African Gold-weights in the British Museum

Fiona Sheales

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A guide to weight types


This section is intended as an overview and quick guide to identifying the main types and designs of gold-weights. Timothy Garrard (1980) is the only scholar to date to have published a phased gold-weight chronology based on stylistic analysis, historical accounts and ethnographic fieldwork (see comments on the drawbacks and limitations of this approach in part II).

The chronology that he devised has been broadly followed in this catalogue, which is divided into three sections. The first section includes all types of geometric gold-weights, the second examines figurative gold-weights and the third considers appropriated weights (objects that originally functioned in other contexts but which came to be used as weights). Each section is arranged chronologically and is subdivided into a number of smaller sections on the basis of physical form and subject matter (e.g. male figure, bird, sandals etc.).

Irrespective of their age, dimensions, shape and mass, all gold-weights reflect Akan beliefs, ideas and cultural practices. The users and makers of gold-weights do not appear to have made any distinctions between figurative and geometric weights of different sizes and mass, but Western collectors and scholars have divided them into two categories on the basis of their physical forms. Geometric weights in the form of squares, cubes, pyramids, discs and rectangles decorated with linear and cursive decoration on one surface are easily identified. A close stylistic examination of the Museum’s collection provides evidence for both long-term artistic conservatism, represented by large numbers of repeated geometric and figurative weight types, and innovative designs that occur in small numbers or as one-offs. The appearance of innovative designs in the gold-weight corpus points to the fact that Akan culture was open to the creation, adoption and appropriation of new iconography that produced short-lived trends or fashions and reflects the personal preferences of individual patrons.

1. Geometric gold-weights

The decoration and symbolism found on some geometric gold-weights share stylistic similarities with designs found on other media such as stamped cloth (adinkra), on the central columns of stools , the leather coverings of amulets and on the low relief or pierced wall murals that traditionally adorned the exterior walls of shrines and the houses of the elite.

These designs are characterized by the use of symmetry and asymmetry, borders and framing devices and the subdivision of grounds into distinct halves and quarters. This is an important point as the same concerns for imposing control, regularity and order are practised in other areas of Akan culture such as the spatial organization within settlements (see discussion in (part I). As such, the patterning on gold-weights and other decorative arts reflect underlying structuring principles that govern artistic, economic, political and social conventions.

The use of the same patterns and motifs on different types of media is not random; a closer examination of their contexts of use reveals relationships between form, ornamentation and function. For example, adampan, the open-fronted verandas that were used to conduct business, link gold-weights and wall murals to a shared economic transactional context. Adinkra cloth, stamped with talismanic symbols and worn at funerals, provided protection to the wearer who would be in a spiritually vulnerable state during the funerary rites. Likewise, leather-bound amulets worn by individuals to ward off misfortune, illness and evil were adorned with the same motifs and patterns as gold-weights, suggesting that they are not only physically similar, but also shared some of the same apotropaic and esoteric functions. The important point is that all of these inter-related objects and contexts are intimately associated with economic, ancestral and spiritual transactions.

The notion of binding as a way of establishing a physical and metaphysical relationship between form and function also finds expression in the use of intertwined elements and elaborate interlaced motifs. This type of decoration has a distinct ‘Moorish’ or arabesque quality. Within the Islamic world itself, a wide range of ornamental designs were developed from various forms of calligraphy: graceful arabesque ornaments and more angular designs that are sometimes referred to as ‘kufesque’ since they derived from kufic script. This suggests that Akan items that are decorated with these designs originate, in part at least, from a common Islamic source located in North Africa.

Gold-weights of an early date are mostly plain and simple, but by the mid-17th century decorative motifs such as spirals, wavy lines, circles, crosses, triangles, star-bursts and chevrons are common. Some of these motifs are repeated a number of times on the same gold-weight, suggesting that the motif’s significance is emphasized through repetition. The shapes, sizes and decorative designs of some geometric weights resemble those of leather-bound Islamic amulets (known as safi and sebe in Twi) so closely that it is tempting to interpret them as representations of such charms. Some weights even have borders that, in their configuration and location, reference the stitching that is found on the external coverings of these amulets.

Other cursive or abstract representations of animals such as crocodiles, lizards and possibly even human figures are original in concept and show little or no external influence.

A geometric gold-weight with an abstract representation of a human figure, 18th–20th century

A geometric gold-weight with an abstract motif possibly representing a human figure, 18th–20th century

These symbols were developed by the Akan goldsmiths themselves. One of the most frequently depicted is a spiral placed on top of an arch or bisected semi-circle. Ross has suggested that this symbol is an early representation of the well-known sankofa motif that shows a bird standing on a perch or pedestal with its head turned looking over its own back and tail.

