African Gold-weights in the British Museum

Fiona Sheales

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Gold-weights come in many different shapes and sizes yet, despite great physical variation, they are one of the most instantly recognizable artefacts from West Africa. These miniature cast brass weights were historically used to measure out gold-dust, which circulated as a medium of exchange during the pre-colonial era (before 1896) on the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire).

In this region of West Africa, gold has traditionally been valued above other types of metal and was restricted to royal use in the creation of items of state regalia (see Asante Gold Regalia). In other areas, such as the kingdom of Benin (part of modern-day Nigeria), brass objects were a royal prerogative and brass (copper tin alloy) was valued as an important item of trade. As a result of the trans-Saharan and the trans-Atlantic trade, large quantities of brass and bronze were imported to the Gold Coast, which enabled gold-weights to be produced in increasingly large numbers.

Gold-weights were high-status objects that reflected the wealth and prestige of their owners. Although they were widely distributed among many different communities, it is their manufacture and use by the Asante which is best documented and this has led to them being known to all collectors of African art as ‘Asante’ gold-weights. Besides functioning in a practical capacity, in the context of trade and exchange, gold-weights were also pivotal in the transmission of cultural norms and proverbial wisdom. The repertoire of weight types is vast and includes humans, animals, birds, fish and insects as well as symbols of status and wealth such as stools, sandals and swords. Weights were also cast in the form of imported commodities that were traded to the Gold Coast as a result of contact with other peoples.

From the mid-19th century gold-weights began to enter the collections of individual enthusiasts and public institutions in Europe and America. The British Museum currently has 3,480 gold-weights in its collection, which was assembled over a 135-year period from 1868 to 2003. This makes it one of the largest assemblages in the world, and it constitutes a precious resource for the study of the evolution of forms and symbolism and the interactions that occurred between the inhabitants of the Gold Coast, the Islamic states to the north and Europeans on the west coast of Africa.

This publication features 2,000 gold-weights, which have been selected from the British Museum’s collection in order to provide a representative overview of weight-ranges and examples of every available variation of geometric and figurative weight form. Weights have also been selected for inclusion on the basis of their casting quality, rarity and decorative treatment. Others have been chosen because they were appropriated from other contexts of use, exhibit unusual modifications such as the inclusion of additional elements, or have had their physical forms reduced or substantially altered. The decision to present this publication in an online catalogue format has been driven by the desire to make this collection available for study to audiences worldwide and to disseminate new research on this important West African art form. It is hoped that this new, fully documented online resource will not only facilitate the comparative analysis of gold-weights in public institutions and private collections worldwide, but will also generate and promote wider interest and research into African arts and cultures in general.

The catalogue is prefaced by four introductory essays. The first, entitled ‘The origins and history of gold-weights’, outlines the chronological evolution of these objects and contextualizes them within a cultural and historical framework. The second, ‘The manufacture and use of gold-weights’, examines the techniques that were, and still are employed to make them and discusses their historical context of use. The third, entitled ‘Gold-weights and proverbs’, discusses the relationship between cast brass weights, knowledge production and the transmission of cultural norms within Gold Coast communities. The final essay, ‘Gold-weights at the British Museum’, provides a chronological overview of the acquisition history of gold-weights. The following section, ‘A guide to weight types’, is split into three broad categories: geometric, figurative and appropriated gold-weights (in other words, objects that originally functioned in unrelated contexts but which subsequently came to be reused as weights). Each of these three broad categories are further subdivided into smaller sections on the basis of physical form and approximate date of manufacture. The introductory essays and catalogue entries have been researched and written by Dr Fiona Savage neé Sheales, former Curator, African Collections, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and currently the 25th Anniversary Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Sainsbury Research Unit (SRU), University of East Anglia (UEA).

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 
5. A guide to weight types