II. Gold-working techniques and producers continued

Discoloration and patchy areas of corrosion on some pieces of regalia indicates that the gold has been alloyed with another metal. One of the disc pendants in the collection (no. 2.15) which dates to 1874 is an unusual dull yellow colour which has green-grey patches, and a finger-ring cast in the shape of a lion (no. 7.12) also exhibits the same features. The dullness of the metal and the patchiness points to the gold having been mixed with brass. Another example, in the form of a sword ornament (no. 13.13), which dates to the end of the 19th century, also exhibits dark and dull discoloration that probably resulted from the gold being alloyed with copper.

Close examination of cast gold items dating primarily to 1874 and 1900 has also revealed that, in some cases, areas intended to be intricate openwork have been either partially or wholly miscast (see no. 1.1, 1.3 and 3.5). This probably resulted from faulty moulds that allowed molten gold to fill areas that were intended to be voids; or alternatively gold was introduced into the mould either in too large a quantity or too quickly, which caused the delicate channels to break down under pressure.

The British Museum’s collection of Asante regalia includes many hollow cast pieces. Items such as representational finger-rings, pendants and sword ornaments are cast with triangular apertures which, in some cases, are stuffed with imported red cloth. This was done to indicate the occupant’s social status and to emphasize the rich colour of the gold. Bowdich noted that the exteriors of cast gold ornaments were also made to appear more red by having a layer of finely ground red ochre (inchuma) applied to them before being boiled in lightly salted water for half an hour, after which they were thoroughly cleansed (Bowdich 1819, 312). Several items of regalia in the British Museum’s collection retain traces of inchuma, which adheres to indented and recessed areas (see no. 1.7, 2.6, 7.18 and 13.11).

Red (kokoo), along with white (fufu) and black (tuntum) form the triumvirate of primary colours in Africa. Each colour is associated with specific qualities and substances and with different spiritual states and occasions. Black symbolizes the dark arts of sorcery and witchcraft, illness and disease, in contrast to white which is the colour of death, purity and coolness. These black and white contrasts are also closely linked to those of light and dark, shiny and dull. In Asante culture gold is included within the ‘white’ spectrum because of its lustre and its reflective qualities. Red is symbolic of both the life and death aspects of blood (mogya) and also with heat, and is expressive of upset and danger (McCaskie 1995, 203).

Thomas Bowdich noted during the first British Mission to Kumase that, before the annual Yam Custom, ‘the royal gold ornaments [were] melted down and fashioned into new patterns as novel as possible’ (Bowdich 1819, 279). In order to get at the reasoning behind this activity it is necessary to say a little about the purpose of the rite, known to the Asante as the odwira (lit. ‘wash/purify’). This rite has its origins in the annual yam harvest festival that marked the beginning of a new agricultural year. By the time that Bowdich observed it, however, the event had become conflated with a thanksgiving ceremony for the royal ancestors and a ritual purification of the collective Asante soul, as well as providing a platform for the celebration of the founding of the Asante state. As an essentially liminal rite it was also directed towards enabling Asante and non-Asante, the living and the dead and the sacred and the profane, to transgress the boundaries that normally divided them, for a prescribed period. During the cycle of events that made up the odwira rite the Asantehene and his court periodically appeared in public dressed in their finest cloths and adorned with their richest ornaments.

Items of gold regalia are also conspicuously displayed in other contexts of change and transition. During the ayefor or barra ceremony, for example, girls advertise their transformation into adult women following their first menses by sitting in public dressed in light, bright and shiny fabrics and wearing large amounts of gold jewellery. At funerals principal mourners also wear quantities of gold ornaments, which are often hired for the occasion. The wearing of gold during rites of passage serves to distinguish and differentiate the main participants, to spiritually protect them from harm and to redefine and reinforce the boundaries between different spheres and states of being during dangerous periods of transition.

Transformation can, therefore, be understood to be at the heart of both technical and social change in Asante culture. The smelting and casting processes informed or reinforced notions regarding: the properties and qualities associated with transitional states such as coolness and heat, solid and liquid; purifying and cleansing; and the creation and dissolution of form and meaning in other contexts. Gold dust retains associations with fluidity whereas casting gold temporarily fixes form. Gold is, however, an indestructible substance, so it can be cast and re-cast countless times. The forms into which it is cast tend to be temporary and transitory, as are the people who manufacture and wear them. Gold, therefore, with its inherently malleable qualities, is symbolic of the tense relationship that exists between immortality and mortality. These perceptions informed Asante beliefs that required gold regalia to be re-cast periodically – with the exception of the Golden Stool which is the enduring symbol of Asante sovereignty. (It should be noted, however, that the current Golden Stool of Asante is a new incarnation that was made to replace the original which was unearthed from its hiding place and desecrated by workmen in 1921.)