A geometric gold-weight with an abstract motif of a sankofa bird, 17th–20th century

It is likely that in the pre-colonial past (prior to 1896) cursive representations were also vehicles for metaphorical and proverbial knowledge, but many of the meanings attributed to them are now lost.


Disc-shaped weights exhibit a variety of different decorative techniques. Some are plain and solid, whereas others have a central circular or square cavity. One of the more common disc weights is known as the notched or cogwheel type on account of the removal of small transverse sections from around the edge, which produces a distinctive ‘cogwheel’ appearance. Most of the cogwheel-type weights are in the form of discs, but triangular, crescent and square forms also occur. Occasionally the surfaces of these weights are engraved with fine lines, dots or punch-marks.

Besides cogwheels there are also disc-shaped weights decorated with varying numbers of small circular raised copper plugs, which have been inserted into purpose-made cavities. The copper inserts serve as nodal points for geometric patterns that are delineated by rows of punched dots. Weights decorated in this way are relatively rare and must have been highly prized by their owners as they were technically difficult to make. The weights themselves probably originated in North Africa, but were transported south as part of the trans-Saharan gold trade. They are among the oldest weights to have survived to the present day and also come in the form of bars. Other disc-type weights are characterized by incremental circular or square-shaped steps and others are distinguished by open-work geometric patterns.


Oval-shaped gold-weights are not as common as disc-shaped weights, but despite being fewer in number, they exhibit similar decorative techniques. Some are plain while others have a central circular or square-shaped cavity or have a notched edge. Similarly, some may be stepped or exhibit open-work. The similarities between disc- and oval-shaped weights points to a similarly early date for their manufacture and use.


Cylinder or barrel-shaped weights are also of an early date and in form closely resemble metal bead types. Stylistically they may not have had great significance and there are not many examples of this type. Most are plain, but some have simple surface designs of impressed circles, dots or lines, often almost obliterated by age. A few are faceted or have deep horizontal grooves running along their length.


Bi-cone-shaped weights that are conjoined at their bases (sometimes referred to as truncated double cones) also resemble early metal bead forms that are commonly found in the Islamic world. Examples of such beads are known from Western Sudan and it is probable that this weight type derived from Islamic sources, although the date when this occurred is uncertain.


Sphere-shaped weights are uncommon in the gold-weight corpus. They probably derive from metal bead forms in the same way as barrel and bi-cone weight types.


Crescent-shaped and U-shaped gold-weights are probably based on the crescent moon symbol that is commonly associated with Islam, although there is no evidence to suggest that the adoption of this form by the Akan was directly influenced by this. Crescent-shaped weights are decorated using a variety of different techniques, including notched or cogwheel edges, punched dot patterns and raised geometric designs.


Semi-circular weights are more common than crescent-forms and exhibit a range of decorative techniques which also include notched edges, linear designs, dot punching and occasionally raised symmetrical patterns.


Lozenge- or diamond-shaped gold-weights appear to be relatively rare. Most are solid and thin with raised geometric patterns arranged within bisected grounds. A lozenge shape is sometimes interpreted by the Asante as a mirror (McLeod 1981, 48).

Polyhedron/octahedron and cube

Polyhedron gold-weight forms include the octahedron and the cube. Some early examples of cube-shaped weights have all eight corners cut by triangular planes. Older examples are delicately decorated with engraved lines and dot patterns. The polyhedron form is characteristically Islamic and is known from North Africa and the Near East.


Square gold-weights of an early date are among the rarest of the Akan weight types. Some have a single circular cavity in the centre whereas others are distinguished by having top and bottom planes decorated with engraved lines, dots or punch-marks. Later examples, which are more common, can be stepped, while others are decorated with simple raised bars, either singular or in multiples placed vertically to form parallel lines. The use of incremental stepping is a characteristic feature of traditional Akan royal and religious architecture. The most obvious use of this technique can be seen in large stone circular platforms, known as sumpene, that have a number of stacked concentric steps which are burnished with a coat of red clay. These platforms are used to seat high-ranking chiefs during public appearances. Stepped features are also associated with leather-bound amulets (known as safi or sebe) that are worn on the body for protection and contain within them written Qur’anic inscriptions. Given the shared nature of their stepped design, it is possible that gold-weights may also be symbolically associated with notions of hierarchy and spiritual protection.

The presence of bars on different types of geometric gold-weights may have derived from the integral raised metal grips that were cast on top of Islamic weights in order for them to be gripped with ease. This therefore provides circumstantial evidence of a functional detail that has become elaborated and possibly reinterpreted as a decorative one in the hands of Akan gold-casters. Sometimes three or four parallel bars are joined to form a simple comb-like motif in the centre of the weight. Another motif that is commonly found in association with raised bars is the swastika symbol.

