N. W. Thomas botanical collections

NorthcoteThomas Flora of Southern Nigeria Herbarium Specimens
Examples of laid herbarium specimens collected during N. W. Thomas’ anthropological surveys at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (RBG K000412375; K000489471; K000234313) (Click image to enlarge.)

Although the collecting of botanical specimens fell outside the remit of his anthropological surveys, Northcote Thomas devoted increasing energy to this pursuit during his tours in West Africa. Collections made during his final tour, in Sierra Leone, between 1914 and 1915, still constitute one of the most comprehensive reference collections of Sierra Leonean plant species in the world.

Like many aspects of his work as ‘Government Anthropologist’, collecting information about plants was not something Thomas was instructed to do by the colonial authorities, but was rather something he undertook on his own initiative. While his published reports make little mention of botany, Thomas was clearly very interested particularly in the medicinal uses of plants among the people he worked with.

Lists of medicinal plants used at Otua and Sabongida, North Edo. Excerpts from the object catalogue from Thomas’ 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria. (MAA Doc.413) (Click image to enlarge.)

As far as we know, he did not collect actual samples of plants during his 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking people of Nigeria. He did, however, make detailed notes on indigenous names of plants and their uses. Unfortunately, due to changes in pronunciation and the idiosyncrasies of Thomas’ phonetic transcriptions, it is not easy to identify species based on the vernacular names of plants written in Thomas’ notes. We were, however, able to identify ova, in Thomas’ list of medicinal plants in Otuo, North Edo, which is recorded as being used as a ‘strengthening medicine’ for babies. ‘The child’, Thomas explains, ‘is washed with it and drinks it for three months. Then the leaf is put in the girdle’. According to a 2017 article by Prof Idu MacDonald and colleagues at the University of Benin concerning ‘indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe’, ova is identified as Alchornea cordifolia, which is widely used in traditional medicine throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Thomas began collecting samples of plant specimens during his next tour, in 1910-11, in what was then the Awka District of Southern Nigeria – corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. Having assembled an initial collection of about 350 specimens from Awka and Agulu, Thomas sent these to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so that their scientific names could be determined. It appears that he intended to include these lists of vernacular name, scientific name and local uses in his reports on the Igbo-speaking peoples of Nigeria.

Northcote Thomas Olodi Gloriosa Superba
Left: Given his interest in West African botany, Thomas photographed very few plants in situ. He photographed this example of Gloriosa superba (English: flame lily; Igbo: olodi) against his photographic backdrop in vicinity of Agukwu Nri in 1911. (NWT 2826a; RAI 400.16241) Right: A more recent colour photograph of Gloriosa superba (http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org).

In a letter of 11th May 1911 to David Prain (1857-1944), Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Thomas apologises for the poor quality of the specimens. ‘I fear most of them are in very bad condition’, he writes, ‘as I have been having four tornadoes a week for some time and mist round my tent till 10am every day, so that nothing can be kept dry.’ He also explains that he lacks the technical knowledge and equipment to preserve seeds in such conditions, and seeks advice and materials so that specimens can be kept in better order in the future.

Over the following months, Thomas sends further batches of specimens to Kew for identification. In one letter he notes that ‘the collections are largely made by my junior interpreter’. Alas, we do not know the name of this interpreter and, typical of colonial era scientific practice, the specimens are all recorded under Thomas’ name. Thomas did seek to have this interpreter employed to continue the work of collecting during the following dry season at a cost of £20, including carriers. Neither the colonial government of Southern Nigeria nor Kew was disposed to fund this. In a letter from Arthur W. Hill (1875-1941), Assistant Director at the Royal Botanic Gardens, an offer was, however, made to purchase specimens collected under Thomas’ supervision at ‘the usual rate of £2 per 100 specimens’ – so long as they were in good condition and properly labelled.

Left: Excerpt from ‘List of plants (in part) collected by Mr N. W. Thomas. Recd.1911-1912’ prepared by John Hutchinson, assistant Tropical Africa section, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (RBG PDL Folio 205) Right: Excerpts from corresponding pages of plant catalogue, including vernacular (Igbo) names of specimens and their uses. (MAA Doc.416) (Click image to enlarge.)

At Kew, the actual work of identifying the scientific names of the plant specimens sent by Thomas was most likely undertaken by John Hutchinson (1884-1972), who was then assistant in the Tropical Africa section. In an internal memo attached to his determination list, Hutchinson notes that many of the specimens could not be identified due to the absence of flowers or fruits, which, in addition to leaves, are frequently necessary to determine species.

