitality and fertility.
The publication of the British Museum’s Asante gold regalia collection in an online catalogue format has been driven by the desire to make this material available for the first time to audiences worldwide and to disseminate new research on this important art form. As a result of analysing the technical processes used in the production of state regalia for this catalogue, the identification of the work of individual goldsmiths and/or their workshops has been made for the first time. Examination of the stylistic and symbolic influences has provided evidence of commercial and social interactions between the Asante and Islamic states to the north and Europeans on the coast during a century and a half of dramatic and intense change. Furthermore, research conducted on the inter-related functions that state regalia fulfils within Asante culture provides new insights into the mediatory role of the Asantehene between the spheres of the living, the ancestors and the spirits.
This catalogue also provides a fully documented online resource that promotes wider interest and research in Asante arts and culture as well as enabling the comparative analysis of related artefacts in private collections and public institutions. It is prefaced by three introductory essays. The first, entitled ‘The history, significance and usage of Asante royal regalia’, outlines the cultural meanings and historical context that inform the creation and use of state paraphernalia. The second essay, ‘Asante gold-working techniques and producers’, considers how items of regalia were, and continue to be, manufactured. The third essay, entitled ‘The British Museum collection’, provides a chronological overview of the acquisition history of Asante regalia. The content is sub-divided into 19 sections based primarily on the physical forms and decoration of the regalia and its associated functions. The introductory essays and catalogue entries have been researched and written by Dr Fiona Sheales, Curator of Africa Collections, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.