Evidence indicates that the swastika symbol derived from the north (Mali and Upper Volta) where it was used as a mark on iron implements. In Denkyira, Mrs Peggy Appiah was told that: ‘before the white man came to West Africa the northern Muslims (Kramo) took their place. In Denkyira and elsewhere they brought the weights and the first was the swastika. Its name was futuo-bo or futuro-bo. It was in every collection of weights and had fowls sacrificed over it to bring more gold-dust’ (Garrard 1980, 196). It can be surmised from this oral testimony that the swastika symbol was widely regarded as having beneficial and apotropaic properties that had to be maintained if it were to remain strong and effective. The swastika is also linked to solar symbolism elsewhere in Africa and the Asian subcontinent. Interestingly, Robert Sutherland Rattray noted in 1923 that the swastika symbol was interpreted as a ‘monkey’s foot’ by Asante informants (Rattray 1923, 308).


Rectangular-shaped weights of early date are also rare, but can be distinguished by the fine decoration of engraved lines, dots or punch-marks found on their top and bottom planes. Later rectangular-shaped weights, which date from the 1500s onwards, can be distinguished by their relatively thick bases. These weights are comparatively common and appear to have been made in large numbers. The top planes are often decorated with basic designs of bars, swastikas or combinations of the two. The swastika motif/s may be surrounded by a raised rectangular frame or provided with one or two ‘branches’ on its legs. Simple comb-like designs are also common.


Flat triangular-shaped gold-weights of simple form are thought to date to the 15th century. They are decorated using similar techniques as disc and polyhedron forms. Some are notched around the edges or have a circular hole in the centre of the weight. The flat top and bottom planes often have line and dot patterns punched into their surfaces. Triangular weights of a later date are sometimes decorated with incremental steps or have raised symmetrical line designs.

Pyramid/prism (with terminals)

Three and four-sided pyramid gold-weights with square, triangular and rectangular-shaped bases are a very common geometric form. Most are plain, some have notched sides and many are stepped. Occasionally they are decorated with impressed dots or circles around the base. The apexes of some pyramid-shaped weights are surmounted by individual or multiple spheres supported on single short cylindrical posts. This type of weight appears to have become numerous from the 16th century onwards.


Trefoil-shaped weights began to be produced during the 16th century and are a relatively rare gold-weight form. They are normally solid and plain or decorated with punched dot marks or crescent motifs on the top and bottom planes.


Quatrefoil-shaped weights probably date to the 16th century. Weights of this type tend to be plain or occasionally are decorated with dot marks which follow the contours of the top and bottom planes.

Cinquefoil (five-lobed and more)

Cinquefoil-shaped weights date to the 16th century. They are normally solid and plain or occasionally decorated with dot marks on the top and bottom planes.


Cruciform-shaped weights were produced from the 16th century onwards. They are not common and normally consist of conjoined square-based pyramids that are arranged in a cross with a square void in the centre.


Polygonal-shaped weights are invariably decorated with single or multiple bars, swastika symbols or combinations of both. Other symbols are scarce although notable exceptions include representations of European-style keys and also a symbol shaped like the letter Y, which is usually found together with two or three vertically arranged raised bars. This combination of symbolism, which occurs on a small number of examples, visually resembles written glyphs. Several scholars (Garrard 1980; McLeod 1981; Mack 2007) have suggested that the adoption of geometric designs by the Akan is somehow connected to writing. The meanings of individual glyphs and words written in Arabic script were unknown to the Akan, but the symbols themselves were regarded as a highly important source of magical power, strength, good fortune and protection. It is therefore conceivable that some of the oldest geometric designs on gold-weights were inspired by Islamic ornamental script and were regarded by the Akan as magical because they were derived from writing. Another possibility is that cut-up scraps of imported Islamic brass vessels bearing fragments of ‘glyphs’ could have been used as weights and were subsequently duplicated as part of later castings.


Gold-weights of eccentric or complex form defy conventional classification and so have been grouped together under their own heading for ease. These weights appear to be one-offs that were rarely, if ever repeated. This suggests that they may have been individually commissioned by patrons who wanted something different in their weight set. Eccentric weights characteristically take the form of solid complex geometric shapes that are undecorated.

2. Figurative gold-weights

An astonishing range of forms are represented as figurative gold-weights, including animate (those modelled on the human form, animals, fish, insects, birds etc.) and inanimate (representing plants, tools, utensils and status objects) weights, as well as a remarkable variety of small, carefully modelled human figures engaged in many different activities. Early European travel accounts and reports make no mention of figurative gold-weights, which suggests that their manufacture commenced sometime during the late 17th or early 18th centuries (Menzel 1968; Garrard 1980).