Prain conveyed Kew’s enthusiasm that Thomas should continue to send specimens during his subsequent tours and provided further guidance on botanical collecting practice. Templates were prepared for labels to encourage Thomas and his assistants to improve the quality of their documentation at the time of collection. These were adapted from a design included in a 1908 edition of Kew’s Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, dedicated to ‘The Useful Plants of Nigeria’.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Southern Nigeria Herbarium Specimen Labels
Left: Page from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Additional Series IX, The Useful Plants of Nigeria, 1908, providing guidance on botanical collecting and labelling. Centre: Correspondence between Kew and the Crown Agents for the Colonies regarding labels for Thomas’ botanical collections. Right: Examples of labels used by Thomas during his 1912-13 tour of Asaba District, Southern Nigeria. (Click image to enlarge)

Equipped with better knowledge about botanical collecting practices and materials, the specimens and associated information assembled during Thomas’ 1912-13 tour focusing on Igbo-speaking communities in the Asaba District (the north-east area of present-day Delta State) and 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone were of much better quality. Thomas continued to send batches to Kew, where they were identified, mounted on cards and accessioned into its Herbarium – a vast reference collection of the world’s plant species.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Southern Nigeria 2343 Dioscorea
Left: Specimen of Dioscorea smilacifolia (Igbo: ikwolo ji oku) collected by Thomas or one of his assistants in Ezi, in present-day Delta State, Nigeria, on 10 February 1913 (RBG K001146076); Right Excerpt of corresponding page from Thomas’ list of specimens collected on his 1912-13 tour, including vernacular (Igbo) name and uses of specimens. Thomas notes that the root of Dioscorea smilacifolia is yam-like and is eaten at times of famine. (Click image to enlarge)

Despite gathering knowledge about West African plants and their uses on a more systematic basis, Thomas’ ambition to publish his findings on indigenous botanical knowledge seems not to have come to fruition. In April 1915, however, as Thomas’ anthropological survey of Sierra Leone drew to a close, the authorities at Kew suggested to Thomas that they collaborate on a definitive handbook on the Flora of Sierra Leone. Envisaged was a book that would appeal to a broader public rather than only botanical experts, and to include many illustrations by John Hutchinson that would make the volume ‘attractive and valuable’. A copy of Fawcett and Rendle’s Flora of Jamaica (1910) was sent to Thomas to give him an idea of what was proposed.

The letter, probably from David Prain, provides an indication of the significance of the collections assembled by Thomas and his assistants in Sierra Leone: ‘Thanks to your zeal and perseverance … I do not think there is anywhere so complete a collection representing the flora of Sierra Leone as there is now at Kew’. The letter continues: ‘We have had few collectors in Africa who have been so successful as you have been of late in Sierra Leone and I should be very sorry indeed if the opportunity of getting anything really good out of your efforts should be missed’.

While the possibility of the Flora of Sierra Leone was being deliberated, another Kew botanist – Keeper of the Herbarium, Dr Otto Stapf (1857-1933) – drafted a more modest contribution, which was incorporated into Thomas’ Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916) as a ‘Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone’. The Report also includes a glossary of 46 Temne plant names, with scientific determinations – this was a very modest list, given that Thomas documented some 10,654 specimens in his botanical field books from Sierra Leone.

Otto Stapf Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone
Left: ‘Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone’ by Otto Stapf published in N. W. Thomas Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916). Right: Otto Stapf in 1924. (Click image to link to the article)

After the First World War, plans for the proposed Flora of Sierra Leone were superseded by a geographically more expansive initiative that was to become the Flora of West Tropical Africa, the first part of which was originally published in 1927 under the editorship of John Hutchinson and John McEwan Dalziel (1872-1948). Correspondence with Thomas from the 1920s survives in the Kew archives, showing that he was consulted from time to time on the Sierra Leonean material while the manuscript was being prepared. The Flora of West Tropical Africa has been revised periodically and remains a major reference work.

After his few intense years employed as Government Anthropologist, Thomas fell into professional obscurity. In the late 1920s he moved to a cottage in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. One of the last letters we have found, written by Thomas in August 1928 from his West Malvern address, is to Arthur Hill, who had taken over as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He thanks Hill for sending him a copy of the newly published Flora of West Tropical Africa, but, in a manner typical of Thomas, then goes on to list typographical errors and misprints relating to his own contributions, including the misprinting of his own initials.

