Adornment in the Medieval Africa


by Caryn E. Neumann
Adornment is a personal statement to others. By dressing the body in jewelry or perfumes or modifying the body with  piercing, scarification, tattoos, or hairstyles, an individual communicates important information. Social status, familial position, financial standing, and group identity are just some of the personal information that medieval Africans communicated through adornment. Much of this information  became lost when it was translated though European eyes. Medieval travelers and adventurers lacked the social awareness to understand African adornment as more than just body decoration.

In medieval African adornment an object or design did not stand alone. It was meant to be viewed in the context of clothing, hats, hairstyles, and other adornments. Africans specialized in assembling elements of power and display. Creating a totally adorned body, magnified by layers of beads and fabrics and visually enriched by the juxtaposition of ornate geometric motifs sometimes combined with similar patterns in torso scarification and elaborate hairstyles, expressed wealth and status among medieval Africans. Display elements, reflecting a family’s wealth, included beads and cowrie shells as well as belts, fibers, and reflective surfaces. Power elements, often acquired over long periods, included horns, claws, skulls, and hair and created surfaces charged with special powers.

Evidence indicates that beads made from metal, stone such as jasper or carnelian, or glass were traded across the Indian Ocean to Southern Africa starting before 1000 c.e. The beads were then exchanged throughout Africa, adding to their value as items of wealth and status. However, beads were known to Africans who did not engage in transoceanic trade. The earliest examples of African medieval adornment are tin and stone beads from the Nok culture of central Nigeria around 300 c.e. Excavations at Igbo Ukwu in eastern Nigeria, dated to about the ninth or 10th century, have found not only crowns, breastplates, pendants, ornaments, anklets, wristlet, and chains but also tens of thousands of beads once worked into elaborate necklaces. These glass beads were not manufactured locally but obviously were acquired through trade, perhaps for slaves, ivory, or spices.

Several stone figures discovered in the sacred city of Ife, Nigeria, depict human figures that date from 800 to 1000 c.e. The best known of these objects shows a bare-chested Yoruba man sporting a heavy collar of beads and bracelets that suggest he held high rank. Other figures, presumably sculptures of rulers, show dignitaries wearing coronation insignia. These items include large collars of beads, tumbling strands of bead necklaces, an abundance of bead bracelets and anklets, and toe rings. In some cultures, such as the Yoruba, the accumulation and distribution of beads was the prerogative of the ruler. In kingdoms such as the Owo, histories of chiefs begin with recounting how many strands of beads were given by the king to a man granted a title. Beads on the ankles and arms and around the neck, along with sashes of jasper or coral beads, allude to the rank of chief in the social hierarchy.

Ivory hip ornament from Benin, Nigeria, mid-16th century. Ivory and iron, 9 3/8" high. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - ivory would be worn only by the oba (ruler)

For centuries beadwork formed the primary type of personal adornment and the apex of artistic expression in Africa. Beads were given high aesthetic value because they were thought to unite four qualities: hardness, brilliance, geometric patterns, and color. Glass beads were most popular in the southern Africa, while the people of Central and East Africa preferred ivory beads. Beaded objects indicated information about the wearer in societies like the Kete people. Colored glass beads were combined with cowrie shells to cover sashes and belts, creating a dazzling visual display. A West African woman acquired beaded-fringe panel necklaces, beaded collars, long multicolored strands of beads, and beaded leather pouches throughout her lifetime. Thus the items functioned as insignia of her social status and her connection to her family and ancestors. They also communicated information about her personality and marital status. Richly beaded capes in abstract patterns characteristic of Africa were worn by the married women of the Ngwane of South Africa.

Cowries also were used as adornment. These white shells of the Cypraea moneta came to Africa from the coasts of Bengal and the Maldives, islands in the Indian Ocean. They were used as both currency and decoration. No other material equaled the popularity of cowries in West Africa. The value of the shells was derived from their shape, which suggests the female sexual organ and, by extension, the aesthetic and social value of the woman herself. The structure and color of cowrie shells also suggest the human skeleton, thereby equating the shell with the most beautiful of earth’s creations. The shape of cowries makes them ideal for ornamental artifacts and for very intricate geometric patterns. They were attached with wax to hard supports such as wood or metal as well as sewn onto leather or fabrics. The shells were also threaded to make jewelry and used in headdresses, rings, belts, and necklaces as well as to form sparkling overlays for masks.

Glass, colorless with yellow tinge; blown, enameled and gilded Perfume Sprinkler, Egypt or Syria 14th century , The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medieval Africans believed that ivory objects of adornment imparted the powerful life force of the elephant. Ivory’s light color, luminous warm patina, and surface irregularities or patterns (natural or induced and heightened by soil, wear, or color) made it enormously popular in central Africa. Items made of ivory acted as vivid punctuation points against dark skin tones or abundant dark hair.

Like ivory, metal objects of bronze, copper, iron, gold, or silver symbolized prosperity. The luster of the metal added a glow to an assemblage. The weight of metal adornments altered the gestures of the wearer while augmenting the body’s contours. Metal adornments created a geometry that could be echoed by the patterns incised in the wearer’s skin. Although metal was used all over the African continent, copper appears to have been more highly valued than any other precious metal among the Dogon and Bambara of West Africa because of its ability to change color. Humidity in the air turns copper from red to green, while heating it to red hot in the presence of oxygen turns the metal black.

Political status was indicated in the medieval era by a profusion of gold and copper ornaments and regalia. Akan chiefs, queen mothers, and their attendants also wore much metal jewelry. Gold pectoral disks, known as akrafokonmu (“soul people’s neckwear” or “soul washer’s badges”) were created from cast, repoussé (patterning formed in relief) , or gold-leafover- wood techniques. The disks were worn by favorite slaves and commoners who had distinguished themselves. The wearers would be sacrificed at the king’s grave on his death.

Adornment that extended the shape of the head, in the form of hairstyles or head shaping, pervaded medieval African society. The Nok wore elaborate hairstyles with intricate buns, tresses, and locks along with a seeming excess of beads around their necks, torsos, and waists. The body adornment appears to have indicated rank. Head shaping took place throughout Africa as a part of spiritual beliefs or to enhance the beauty of an individual. Some groups saw people with elongated heads as possessing more wisdom than those with naturally shaped heads. The process of head shaping in the medieval era has been lost. However, it is likely that it has some similarities with modern head shaping. A newborn’s skull is malleable enough to be molded. A soft wrapping, perhaps made from tree bark, was placed around an infant’s head within a few weeks after birth. A tighter wrapping of a rope or a basket was placed over this wrapping. This process was continued for about six months until the shape of the skull was permanently altered.

Medieval Africans also changed the color of their bodies. The Akan, a West African forest people, viewed gold and copper as possessing both aesthetic and spiritual value. An Akan copper cosmetic box has been found that once contained pomade made of shea butter mixed with gold dust that was rubbed on the skin. Medieval African cosmetology did not permit a gradual change from one color to another. Accordingly, cosmetic adornments showed sharp contrasts between the black color of the body, red, and white. Other colors were apparently rarely used. Black showed the energy of life, while white represented birth, and red indicated the time between birth and death. Body designs, in common with bead designs, were typically geometric.


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