On the face of it, there is theoretically little, if any, limit to the number and nature of possible gold-weight designs. However, an examination of the British Museum’s collection of weights demonstrates that, while a very large number of creatures, objects and human situations are represented in the corpus, there are other things that are omitted. Malcolm McLeod was the first person to identify absences and in two articles published in 1978 and 1981 he discussed what was not represented and outlined a convincing argument about why this may have been the case. Firstly, he identified that cats, dogs, sheep, pigs, goats, cows, horses without riders, rats, mice, vultures and cowrie shells are entirely unrepresented. Other notable absences include the ordinary village house and the distinctive three-stone domestic hearth on which all cooking was done. The human acts of childbirth and excretion are not depicted and copulation is shown in only a handful of authentic weights. A number of European goods that were often presented as gifts to chiefs and kings, such as saddles, flags, lathes, magic lanterns and European swords, are also not found (McLeod 1981, 128). All of these items were, however, utilized both directly and metaphorically in other areas of Akan culture, proverbs, religious rites, in the preparation of medicines and folk tales (anansesem) and some of them were also portrayed in court art.

McLeod believes that these absences can be explained by the fact that some images were probably too offensive (copulation) or polluting (defecation, childbirth) to be depicted. Other omissions, however, cannot be explained using this rationale as they have no explicit associations with decency or pollution. Instead, McLeod points out that these omissions are consistent with a more or less predictable pattern that is imposed upon the social and material world by Akan-speaking peoples (McLeod 1978, 305). Rattray (1923, 1927), McLeod (1978, 1981) and McCaskie (1995) have all contended that the maintenance of boundaries between the forest and the settlement constitutes one of the defining concepts in Akan culture. Animals were also divided using the same bush/village dichotomy. The Asante, for example, classify living creatures in a number of ways, according to their physical form, their behaviour and where they live. The key categorical division in Asante life, for example, is between things of the house and village and those of the bush or forest (McLeod 1978, 311). The creatures not depicted as weights are, without exception, animals that are treated as if they were, in diminishing degrees, part of human society and enjoy a particularly close and ‘moral’ relationship with man. As such, these creatures are deliberately omitted from a system where gold-dust is used to dissolve moral categories, weaken ontological distinctions and make everything equitable in the context of trade and exchange (McLeod 1978, 314).

Human figures

Human figure gold-weights proportionately represent men more than women, with babies and children making occasional appearances, normally in association with an adult. The facial features of some figures are carefully modelled, but the majority are schematically rendered, sharing stylistic similarities with carved wood akuaaba figures. The early forms of human figure weights have tubular or hollow bodies, a large number of which are shown entirely naked with the genitalia clearly differentiated. Other weights include details of clothing and some have distinctive hairstyles that denote ethnic origin, gender and social status. From the early 18th-century, depictions of Europeans and mounted warriors from the north can be identified from their dress and attributes. A significant proportion of human figure weights are devoted to representing ritual practices including preparing offerings and sacrifices as well as oath-taking, hunting and other everyday activities. Weights also show individuals interacting with wild animals, such as antelopes, leopards or snakes, which are commonly associated with proverbs.

A small but significant number of gold-weights depict a hollow-cast human head with carefully modelled facial features and a distinctive hairstyle. These weights depict trophy heads taken from defeated enemies during the pre-colonial period. Some gold-weights of this type may represent known individuals such as Worosa, the chief of Banda, who was killed during the reign of Asantehene Osei Kwadwo (r. 1764–77). Other gold-weight heads may depict Adinkra, the chief of Gyaaman, who was killed while fighting the Asante in 1818. Other body parts such as jawbones (mmogye) and long leg bones (femurs) were also used to decorate important items of state regalia. The appropriation of body parts from dead enemies and executed criminals was part of a long-standing and widespread tradition in West Africa. During the late 18th century, for instance, Archibald Dalzel, a British merchant, noted a similar practice in Dahomey, a great slave-trading state located to the east of the Gold Coast, now part of the Republic of Benin (Dalzel 1967 [1793], 148–9).

Water creatures

Within the figurative gold-weight corpus there are many weights that depict creatures that live in or around fresh and salt water, such as crocodiles, fish, frogs, crabs and shellfish. Many of these creatures are symbolically potent due to their ability to transgress at will the boundaries that separate two mutually exclusive spheres (in this case water and land) and live successfully in both.