Despite the professional disappointments of his later life, Thomas continued to be interested in the medicinal properties of West African plants. In the early 1980s, the Canadian anthropologist Richard Slobodin (1915-2005) began research for a biography on Thomas. (He has previously written a biography of Thomas’ contemporary W. H. R. Rivers.) It is a project Slobodin did not complete, but one of the snippets of information he obtained from Thomas’ surviving daughter, Flora (1910-91), was that her father grew such medicinal plants in his garden.

Reconstructing Thomas’ Sierra Leone itineraries

As well as their value to botanical and pharmaceutical science, the plant collections assembled during Thomas’ anthropological surveys provide an important resource for assessing environmental change in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. This is a project we hope to pursue with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and colleagues in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the future. In the meanwhile, it is through the high quality of the documentation of these botanical specimens that we have been able to reconstruct Thomas’ itineraries, particularly during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Sierra Leone specimen labels
Examples of botanical specimen labels used during Thomas’ 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone. They provide details of the specimen number and vernacular name, but also place and date collected, allowing us to reconstruct Thomas’ journeys in Sierra Leone. Note the use of a rubber stamp with Thomas’ signature. (Click image to enlarge)
Northcote Thomas Sierra Leone itinerary 1914-15
In his botanical field books, Thomas listed the specimen number ranges collected in particular places, along with the dates they were collected. (Click image to enlarge)

Through the information on the specimen cards and field books, we have been able to correlate dates and locations, and thereby follow his journey. Furthermore, in preparation for the abandoned Flora of Sierra Leone project, Thomas was asked to provide a sketch-map identifying each of the locations from which the specimens were obtained. This allows us to be certain of locations in cases where the spelling of place names has changed or where there are multiple places with the same name.

Northcote Thomas Sierra Leone herbarium specimen map 1914-15
Thomas’ sketch map showing the locations in Sierra Leone at which herbarium specimens were collected, 1914-15. (RBG) (Click image to enlarge)

This was especially useful in the case of Thomas’ Sierra Leone tour, since his work was largely focused in northern and central Sierra Leone. We learn from the botanical specimens, however, that he spent the last three months of the tour travelling in Mende– and Sherbro-speaking areas of the south. It is likely that he travelled by rail to the southern towns of Bo and Kenema, and then proceeded by foot/hammock to Pujehun, Tomabum, Talia, Gbangbama, Victoria, Kanga, then back to the railway town of Mano, before ending his tour in Freetown at the beginning of April 1915. There are few photographs from this part of his journey, possibly because restrictions caused by the First World War meant that he was unable to obtain new glass plate negatives.

Collecting the world?

Preliminary work for a study of the archives and collections from Thomas’ anthropological surveys was undertaken by Roger Blench and Mark Alexander in the 1980s. While, like Slobodin’s biography, this initiative was not completed, Blench and Alexander began to document the whereabouts of the various collections, and this has been invaluable starting point for the work we have been pursuing in the [Re:]Entanglements project.

In an article published in The Nigerian Field entitled ‘The Work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’ (1995), Blench reports that many of the specimens collected by Thomas (or, as we now know, his assistants) were no longer traceable at Kew. Blench states that many of the Thomas specimens were duplicates already in the collection and that they were exchanged with other herbaria around the world. ‘Apparently’, he writes, ‘no record was kept of the destinations of these specimens nor was a record kept of the information recorded on the cards. As a result, much of the data was effectively lost, and many of Thomas’s vernacular names can no longer be tied to specimens’.

Perhaps as a result of Blench’s inquiries, Kew botanist Humphrey Burkhill conducted a thorough survey of the Thomas specimens at Kew as compared with those listed in Thomas’ field books. In an internal memorandum he reported that only 55% of the Nigerian collections and 36% of the Sierra Leonean collections could be located. In response, Nigel Hepper, another specialist in African plants at Kew, argued somewhat defensively that the problem lay in Thomas’ lack of knowledge of botanical practice of collecting duplicates under the same number, so that the total of 11,415 specimens from Thomas’s surveys represented far fewer different species and included a great many duplicates. Hepper explained that it was indeed standard practice of herbaria to exchange duplicates, and that ‘if some with different vernaculars were distributed then that was the cost of dealing with such large numbers’.

It appears then that the sheer scale of the collections, resulting from Thomas’ remarkable ‘zeal and perseverance’, undermined their usefulness. The same can be said of other aspects of Thomas’ work and this partly accounts for why, despite the quantity of materials produced, Thomas’ anthropological surveys produced little knowledge that could be practically applied in colonial governance. Remarkable though they were, Thomas’ endeavours speak of the hubris of colonial science and its project of collecting and documenting the world; a project that was destined to fail.

