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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


Sowei mask
spirit of Sierra Leone

14 February 2013 – 28 April 2013

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus

Supported by

Recommend this exhibition

Sowei masks – unique to the region around Sierra Leone – are worn by senior members of the all-female Sande Society during rite-of-passage ceremonies that signify a girl’s transition to adulthood. They are carved expressions of local ideals of feminine beauty, health and serenity that vary widely in their detail.

Masquerade performances play an important symbolic role in the Sande Society. The mask is worn by the ndoli jowei (‘the sowei who dances’) along with a black raffia and textile costume which completely conceals her identity. Traditionally, the ndoli jowei appears at specific stages of the period of transition at events that are accompanied by music, dancing and singing. She is regarded as both a physical manifestation of the spirit of the Sande Society and an embodiment of its powerful medicines.

The mask featured in this display was collected in 1886 by Thomas Joshua Alldridge for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, where it represented the exotic ‘otherness’ of African culture and belief systems. The mask’s design is unusual in that it includes a top hat. This illustrates a two-way exchange of objects and iconography in which imported items of European clothing could be incorporated into traditional practices as symbols of power and prestige.

This display explores the cultural interaction that influenced the mask’s form and examines the ubiquity of sowei masks in museums around the world.

Sowei mask, collected by Thomas Joshua Alldridge in 1886.

Explore objects

Sowei mask 
Cotton hammock 
Mancala (wari) board 
Stone head (mahe yafei) 

Africa programme

Since 2005, the Museum has been working closely with national and independent museums across the continent. Find out more 

Find out more about Sierra Leonean culture and heritage at www.sierraleoneheritage.org


Naming the Sowei mask

Before going on display, members of the Sierra Leonean community in London asked that they conduct a ceremony to give the mask a name.

Watch the video 



Great Court

Masks and masquerade: the art of transformation in Africa

Wednesday 27 March, 13.15–14.00

A gallery talk by Fiona Sheales, British Museum.