Land animals

Many gold-weights represent a wide range of land animals, including antelope (adowa), porcupines (kotoko) and snakes (owo), which were familiar to hunters who frequented the tropical rainforest. These animals were believed to transgress boundaries and were therefore accorded a special liminal status. Some gold-weights depict antelope and monkey heads that are totemic symbols associated with specific ntoro groups. Some animals, such as the lion (gyata), which do not live in the Gold Coast region, also appear in weight form. Lion imagery probably dates from the first half of the 19th century at a time when, as Doran Ross has shown, the European heraldic lion began to appear in Akan art (Ross and Garrard 1983, 174–5).

Beetles and insects

Gold-weights in the shape of beetles and insects are quite common and span both early and late periods. This group of weights are characterized by having one of the largest proportions of direct castings, specifically castings made directly from a real beetle or insect rather than a wax model. As a result, the range of weight types in this category accurately reflects the variety of insect life found in the Gold Coast region over a 300–400 year period, providing a valuable historical record of local bio-diversity.


Perhaps the single most common figurative gold-weight type represents an individual bird or pairs/groups of birds. If more than one bird is shown on a weight they tend to be arranged in a confronted pose (facing each other), and if two or more are depicted they are evenly distributed in symmetrical arrangements. The first examples of bird weights appear during the 17th century (Garrard 1980, 318). Most weights in bird form depict them perched on a rectangular or pyramidal base or a plain four-sided prism. The birds are simply modelled with flat coiled wings and a fan-shaped tail. Birds had great symbolic importance for the Akan because they transcended the boundary between heaven and earth. As a result, they were commonly believed to be able to mediate between mankind and the spirits and were the subjects of divination. Chickens (akoko) were emblematic of female fertility and as such were considered to be acceptable offerings to be sacrificed during ancestral and religious rites. Chicken heads and chicken legs (the latter often directly cast from life) also appear as gold-weights.

Leaves, pods and seeds

Real examples of seeds and pods were used to weigh gold-dust prior to the introduction of cast metal gold-weights. This group of weights includes aya leaves, pods, corn-cobs, ground-nuts, fruits and seeds, which are nearly all direct castings, in other words castings made directly from life rather than a wax model. As a result, the range of weight types in this category accurately reflects the flora found in the Gold Coast region over a 300–400 year period. Some of these things not only represent potential food items, but may also have been used medicinally to cure disease and illness. This two-fold significance may partially explain a small number of weights that depict a male oil-palm inflorescence(s) surmounted by a bar-bell-shaped handle, which is normally associated with swords and some musical instruments. The casting of these particular weights also required a combination of direct and lost wax casting techniques, as the male oil-palm inflorescence had a wax model of a handle applied to the top of the stalk prior to casting.


Many different types of weapons are represented as gold-weights, which reflects the practical and symbolic functions that were associated with them. Ownership of weaponry was an important symbol of manhood and indicated the wealth and social status of an individual. Gold-weights in the shape of bows and arrows are relatively rare, but large shields (ekyem) – either frames or covered examples – are numerous. Many of the covered shields accurately depict the attachment of crotal bells to exterior surfaces and, on the reverse, are sometimes decorated with elephant tails, handles and arrows. Swords (afena) provide another example of a weapon type with practical as well as spiritual functions. The use of swords on the Gold Coast was recorded during the 16th century and they have continued to play a significant role in ritual and ceremonial contexts ever since. Akan swords have a large, flat, curved blade that is broader towards the tip than the hilt, and probably derive from Islamic prototypes that were transported along the trans-Saharan trade routes.

There are several distinct types of state sword normally found in the regalia of a high-ranking chief. By far the most important of the ceremonial swords are the keteanofena (literally ‘edge of the sleeping mat swords’) which are revered and passed from an Akan chief to his successor. This group is composed of two major sub-divisions: the akrafena and the bosomfena. Akrafena, or ‘swords of the soul’, are used as their name suggests in fairly restricted, often private rituals for the purification of the chief’s soul, while swords in the bosomfena division play a more varied and public role.

The division of these swords into two groups embodies and represents two distinct spiritual elements. Those carried on the right of the chief (akrafena) represent his soul or life-force (kra) and are washed, along with other items of regalia, as part of the annual soul-cleansing ceremony (Odwira). The swords carried on the left of the chief (bosomfena) represent his ego, spirit or personality (sunsum) that he inherits from his father. The third and somewhat more common name for the swords in the bosomfena category is nsuaefena (literally ‘oath swords’), which reflects the fact that they are used by the chief to swear his oath of office during installation ceremonies and by the lesser chiefs at the annual Yam Custom, an important harvest celebration that marked the beginning of a new agricultural cycle.

