Key project information
January 2022 – January 2025
The British Academy
What connections existed between Western Europe and West Africa during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period?
This project, The age of copper, ivory and gold: England and West Africa in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, will examine the status and significance of rare West African materials in medieval England. It will also follow the movement of English objects to West Africa in the Early Modern period – in particular, three copper-alloy jugs produced in England in the 1300s and taken to West Africa around the late 15th or 16th century.
The post-medieval life-cycles of these jugs will form a central part of the project. At the end of the 19th century the jugs were forcibly removed by British forces from Kumasi (in present-day Ghana) during the Anglo-Ashanti wars. Two of the jugs were subsequently acquired by the British Museum while the other became part of the collection of the York Army Museum and is now on loan to Leeds City Museum.
About the project
This project is arranged in three interwoven sections.
Part one addresses the complex networks through which materials such as gold and ivory arrived in England during the Middle Ages. At this time, there were no direct links between England and Africa and these materials would have travelled through trans-Saharan trade networks. By focusing on objects held at the British Museum and other institutions – including gold coins, ivory carvings, maps, navigational charts, and scientific instruments – the project will explore the extent to which there was an awareness in England of the geographic origins of West African materials.
Part two will examine the movement of English objects to West Africa by focusing on three medieval jugs. By the late 15th century, European maritime networks had expanded considerably and direct trade with West Africa had been established. The project will explore how the jugs may have travelled to West Africa and how they were used and valued when they were there.
Part three will investigate the colonial context for the forced removal of the jugs from Ghana in the late 19th century by British military forces, and the subsequent acquisition of two of them by the British Museum.
This project is more widely situated within Museum collaborations focusing on West Africa and associated collections.
This project aims to uncover:
- The complex ways through which materials, such as gold and ivory, arrived in England from West Africa and their status and significance.
- European perceptions of Africa in the later Middle Ages and early Modern period.
- The lifecycle and changing value of the Kumasi jugs in the context of similar items imported to West Africa. This will span the creation of the jugs in the 14th century, their trade and reuse up to the 19th century, and finally their present day survival and presentation.
- The colonial context for the forced removal of the medieval jugs from Kumasi by British Forces.
The project aims to deliver a small focused display. It will also produce an accompanying scholarly book and journal article exploring the history of the jugs, as well as their acquisition and display history.