Collection notes: object labels

Northcote Thomas collection labels

Labelling matters

As part of the broader movement to decolonise museums, the labels used to identify and describe objects in collections has attracted critical attention. In many cases, the language used on museum labels, particularly in ethnographic museums, is outdated, offensive and inappropriate. This includes the labelling of particular ethnic or cultural groups.

Prominent initiatives to rethink the use of museum texts include the Words Matter programme and publication organised by the Research Centre for Material Culture in The Netherlands and the Labelling Matters project at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Both organisations are partners in the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project.

Pitt Rivers Museum Labelling Matters project
The ‘Labelling Matters’ project at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford aims to identify areas of improvement and to trial ways of changing its public texts where derogatory and other problematic language is used. It seeks to reimagine the definition of labelling and find innovative ways forms of interpretation to challenge the traditional narratives of its current displays. See https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/labelling-matters

A main focus of this work has been to attend to the labelling of objects in public galleries. This has resulted in various gallery interventions where alternative texts have been produced to ‘re-narrate’ the displays. However, as Ciraj Rassool has noted in his article ‘Museum Labels and Coloniality’, textual records become attached to cultural artefacts from the moment of their acquisition. It is at this moment that they are first classified, often according to ‘tribal’ categories that themselves reflect colonial ideologies. This is part of a process in which objects, as well as people, become ‘entribed’.

The labelling and re-labelling of collections is an important part of an object’s biography. Even when old labels have been removed, it is important that they are retained as part of the historical record. In this article, we take a closer look at some of the historical labels that are, or have been, attached to objects assembled by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

N. W. Thomas collection labels

Various different labels have been attached to objects in the so-called ‘Thomas Collection’ at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. The first of these appears to be have been attached to the objects in West Africa prior to shipment to the UK. These are mostly manila luggage tags. The writing on these card labels is usually in Northcote Thomas’s own hand. They typically include the sequential object number that Thomas used to identify them, a brief description of the object, including phonetic transcription of the name of the object in the local language or dialect, and the location in which the object was collected. The names of locations and ‘tribal’ groups are sometimes used interchangeably, and some of these are now regarded as offensive colonial appellations: Afemai ethnic groups/territories in the north of present-day Edo State are, for example, labelled ‘Kukuruku’; Urhobo groups/territories in present-day Delta State are labelled ‘Sobo’. Only very occasionally have we have identified more extensive field notes made by Thomas about particular objects he collected, so these original labels constitute the main source of information about each item.

Labels from collections assembled by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Examples of Northcote Thomas’s original luggage tag labels from his 1909-10 survey of the Edo-speaking peoples of Southern Nigeria. Note reference to the ‘Kukuruku’ region/tribe – now regarded as an offensive colonial term referring to Afemai ethnic groups of North Edo, Nigeria.

Once the objects arrived at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, some of the information on the original labels was transferred to catalogue books and new labels were attached to the objects. Sometimes the original labels were left in place, in other cases they were removed. There is, for example, a collection of detached labels associated with objects from Thomas’s 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking peoples in the Museum’s archive. Pre-printed labels were made for the materials collected during Thomas three tours in Southern Nigeria with the words ‘Thomas Colln | S. Nigeria 1910-13’ printed at the top. Under this printed header, are written: Thomas’s original object number, a Museum accession number, a brief description of the object taken from the original label, and the place of collection. These were either adhered directly onto the objects or stuck on small luggage tags and tied to the objects. For the Sierra Leonean collections, equivalent labels were produced in-house, with ‘Thomas Collection | Sierra Leone 1914’ typed at the top.

Susu necklace and labels collected by Northcote Thomas, Sierra Leone, 1914
Necklace made from ‘kolime’ tree root made and worn by women after childbirth, collected by Northcote Thomas in northern Sierra Leone (probably Samaia) in 1914. Bottom left: Thomas’s original luggage tag label, which includes additional information such as the Susu language name of the necklace and the fact that women would continue wearing the necklace for the rest of their lives. Bottom right: label attached to the necklace once it was accessioned into the collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge. Note that no location is given for the object, only reference to Susu – part of what Ciraj Rassool refers to as the ‘museum entribement’ of collections. (MAA Z 14441)

It is likely that the work of relabelling the Nigerian collections was started in 1913-14, between Thomas’s third and fourth tours. The 1914 annual report of the University of Cambridge Antiquarian Committee makes mention of Thomas spending a week at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, as it was then called, ‘classifying and labelling his collections’. It appears that the relabelling work continued for some time. Evidently labels were prepared for objects from Thomas’s catalogues that could not actually be identified or located in the Museum: an envelope containing such labels survives in the Museum archive. In the curator Baron von Hugel’s hand is written: ‘Thomas Collection | Written labels of objects not identified | A.v.B. 1916’.