A third, less common sword type, known as the sword of kingship or long sword (afenatene), has a double or triple blade and several gold-covered handles that spring from a single thin shaft. These swords stand handle-uppermost near the chief when he is sitting in state within the palace (Bowdich 1819, 312). Swords of the akrafena division of the keteanofena may sometimes be distinguished from those in the bosomfena group by virtue of the fact that their leather or ray-skin scabbards and hilts may have large cast gold ornaments (abosodee) such as animal heads, crocodiles and coiled snakes suspended from the hilt. These ornaments, like gold-weights of similar form, are associated with specific proverbs. Gold-weights in the shape of swords often include representations of abosodee which are not only emblematic of the power of the state, but may also represent the commissioning owner’s ntoro affiliation.

Records indicate that the Portuguese first traded firearms on the Gold Coast during the 15th century, but by 1650 large quantities of guns were exchanged for gold-dust and slaves by British, Danish and Dutch trading companies. Gold-weights dating from this period are modelled on simple small cannon, smooth-bore muzzle-loading flintlock muskets and pistols. In the 17th and 18th centuries the firearms trade was instrumental in territorial expansion, state building, the acquisition of slaves for export, commercial expansion and the protection of trade routes along the Gold Coast. Some gold-weights in this category accurately depict the gold banding that decorated the barrels and the imported red seashells that were mounted on the stocks of some guns. The same shells also decorated the cartridge belts (ntoa) of warriors.

Over time, the use of firearms was also incorporated into Akan ceremonies and rites. When discharged, flintlock muskets and pistols produced not only a loud bang but also a dramatic flash of fire from the muzzle. Loud explosions were believed to frighten evil spirits away and as a consequence guns and cannon became associated with spiritual as well as physical defence.

Oware boards

Gold-weights cast in the shape of distinctive game-boards, known in Twi as oware, are not numerous despite the fact that the game itself is played in different forms by men, women and children throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It is not known when this game became widespread in the Gold Coast region, but Thomas Bowdich illustrated two men playing ‘worra’ in the court of the Asante king during his stay in Kumase in 1817. The presence of cast game-boards in the gold-weight corpus can be explained by the fact that oware combines elements of chance and skill that also determine an individual’s success in trade and in life. Many oware boards and oware board gold-weights take the distinctive physical form of traditional stools.


Gold-weights in the form of backrests, traditional stools and European-style chairs are relatively common. Evidence published by Robert Sutherland Rattray in 1927 records that in Akan society children were commonly presented with their first stool (nkomma dwa) shortly after they began to crawl. Infant stools were subsequently replaced with others that marked important stages in life such as puberty, marriage and motherhood. The central pillars of stools were carved in a wide variety of different designs and incorporated abstract and figurative imagery that was connected to proverbs. As a result of the close association that existed between an individual and their personal property it was believed that their soul became increasingly attached to their stool during the course of their lifetime. After the owner had died their maternal relatives might choose to ‘blacken’ the deceased’s stool by rubbing it with soot and holding it over a fire in order to transform it into a shrine for ancestral worship (nkonnwa tuntum). The most famous stool of this type, the Sika Dwa Kofi (the ‘Golden Stool born on a Friday’), functions in a similar way as it constitutes the shrine of the collective soul (sunsum) of the Asante people. Thus, gold, plain and blackened stools convey cultural meanings through their forms, colour, functions and display contexts.

By the early 19th century at least three basic types of European-style chairs (known as asipim, ‘I stand firm’, akonkromfi, ‘praying mantis?’ and hwedom, ‘facing the field or the enemy’) were documented as being used by chiefs and other high-ranking officials during important state receptions and ceremonies (Bowdich 1819; Dupuis 1824). The asipim is the most common of the three and is low and armless with a slightly inclined backrest. Hwedom chairs are large and black in colour and akonkromfi have curved arms and intricate carved open-work backs in geometric or curvilinear compositions. All three types of chair have frames decorated with brass furniture tacks and locally cast brass finials on the uprights and appear to derive from 17th-century Spanish or Portuguese prototypes. This suggests that some gold-weights depicting these important status symbols may also date to this period (see Cole and Ross 1977, 141–2; McLeod 1981, 120).

Tobacco pipes

Gold-weights in the form of smoking-pipes (taasen) and lengths of tobacco twist (taa) are common. The practice of smoking tobacco spread from Western Sudan and Senegambia into the Gold Coast region during the early 17th century and it was also introduced independently into the Accra area by the Dutch around 1640 (Ozanne 1971, 54). Pipes for smoking tobacco were used by adults of both sexes, royal and non-royal alike. Tobacco pipes for high-status individuals were made from precious metals such as gold or silver and were displayed in public processions during major celebrations. By the 19th century Akan pipe bowls were made in a variety of complex abstract and representational designs.