Further reading

  • Blench, R. (1995) ‘The work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’, The Nigerian Field 60: 20-28.
  • Fawcett, W. and Rendle, A. B. (1910) Flora of Jamaica. London: British Museum.
  • Hutchinson, J. and Dalziel, J. M. (1927-36) Flora of West Tropical Africa, 2 vols. London: Crown Agents for the Colonies.
  • MacDonald, I., Ovuakporie-Uvo, O. and Ima-Osagie, O. S. (2017) ‘Indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe of Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria’, Journal of Medicinal Plants for Economic Development 1(1): 1-10.
  • Slobodin, R. (1997) W. H. R. Rivers: Pioneer Anthropologist, Psychiatrist of The Ghost Road, 2nd edition. Stroud: Sutton.

Many thanks to Kiri Ross-Jones, Archivist and Records Manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for her assistance while researching this article.

A Conversation

The phonograph sound recordings made during Northcote Thomasanthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are like time capsules. Between 1909 and 1915, Thomas and his local assistants made well over 700 recordings of songs, stories and ‘specimens of language‘. Many of these have been unheard for over a century.

Thanks to digitization of the original wax cylinders by the British Library, these recordings are now accessible once again. As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been working with communities and local language/dialect speakers to transcribe and translate as many of the recordings as possible. It is not easy work, partly due to changes in the languages over 100 years and partly due to the poor quality of the wax cylinder recordings.

When we are able to obtain a good transcription and translation, the results are often quite startling. They provide remarkable insights into a moment in time: a moment of colonial intrusion, of which the anthropological survey was, of course, a part.

Recording No.465 was made during N. W. Thomas’s 1910-11 tour of what the colonial authorities had designated Awka District, in the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. The recording appears to have been made in the town of Umuchukwu, also known as Ndikelionwu, in 1911. It is a recording of a conversation between two young men, John, described as ‘an Onitsha boy’, and Nwile, ‘a Nibo boy’. Judging from the conversation, it seems that they have both accompanied the anthropologist on his visit to Umuchukwu, although Nwile seems to know the local chief and acts as an intermediary.

Conversation in Igbo between John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, recorded by Northcote Thomas in Umuchukwu in 1911. (NWT 465; BL C51/2723)

We worked with Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba to obtain a transcription and English translation from the Igbo. With the translation in hand, we also discovered that Thomas had actually already published a transcription and translation of the recording in the third part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, which is devoted to ‘Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar’. Usually Thomas noted the record number alongside published transcriptions/translations, but on this occasion he neglected to do so. It was, however, easy to recognize the text once we received the translation. It is interesting to compare the original phonetic rendering and translation with the new one. (We discuss the orthographic conventions that Thomas employed in a previous blog post.)

Excerpt of the transcription and translation of John and Nwile’s conversation, publishing in Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The transcription and translation provided by Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba:

