African Ceremonial Weaponry
Status, Authority, and Prestige

Special Exhibit
April 19, 2016-

Location: Gallery for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

Curator: Dorit Shafir

When and how knowledge of making iron originated in Africa is still under debate. However, it is clear, from material evidence, that by 500 BCE blacksmiths across the continent were smelting indigenous iron ore and copper in earthen furnaces. The iron, hammered and shaped into various tools, jewelry, and musical instruments, was mainly and most importantly made into metal blades of ambitious and remarkable design.

In Europe, iron and copper were considered ordinary metals, but in Africa iron was sacred, and copper was prized more highly than gold and reserved for royalty. Every aspect of the African metalworking process – particularly relating to iron – was associated with origin myths (fertility and birth). Smelting was perceived as an act of procreation whereby earth, fire, and water united to conceive an offspring – iron. Blacksmiths, who were involved in the creation of life-threatening weapons such as knives, swords, axes, and daggers, were believed to have the power to negotiate life and death, mediating between the physical and the spiritual realms.

The production of iron and copper was always an issue of ritual concern in Africa, particularly when associated with weapons. These were meant to be carried, danced with, or tossed in the air on ceremonial occasions, conferring judicial or religious authority upon their owners. In addition, African blades were considered currency and were among the most valuable of personal possessions.

Featuring several rare and unusual specimens, this display of African ceremonial weaponry comprises some of the most imaginative blade types, prized for their intricate incising, applied ornamentation, and combination of materials.

The objects are gifts from the collection of Donna L. and Robert H. Jackson, Cleveland, Ohio, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, unless indicated otherwise, and date from the late 19th to the early 20th century.

Prestige scepter
Momvu people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 19th – early 20th century
Iron, wood, brass

Prestige scepter
Ekonda people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th century
Iron, wood, copper

Prestige dagger
Songye people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, ca. 1885–87
Iron, leather, wood, copper

Ceremonial sword
Ngombe / Doko people, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 19th – early 20th century
Iron, wood

Ceremonial hat (botolo)
Ekonda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, late 19th – early 20th century
Vegetal fiber and brass
Gift from the collection of Donna L. and Robert H. Jackson, Cleveland, to American Friends of the Israel Museum