Musical instruments

Gold-weights in the form of musical instruments come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. One of the most common forms is the side-blown horn (akoben). These horns are created from the tusks of elephant and were probably introduced from Western Sudan or North Africa. Elephant horns are closely associated with chiefs and give rise to a number of proverbs that are associated with their importance in war and the fact that only the victorious have the right to sound them. During public appearances the arrival of the chief is always signified by a cohort of musicians who walk in front of and behind him blowing elephant horns and beating drums. These musicians repeat phrases on their instruments which closely mimic the tonal language of Twi. The phrases proclaim the praise names of the chief and his achievements to the populace at large and it is believed that the sound can also be heard by ancestors and spirits. In this way, horns and drums are used to communicate with the living and the dead and rallied all members of the community around the chief on significant occasions. Some important drums and elephant horns had human skulls and jawbones (mmogye) attached to them. This practice was followed so that their empty oral cavities and orifices could be made to resonate with the praises of the chief. The custom of adorning instruments that were used to communicate important messages to society as a whole also emphasizes the cultural importance that was attached to listening and speaking.

Other musical instruments, such as lute harps, known as sankuo, also occasionally appear as gold-weights. Sankuo may have been introduced to the Akan region by Dyula merchants and traders from the north and are similar to the bala of the Songhay. Gongs, rattles and European-style crotal bells (small round bells with a slit in the underside) are also found in the gold-weight corpus. Crotal bells were commonly sewn on to clothing, attached to shields and worn as jewellery along with other cast metal beads and amulets. This evidence points to the possibility that these bells had an amuletic as well as a decorative function.

Fans and fly-whisks

Gold-weights in the form of high-status objects such as fly-whisks (bodua) and fans (papa) reflect the basic necessity for keeping cool and for driving away flies and other insects in the hot and humid environment of the tropical rainforest. Gold-weights in the shape of horse-tail fly-whisks depict in a stylized way the long straight whisk elements that, in reality, were white horse tails. These whisks were used by adult men of rank. Elephant-tail fly-whisks (sika mmera) however, were restricted to chiefs and prominent male citizens who had accumulated sufficient wealth. The elephant, an obvious symbol of power, was a royal beast and whoever killed one was supposed to surrender its tusks, tail and ears to the Asantehene. Traditionally the ears were used as drum skins, the tusks were made into side-blown horns and the tail was turned into a fly-whisk. Gold-weights that represent elephant-tail fly-whisks are characterized by having bent whisk elements and a flat handle. Oval- and square-shaped fans constitute another gold-weight type modelled on a high-status object used by both sexes of high rank. Fans were often constructed from woven wicker frames that were wrapped in expensive and sumptuous textiles. Attendants shaded chiefs and other members of the elite or waved the fans rhythmically back and forth in order to create a cooling breeze.


Gold-weights in the form of pairs of sandals (mpaboa) accurately depict the distinctive shape and style of real sandals, which were made from strips of tanned and dyed leather. Decorative leather work was strongly associated with Dyula and Hausa traders who lived in the northern savannah region and it is probable that sandals were one of the trade items that they introduced to the Gold Coast. Sandals often had decorative patterns incised into both sides of the soles and in some cases amuletic designs and passages from the Qur’an were added to protect the wearer from evil. Footwear of this type was restricted to the wealthy elite and chiefs in Akan society.


Gold-weights in the form of small portable money chests (adaka) are relatively common. The popularity of this weight type can be explained by the fact that real examples of small secure chests quickly became symbols of wealth and status for Akan chiefs and wealthy traders who kept gold-dust and trinkets in them. These money-chests originated in France, Germany and Flanders and were made from wood or leather strengthened around the exterior with iron bands and brass studs. Gold-weights in the shape of money-chests accurately depict the iron banding, rivets and locks that characterized this type of secure storage.

Keys and locks

Gold-weights in the shape of European-style keys (safoa), keyhole escutcheons (flat, often decorative pieces of metal that protect a keyhole or drawer handle) and padlocks probably date to the 16th century. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and, given the number that have survived into modern times, must have been a popular gold-weight form. The same motifs are also found as part of the decorative schemas of kuduo vessels and were strung as composite elements onto bracelets, necklaces, knee-bands and anklets. The presence of these motifs on a range of different objects associated with the secure storage of wealth indicates a symbolic desire for physical and spiritual protection. Jean Barbot first recorded the public display of massive bunches of European-style keys, some of which were cast in silver and gold, as a means of advertising the almost infinite wealth of individual chiefs (Barbot 1678–9). Such displays confirmed that the bearer of the keys was the custodian of status objects and secrets, and had unlimited access to discrete and restricted areas that were associated with political, social and spiritual powers. As such, they highlighted his services as a facilitator and mediator in these realms.