D’anyị, I noo mma?
Ano m nnoo!
Kedu ka ịmee?
A nọ m nnoo ọfụma
I budi onye ebe?
Abụ m onye Nibo
Oo!
Brother, are you well?
I am just there
How are you?
I am just fine.
Where are you from?
I am from Nibo  
Oh!
Mu na gi na aluko olu na ofu ebe.
Ọ maka no-ofu.
Anyị nwa wee bia n’obodo ndị a.
Anyị bialu ụmụchukwu tata.
We work together in the same place
It is a good thing
We came to this people’s town
We came to Umuchukwu today.
Umuchukwu ndị a bụ ndị ebe?
Fa bụ ndị ikeri-ọnwụ
Ndị Ikeri-ọnwụ?
Eh!  
This Umuchukwu is in which part?
It is in Ikeri-onwu.
Ikeri-onwu?
Yes!
Kedukwa onye anyị no be ya?
Anyi no be Chief a na-akpọ Kanu.
O!
Ya na ndị be ya niile.
Esego nwunye ya na foto?
Esego nwunye ya tata 
Ya na onye du?
Ya na nke onye Ọnicha
Ezi e?
Eh!
Who are we even in his house?
We are in Chief Kanu’s house
Oh!
With his whole family  
Have they taken photograph of his wife?
The wife was photographed today
With who?
She and the person from Onitsha
Truthfully?
Yes.
Mụnwa bụ John ka eselu mu na ya na foto tata.
Ọ ya ka m fukwalu.
Okwu as!
Mba, afulu m ya, hahaha!
D’anyị amuna amu n’ofu!
I na-asika asi nwoke m.  
Nwoke m, ọ bụghị asi, afulu m n’anya.
Ọ di mma ebe Ị fulu n’anya na okwu adiro ya. Ka anyị norisizia nu.
Ma gị gwakwa ndị a na abiama bialu be fa.
Nnukwu ife bialu tata.
It is I John, that was photographed with her today.
That is what I have seen.
It is a lie!
No, I saw it, haha!
Brother don’t laugh like that
You are always lying, my man  
My man, it is not a lie, I saw it.
It is ok since you saw it, there is no disputing it. Let us relax.
But tell them that they have a visitor.
A big thing came today
Ị gwago fa na ọ bụ ndị-oyibo
Agwalu m fa, si fa na ndị-oyibo bịalụ
Ka fa kwadobe ndi be fa niile.
Abụ m onye Ọnicha
Nnọọ!
Gị nwa onye Nibo.
Unu apụtachago ụla?
Ọ dị mma.
Nnọọ o!
Kedu ka unu melu?
Anyị nocha mma mma.
Have you told them it is the white people?
I told them that the white people are here, let them prepare their people.
I am from Onitsha.
Welcome!
You, from Nibo.
It is well.
Welcome!
How are you people doing?
We are all fine.
Kene ndị a daalụ o!
Chief achoo Ị kene gị, gị daalụ o!
Si fa na onye-ocha si fa daalu o!
Onye-ọcha kenelu gị mma mma o!
Greet this people!
Chief, he wants to greet you, greetings to you!
Tell them that the white person greets them.
The white person greets you well.  
Si fa n’anyi bialu k’anyi fu fa anya o!
Anyi bịalụ nkata bunu
K’anyi wee nolisia o!
K’anyi nọlisịa olịlị k’anyị naa o!
Hahahaha!
Ọmelụ agaa du?
Mma mma ka ọ dị.
Ọ dị mma o, Nkata nkata ka ọ bụ.
Ka ọ dị n’ofu.
Nnọọ o!
Ike agwubago m, ka m naa.
Eh?
Eh!
dị mma, kachifo! Ka ọ dbaza!
K’anyị nolikwa, ikekwe anyị ga-afu ọzọ.
Nodu nma o!
Nnọọ o!
Ka ọ diba!
dị mma, na-eme ofuma.  
Tell them we came to see them.
We came to have a chat in your house.
Let us stay well!
When we are done enjoying our visit, let us go!
Haha!
How are things?
Everything is fine.  
It is well, they are all conversations.
Let it be like that.
Welcome!
I am getting tired, let me go.
Ok?
Ok.
It is well, goodnight, later!
Let’s be seeing, we will probably see again.
Stay well!
Later!
It is well, be good.

The conversation would, of course, have been staged for the phonograph recorder, perhaps to document the differences in Onitsha and Nibo dialects. But, while the primary purpose of the recording was linguistic, through their exchange, John and Nwile also tell us a great deal about the broader encounter between the anthropologist, the Umuchukwu elite and their own joking relationship. The latter is most evident when listening to the men laughing together.

From this audio recording, we can build up a picture of the visit of the oyibo – the whiteman – to Chief Kanu’s compound in Umuchukwu. This entails multiple linguistic mediations between N. W. Thomas and John, John and Nwile, and Nwile and Chief Kanu. We gain insight into the formal greetings exchanged and the communication that the anthropologist has come to see the chief and to talk. We learn that the chief’s wife has been photographed that day, apparently alongside John himself! (The word ‘foto‘ has clearly entered the Igbo vocabulary by this time.)

Chief of Umuchukwu, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911. In this and subsequent photographs of the same man, the caption ‘Chief Jacob Mb[onu]’ is crossed out. If not Mbonu, could this be Chief Kanu, who is mentioned in the conversation? (NWT 2507; RAI 400.15387)

Unfortunately, the annotations accompanying the photographs that Thomas made in Umuchukwu are vague and confusing, with crossings out and omissions. The ‘Chief of Umuchukwu’ is, however, identified (though the name ‘Chief Jacob Mbonu’ is crossed out) – is this Chief Kanu? The next photograph in the sequence is of a woman with mbubu scarification marks running down her chest and stomach. Is this one of chief’s wives? (There is no sign of John besides her!) And then there is another photograph of two men dressed in European clothing. They are dressed in a similar manner to Thomas’ assistants and translators elsewhere. Might they just be John and Nwile?

