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II. Gold-working techniques and producers

The development of the gold mining industry in the forest region of Ghana dates back to the 14th century AD when the demand for a continuous and ever-increasing supply of gold facilitated the introduction of mining technologies and practices from the Bambuk and Bure goldfields of western Mali. The transmission of mining knowledge may have been aided by the emigration of small numbers of Mande-speaking specialists who had a vested interest in both the extraction of gold and its profitable exchange in the Malian-controlled markets of Jenne and Timbuktu. Mande traders (Dyula) came to occupy unique cultural niches within their host communities and are credited with introducing a wide range of Sudanic practices, including certain techniques for working copper, brass, silver and gold, to sub-Saharan cultures.

Mining was not the only method used to extract gold. Annual rains, which occur between the months of April and September, flood dry gullies and wash out specks of placer gold, which is found in alluvial deposits of ancient and modern stream beds. As a result, gold and water are closely associated with one another in those regions where this phenomenon occurs and this may have given rise to the practice of panning. Panning was probably the earliest extraction method used by the Akan and involved both the washing of streambed sediments and the digging of pits into compacted sediment on river banks. The digging of shallow surface pits (mmoabaa) and shaft mines (nkoron-dwuma) was carried out by men, while the panning (sika kodua) was done by women and girls (Garrard 1980, 129–31). This division of labour was recorded by Bosman (1705) and was probably of long-standing duration. Panning involved putting sediment, made up of gravels and sand, into a large wooden pan and mixing it with water. The mixture was then stirred with a stick (tabon) or swilled around using a circular motion, which caused the gold and the other heavy particles to sink to the bottom. The water and the finer particles of earth were then drained off and the residue was tipped into a smaller pan and the process repeated until only the grains of gold remained.

Gold, as a material, is considered to be essentially ambiguous within Akan culture as it has underlying associations with water and the earth and with purity and defilement (Garrard 1980, 137–40). Panning and mining processes may have contributed to and reinforced these perceptions, as in each case the gold had to be separated from the rock matrix or soil that adhered to it using water. As a result any processing of gold may have intrinsically changed the meanings and associations connected with it as a material.

Goldsmiths (sikadwumfo or sikananfo) are highly skilled specialists who learn their trade during a long apprenticeship. Thomas Bowdich noted during his residency in Kumase in 1817 that these craftsmen occupied a separate quarter known as the dwinfour that was located within the bounds of the royal palace complex. Three basic techniques of working gold have been identified in relation to the Asante. The first involves beating gold into leaf, foil or sheet, which is frequently decorated with repoussé work and dot-punching from the front. The second method, known as direct casting, makes use of a natural object such as a seed pod or a shell as a model around which a clay mould is formed. The object is incinerated within the mould when it is heated up leaving a void of the exact same size and shape from which a casting can be created. The third technique is known as the lost wax or cire perdue casting method and is the one most commonly associated with the Asante. Bowdich was the first European to describe the step-by-step procedures involved in this process, which suggests that he may have witnessed first-hand the creation of gold ornaments that he later donated to the British Museum on his return to England in 1818.