Implements and tools

Gold-weights cast in the form of domestic implements, tools and utensils such as axes, adzes, hoes, bellows and pots must have been favoured choices if the number of surviving examples can be taken to be representative of their popularity. These items had practical and symbolic importance as they were created by artisans and craftsmen who transformed raw natural materials such as metal ore, clay and wood into products that could be used to build structures, cook food and cultivate the land. The most important defining opposition that structured Gold Coast conceptions was predicated on the separation of culture from nature (McLeod 1981, 28; Platvoet 1985, 174–200; McCaskie 1995, 75). This distinction found physical expression in the division of space into inhabited and uninhabited areas, giving rise to other qualitative distinctions such as purity and cleanliness, which became opposed in Akan thought to dirt and pollution.

Amulets and charms

Gold-weights in the form of different amulets and charms are common and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Akan charms and fetishes can be divided into two categories: indigenous fetishes (asuman) and Islamic amulets (safi and sebe). Asuman are man-made objects which can be held in the hand and are composed of disparate ingredients such as feathers, hair, shell, claws, teeth, bark scrapings, leaves, beads, ash and other substances 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 disparate elements together and binding or wrapping them causes distinctions to collapse, conflations to occur and initiates a confrontation between opposing forces.

The second type of Islamic amulet, known as a safi or a sebe, have completely external origins. The adoption of these types of amulet by the peoples of the Gold Coast probably dates back to the 14th century and was predicated on their association with the written word, which was in and of itself considered magical. The majority of amuletic inscriptions take the form of a single phrase or verse selected from the Qur’an, which is repeatedly written on paper in geometric shapes such as squares, triangles or circles that are believed to possess spiritual balance. The paper is encased in dyed leather, tanned animal skin, cloth coverings or in a gold or silver sheet metal casing decorated with repoussé patterns. Such richly covered amulets were normally reserved for the elite. Islamic-style amulets were extremely popular and were believed to avert ‘all evils but sickness (which they can only assuage) and natural death’ (Bowdich 1819, 271). They are worn on bands around the upper arms, wrists, knees, ankles and neck and are also sewn onto hats and hunters’ shirts (batakarikese) as well as sandals. Occasionally silver or gold-covered amulets are also attached to the central pillar of state stools or onto the scabbards of important state swords. It is probable that representations of this type of amulet form the majority of the geometric gold-weight corpus.

3. Appropriated weights

A small but significant proportion of cast brass gold-weights in the British Museum collection were not originally intended to be used as weights, but were diverted from other contexts of use. Some of these weights were appropriated because their shape or design appealed to the owner, others because they happened to conform to a particular weight standard. Occasionally they are adjusted so that they conformed to a certain mass, using the same techniques that were used to adjust cast brass weights (see part II for full discussion). Timothy Garrard (1980) was the first scholar to identify the potential value of studying appropriated weights as they document in a unique way four centuries of contact between Europe and Africa. They provide evidence of Akan tastes and preferences and their ‘exotic’ forms and imagery provided Akan artisans with a new source of inspiration. For convenience, these objects are broadly divided into four categories:

Miscellaneous ornaments

Objects in this category were orginally created as ornaments or were worn as part of composite items of jewellery. Single cast brass beads and pendants, in spherical and disc form are common and many are of local manufacture. Another appropriated weight type takes the form of clock parts and individual components of watch mechanisms, most of which were probably imported during the 19th century from Europe. Other items include the detached metal tips of staffs and strips of scrap metal that have been folded over.

Clothing Accessories

Appropriated objects in this category include items such as brass badges, base metal cinches used to tighten horse harness and packs and belt/shoe buckles that derive from European-style clothing and military equipment.

Furniture hardware

This category includes objects that are associated with items of furniture such as boxes, bureaus, cabinets and desks. Small metal lock plates, escutcheons and keys that were commonly supplied with European furniture during the 18th and 19th centuries were cast in attractive geometric and figural forms. Evidence suggests that these items were regularly incorporated into gold-weight assemblages and it is possible that they enjoyed a second lease of life in this new context having become separated from the item of furntiure to which they originally belonged or rendered obselete as furniture hardware. This category also includes broken or salvaged handles of gold dust spoons and kuduo vessels, that were used to store valuables. These items were locally manufactured on the Gold Coast.


The use of firearms was widespread on the Gold Coast and the brass components of gun cartridge cases and percussion caps must have been relatively common, so it is not surprising perhaps that some of these items found their way into weight sets.

1. The origins and history of gold-weights 
2. The manufacture and use of gold-weights 
3. Gold-weights and proverbs 
4. Gold-weights at the British Museum