The entries in Thomas’s photographic register contain no information about these two photographs taken before and after those of the Chief of Umuchukwu. The unnamed woman in the photograph on the left may be one of the Chief’s wives. Note the mbubu scarification on her chest and stomach (NWT 2508; RAI 400.15388). The men in the photograph on the right are dressed similarly to other assistants and translators that accompanied Thomas on his travels. Might they be John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, whose conversation Thomas recorded in Umuchukwu? (RAI 2506; RAI 400.15386)

Northcote Thomas’s phonograph recordings constitute an important and untapped historical resource. While they were recorded largely for linguistic research purposes, today they provide a unique opportunity for us to hear the voices of those normally assumed to be silenced in the colonial archive. The Indian postcolonial studies scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asked ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ – listening carefully to the colonial anthropologists’ wax cylinder recordings we are in no doubt that they can indeed, and that their voices provide a crucial counter-narrative to dominant historical accounts.


Thank you to Yvonne Mbanefo, Oba Kosi Nwoba and the British Library. If you are an Igbo speaker, do please let us know if you spot any errors in the transcription or translation of the conversation between John and Nwile, or have any alternative interpretations! Please leave a comment here or email us at info@re-entanglements.net.

Conservation notes: Maiden Spirit mask

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria. Prior to conservation.
Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, in 1911. (NWT 390; MAA Z 13689)

[Re:]Entanglements project conservator, Carmen Vida, provides insights into some of the conservation techniques used to clean and consolidate a remarkable Igbo maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911, and how close examination can tell us more about the mask’s biography both before and after it entered the museum.

One of the most visually striking objects that has come to the UCL Conservation Lab in preparation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is an Igbo maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu-Nri, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911.

The maiden spirit (agbogho mmuo) is one of the most celebrated Igbo masquerade types. Although danced by men, the masquerades – manifestations of ancestral spirits – represent ideals of youthful femininity. The carved, wooden masks typically have fine facial features, with thin, straight noses, small mouths and light complexions, often decorated with uli designs or tattoos. They often have elaborate hair-styles, adorned with crests, coiled plaits and combs. They wear tight-fitting, vibrantly coloured and patterned appliqué costumes, which again evoke uli and other body painting designs. They dance mainly for entertainment, including at the annual Ude Agbogho or ‘Fame of the Maidens’ festival. Thomas collected two examples of the masks in Agukwu-Nri.

Left and centre: Agbogho mmuo (maiden spirit masquerade) as painted by Ben Enwonwu. Right: Photograph of Agbogho mmuo costume by G. I. Jones.
Left and centre: Evocations of the colour and movement of agbogho mmuo in the art of Ben Enwonwu; Right: Maiden spirit masquerade costume photographed by G. I. Jones in Awka, Nigeria in the 1930s.

The mask we have been working with is a particularly fine example. It has a yellow and white face with black tattoos or scarification marks over the eyebrows, down the forehead and on either side of the eyes. Great detail has been paid to the carving of the hairstyle and of a tall, elaborate headdress that comprises a crest, four combs extending upwards and two stands surmounted by birds in between. The crest is made up of a large diamond-shaped section that is flanked by two horns that support two curved sections with upturned bells above. The painted decoration on the mask used red, black, yellow and white pigments. At some point, probably in the mid-20th century, the mask has been secured with copper wires onto a wooden mount.

Northcote Thomas photographs of maiden spirit masquerade (agbogho mmuo), Awka, Nigeria, 1910.
Maiden spirit masquerade figures photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka in 1910-11, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. (Clockwise from top left: NWT 1965 (RAI 400.17808); NWT 1967 (RAI 400.17810); NWT 1977 (RAI 400.17819); NWT 2279 (RAI 400.15914))

Thomas made a number of photographs of agbogho mmuo dancing at Awka in December 1910 and March 1911, and also photographed the masks he collected in Agukwu-Nri later in 1911. There are no photographs, however, of the masks he collected being performed and we do not know for sure whether they had been used in dances before Thomas acquired them or if he obtained them directly from the artist(s) who made them.

Although Thomas did acquire complete masquerade costumes during his 1909-10 Edo tour, it does not appear that he did so on his 1910-11 Igbo tour. (There is a complete agbogho mmuo costume on display at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, but provenance is unknown.) That there were additional costume elements attached to the mask we are focusing on here is, however, evident from some fibres that remain attached to the rows of holes that run around the edges of the mask, especially in the area of the jaw and chin.

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria. Noting remains of costume attached.
Fibres attached to the holes around the edges of the mask provide evidence that it was attached to additional costume elements prior to being collected. Note also the museum label attached to the inside of the mask, recording the location in which it was collected and the Igbo name of the mask recorded by Thomas: Isi abogefi.

