African Gold-weights in the British Museum

Fiona Sheales

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Gold-weights and proverbs


Many gold-weights, especially those representing animals, objects and people, are also associated with aphorisms or proverbs (abebusem, pl. mmebusem).

Items of royal regalia such as umbrella finials (ntuatire), the tops and shafts of staffs of office used by royal spokesmen (okyeame poma), cast gold ornaments (abosodee) attached to state swords, woven kente cloth designs and stamped adinkra motifs also take specific geometric and figural forms which can convey subtle messages to those who are knowledgeable enough to interpret them.

A carved wooden umbrella finial in the form of a hornbill standing on a snake, 20th century, Ghana

Detail of a stamped adinkra textile, 20th century, Ghana

In the past, proverbs were a source of incontrovertible ancestral wisdom and all chiefs, linguists and senior men and women were required to know many of them in order to be able to converse about difficult or distressing situations in allusive, metaphorical and oblique language. An elder with a ready command of these sayings could veil his conversation in such obscure allusions that it became unintelligible to younger people. The knowledge of and ability to use proverbs is therefore a highly admired skill and is contingent upon factors such as an individual’s age, gender, social status and level of induction into religious and political institutions.

A further level of proverbial obscurity results from the fact that knowledge of some sayings is restricted to a particular geographical region or locality or to a specific ethnic group. Asante proverbs, for instance, often differ from those of the Fante, Akyem and Baule. Each generation also creates new proverbs which arise as a result of changes and developments in society. New sayings can become attached to old weight forms or they may inspire new ones. In this way, the proverbial and symbolic repertoire of the Akan-speaking communities evolves over time.

Proverbs work by summing up or formulating situations in a few words. In order to do this effectively they draw upon a commonly accepted set of evaluations and classifications of creatures, things and people. In this way, the same weight can often have one or more proverbs linked to it, some of which may be totally different or even opposed to each other, but none are considered to be definitive. Proverb selection is therefore context dependent and person specific and the interpretation of a proverb is subjective, based on individual levels of prior knowledge and understanding. In effect, there is no single, fixed meaning to many gold-weights; instead they provide sites of departure for a multitude of visual, metaphorical and proverbial knowledge which is allusive, euphemistic and obscure in essence.

Proverbs appear to have been used in many situations, but particularly in legal cases, disputes, policy discussions at courts or within senior village and family groups. Figurative gold-weight forms can represent a wide variety of inferior, superior and equal relationships between humans, humans and beasts or between these creatures and inanimate objects. Some gold-weights, however, depict protagonists in popular folktales. A good example of this is the weight representing two male figures shaking hands, which alludes to the meeting of two famous old men known as Amoako and Adu. The legendary friends meet again after many years of separation; in the intervening years both have experienced different fortunes. In some versions of this tale both men have become very poor whereas other versions state that one man is poor but the other has become rich. This may explain why some weights show one of the men carrying a bunch of keys, a symbol of wealth and status.


A gold-weight depicting two men; Amoako and Adu shaking hands. Note the use of two different coloured metals to differentiate the protagonists of this popular Akan story, 19th–20th century

The gold-weight in the form of a bird looking backwards (sankofa) reminds the observer to ‘pick it up if it falls behind you’, in other words to learn from past experiences and not to be afraid to try to redeem mistakes already committed.

Figurative gold-weight cast in the form of a sankofa bird, 19th century

Other gold-weights are cast in the form of status objects that were used and worn by high-ranking chiefs and their attendants. The meanings associated with these weights were connected to authority, power and the maintenance of social order.

A gold-weight cast in the form of a high-status ceremonial sword, 18th–20th century

A gold-weight cast in the form of a pair of chief’s sandals, 18th–20th century

A gold-weight cast in the form of a high-status stool, 18th–20th century

A case in point is the well-known gold-weight representing a man smoking a pipe while carrying a barrel of gunpowder on his head. The saying most commonly quoted in relation to this weight states, ‘Fire and gunpowder don’t sleep together’, in other words it warns against combining certain activities. Not all gold-weight symbolism is proverbial, however, as some images are used to call up a verbal form by punning on their name. Thus an abstract symmetrical chevron pattern represents the physical form of a fern leaf called aya.

Figurative gold-weight in the form of a stylized aya leaf

By slightly altering the tones when saying this word, the Asante who delight in such word play produce the word ya, which means abuse. To them, this pattern symbolically warns those having business with someone of authority to speak politely. Other weight forms highlight the need to recognize and respect hierarchy. The weight that represents a crocodile eating a mudfish (known as kumawu) alludes to the proverb ‘If a mudfish grows fat it is to the crocodile’s advantage’.

This raises the interesting question of whether some of these moral and social connotations also played a role in transactional contexts. Could it be that gold-weights were also used as mnemonic devices to remind buyers and sellers of the need to keep transactions fair and balanced? Were proverbs associated with specific weights recited when gold-dust was being weighed in exchange for goods, or were they used as a form of symbolic reassurance of a participant’s good intentions to act honourably? This possibility was also raised by Cole and Ross (1977) who noted that ‘all buying and selling activities in Ghana and more widely in West Africa, involve numerous greetings, social banter, haggling and sometimes a playful, indirect sort of discourse in which gold-weights and their associated proverbs may in the past have had a place’ (Cole and Ross 1977, 80).

1. The origins and history of gold-weights 
2. The manufacture and use of gold-weights 
4. Gold-weights at the British Museum 
5. A guide to weight types