Unusually, Thomas made quite detailed notes about the mask. He records the name of the type of mask as Isi abogefiIsi meaning ‘head’, while abogefi may be a dialect variation or erroneous rendering of agbogho, meaning ‘girl of marriageable age’. He notes that the carved bird on one side of the head represents a black pigeon (ndò), and that on the other side a parrot. The central crest he records as isi nkpo umu nwayi, a representation of a headdress women wear for dancing. Thomas records the sources of the four pigments: the black (oji) and yellow (èdò) pigments are derived from trees, red (ufie) is from camwood, and white (nzu) from chalk/white clay. He goes on to explain that the mmuo comes out to dance at the feast of Anuoye during the dry season. Anuoye is a goddess of protection in Nri. He writes that the mmuo will only dance for half a day, once a year. He goes on to detail the sacrifices made to her, and how these are later cooked and redistributed by the young men who perform the masquerade.

Conserving Isi abogefi

In preparation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, the mask required conservation because there were issues with its stability and appearance that needed to be addressed. The initial condition assessment of the mask started telling us part of the history of this object. But it was by contrasting the object’s present condition with that recorded in earlier photographs that the tale of the object’s journey could start being pieced together.

Left: Photograph of maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri at the time of acquisition in 1911; Right: Photograph of the mask published in G. I. Jones' Art of Southeast Nigeria.
Left: Photograph of the Isi abogefi maiden spirit mask taken by Northcote Thomas at the time of acquisition in Agukwu Nri (probably against Thomas’s canvas tent). Note the coiled raffia bundle next to the mask, which was possibly placed as a cushion between the mask and the wearer’s head. The mask is propped up on a box file, no doubt used by Thomas for keeping his fieldnotes in order! (NWT 2934b; RAI N.76430). Right: Photograph of the same mask published in G. I. Jones’ The Art of Eastern Nigeria in 1984.

Comparison with the earliest photograph, that taken by Thomas himself in 1911, allowed us to establish that the mask had already been repaired before it had been collected (see our earlier blog post about this) and that Thomas seems to have acquired it without the costume element of which we found traces. Put together, these two facts lend more weight to the likelihood that the mask had seen previous use rather than being especially made for Thomas. Indeed, in the 1911 photograph one can also see a coiled raffia bundle, which was probably placed on top of the wearer’s head as a cushionbefore putting the mask on.

A later photograph of the mask taken for the anthropologist G. I. Jones, for his book The Art of Eastern Nigeria, published in 1984, shows the mask free of some of the damage now visible. Specifically, the losses to the lip, and the breaks and subsequent repairs now visible on the jaw and on the four combs are not apparent in the photograph for Jones’ book. This gives us an approximate point in time after which this particular damage and the subsequent repairs must have happened: post 1984.

Repairs are particularly clear on the back of the front left comb and on the front and back right combs too, because the adhesive used has aged and darkened. The nature of the breaks and the similarity in the appearance of the adhesive used in the repairs suggests at least one episode of catastrophic damage – a fall, perhaps? – rather than gradual deterioration. Having worked on this object I have also experiential knowledge of its instability as the top heavy crest makes it prone to tipping forward.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, noting damage to mask.
Left: Details of damage on the front of the mask that were not apparent in the c.1984 photograph in G. I. Jones’ book. Right: Detail of the back of the left front comb where the break and aged adhesive can be clearly seen.

All of the above has consequences for any future conservation of this mask: as the post-1984 repairs are relatively recent and carried out in the context of the museum, it may be acceptable to remove the darkened adhesive and redo the repairs should this become necessary. We would not consider doing this with the more historical repairs, which may instead be conserved themselves as a vital part of the object’s biography. Similarly, being able to date the more recent repairs to after 1984 may help identifying the adhesive used and the best approach to its removal. The option of redoing the recent repairs was not considered at this stage because the information only became clearer as we worked on the mask, but also because at present the repairs, although disfiguring, are stable and removing them now may cause unnecessary damage.

The hands-on conservation of the object started with cleaning. As with other objects collected by Northcote Thomas that we have treated as part of [Re:]Entanglements, there was much surface dirt, with dust and dirt accumulated in the crevices, recesses, and carved details of the mask. Some of this dirt was relatively easy to remove using standard museum vacuum techniques. However, on organic porous materials such as wood, if dust is left for a long time it can end up becoming engrained into the pores and harder to remove, giving the object a grey and dull look. This was definitely the case with the maiden spirit mask. So, first the loose dirt and dust were removed with a museum vacuum and soft brushes. This did not prove sufficient to remove the dull grey film of engrained dirt, and after testing the steadfastness of the various pigments, the mask was carefully swabbed with a solvent to help lift the dirt off its surface. This was quite successful and some of the original sheen of the surface was returned to the object.

The treatment then focused on the structural issues that were placing the mask at risk. There were cracks at the base of both the horns that attach the crest to the head. The crack to the front horn, in particular, seemed to go most of the way through and moved when handled. Both cracks were consolidated and secured by injecting a protein-based adhesive into the cracks with a syringe and holding them under tension in the correct position until the adhesive cured.

Video showing conservation cleaning and consolidation processes on the maiden spirit mask.

The stand which holds the bird on the right was very loose and unstable, and the historical repair there, which we discussed in an earlier blog post, no longer secured it. The iron metal sheet of the earlier repair also had a rusted surface and small losses to the bottom edge, as well as a nail missing, and even though the corrosion was not active, it was unsightly and was therefore cleaned off slightly. Flexible fills using Japanese tissue paper and a conservation grade adhesive were made under the metal sheet to pack the joint and secure the stand, and then tinted to match the colour of the mask in that area so that they would be largely invisible.

The surviving lip fragment was re-adhered and the old wooden mount has been temporarily raised with a layer of Plastazote foam, so as to lift the jaw off the ground and relieve the pressure exerted by the weight of the object on the jaw, which has resulted in cracks in the wood. A new mount will be made for the exhibition display to replace the existing one, which will definitively solve this problem.

Damage to the upturned bells on the top of the crest was also examined: two of the bells – the third and the fifth from the front – display losses. These do not present any risk to the stability of the object and therefore nothing was done other than cleaning. But a close examination of them tells of at least two episodes of damage. On the third bell some of the break edges are darkened and dirty, but there is also a cleaner and therefore relatively more recent break edge.  Reference to the photographs showed that some of the damage to the third bell, corresponding to the darkened break edge, was there at the time Thomas photographed the object in 1911 and therefore predates acquisition. Further losses have evidently happened between the time Thomas photographed the mask and the date it was photographed for Jones’ book. The fifth bell also has a small loss to the rim, with a dark break edge suggesting an old break possibly contemporary with the earlier loss on the third bell, though the photographs do not show this area and so nothing can be said with certainty.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, noting damage to mask.
Details of the damage to the inverted bell decoration along the top of the mask’s crest. Highlighted in red are the darkened break edges, suggesting historical damage that is also evident in Thomas’ 1911 photograph; highlighted in yellow are more recent, lighter break edges.

Throughout the conservation process, the mask gradually revealed more and more of its history, allowing us to speculate more confidently on how Thomas may have acquired it, guiding our conservation decisions, and helping us trace and even roughly date some of the damage episodes it has suffered after entering the collection. But it does not end here. As a result of this conservation treatment there is one more tale the object has started to tell us, and that could open another venue of information into this object’s past.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, after conservation. Right: strikingly similar mask in collection of Art Institute, Chicago.
Left and centre: The maiden spirit mask after the conservation treatment has been completed. Right: A maiden spirit mask now in the collection of the Art Institute Chicago, which bears a striking resemblance to that collected by Thomas despite its ‘encrusted patina’.

During the research carried out on Igbo maiden spirit masks as background for the conservation treatment, a very similar mask was located in the Art Institute in Chicago (Accession No. 1994.315). The mask in Chicago is described in Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor’s book Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos as being covered in an ‘encrusted patina’ and its polychrome surface may have been lost, but it is nevertheless recognisably similar and uses the same motifs as the mask collected by Thomas, suggesting that it was made by the same artist(s). It also appears to have the remains of the costume element. This discovery may open the door to further research into the provenance and origins of the mask collected by Thomas and the role it may have played in Igbo societies before it entered the collection, and is a clear example of the affordances conservation work offers within and outside its own remit.


As noted above, Thomas collected two maiden spirit masks in Agukwu Nri in 1911. The second one was recently included in a virtual ‘Museum Remix: Unheard‘ trail across the University of Cambridge’s museums. Senior Curator, Mark Elliot discusses some of the untold/unheard stories associated with the mask in this video.

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria.
The second maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri in 1911. (NWT 391; MAA Z 13690)

Further reading

  • H. Cole and C. Aniakor (1984) Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California.
  • B. Hufbauer and B. Reed (2003) ‘Adamma: A Contemporary Igbo Maiden Spirit’, African Arts 36(3): 56-65 + 94-95.
  • G. I. Jones (1984) The Art of Eastern Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • N. W. Thomas (1913) Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking peoples of Nigeria, Part I. London: Harrison & Co.