Excerpt from the 1914 Annual Report of the University of Cambridge Antiquarian Committee, noting that Northcote Thomas had ‘devoted a week to superintending the work of roughly classifying and labelling his collections’. Thomas left for his final tour as Government Anthropologist on 18 February 1914.
Thomas Collection, written labels of objects not identified
An envelope in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology archive containing object labels for items in what was called the ‘Thomas Collection’ that could not be located. The note on the envelope is written by the Museum’s curator, Baron von Hugel, and is dated 1916.

In preparation for the [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Archaeology, we have collaborated with the museum conservation programme at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (UCL) to conserve objects collected by Northcote Thomas that will be included in the displays. As part of the process, the object labels were also conserved, acknowledging that they are integral parts of the objects’ histories and biographies. One of the students working on the project, Ben Knox, takes up the story …

Conserving Thomas collection labels

by Ben Knox

The way an object is labelled can influence the perceived history and values associated with an item or wider collection. Conversely damage or loss of labels can take away the context of an object.

As a conservation student at UCL I had the pleasure of working on a small selection of objects from the Thomas Collection as part of the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project. As well as preparing the objects for exhibition, this work included cleaning, flattening and repairing their historic labels.

As conservators, we attempt to use the minimal amount of materials in treating objects, with the goal of cleaning, repairing and stabilising an object without introducing undue changes or excessive modern materials.

As noted by Paul Basu above, we encountered two types of labels: small paper labels stuck directly to the objects and larger card tags tied on with twine. The small paper labels had come unstuck around the edges, with some buckled and one completely detached from the object. Those with loose edges were re-stuck using a water-based methyl cellulose adhesive.

In the case of one mirror frame that we were working on, collected by Thomas in Okpe in 1909, the paper label had buckled and was lifting away from the surface of the object in the middle. Initial attempts to counter this by introducing a small amount of water vapour to ease the tension in the paper and make it easier to manoeuvre were unsuccessful, so it was decided to fully remove the label from the object, thus allowing flattening and stain removal.

Conservation of labels associated with mirror frame collected in Okpe
Different stages in the treatment of the paper label on the mirror frame (ourzugegbe) collected by Northcote Thomas in Okpe in 1909. The label, which was poorly adhered to the mirror frame, was removed from the frame for conservation and then reattached. Right: stages in the cleaning and conservation of the paper label. (MAA Z 13092)

The label was removed with two soft bristle brushes, gently brushing water under the edges and easing it away from the surface of the object. In order to remove the stains and flatten the label water vapour was introduced from under the label, with a dry absorbent layer over top. As the water vapour moved through the label it mobilised some of the dirt, allowing it be drawn away from the surface of the label into the absorbent layer. After the stains were removed, the label was dried under weights to ensure it remained flat before being adhered back to the mirror frame.

The large brown luggage tags presented a different challenge to treat as they were thicker than the small paper labels and ranged from slightly buckled to significantly curled. Most of these include brief notes in either pencil or pen with a number and the object’s cultural group or collection location.

My initial focus for the luggage tags was a label from what Thomas described as an ‘oji onu’ mask, collected in Awgbu (then spelled Obu) in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. The label had become badly curled, with tears along edges and weak points where the label had been bent. To allow treatment I gently untied the tag from the mask and cleaned minor dirt from the surface of the luggage tag.

Conservation of labels associated with mask collected in Awgbu
Stages in the conservation of the crumpled luggage tag label associated with the ‘oji onu’ mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. Top right: the brittle, curved label being ‘humidified’ in a polyester sheet tent. Bottom right: the label after conservation. (MAA Z 14230)

After surface cleaning I placed the label in a sealed polyester sheet ‘tent’ with water vapour. This controlled micro-environment allowed the paper fibres to become humidified and relaxed, permitting me to ease the label from its original curled state to a flat state. Once flat the label was placed under weight, ensuring that it did not curl again as it dried.

Once the label had dried flat I repaired any tears in the paper and supported weak parts of the luggage tag. This was done with a small amount of water based adhesive and strips of a special type of tissue paper (conservation-grade kōzo long fibre tissue paper) that gave strength to the repairs.

In the case of a large carved mirror frame that was being conserved, the brown luggage tag had broken completely at one end. Thankfully the detached piece had been saved, preserved with the object in a sealed plastic bag. After initial surface cleaning of the luggage tag I decided not to attempt to remove the tied end of the luggage tag and instead repair the tag in situ. After carefully aligning the two pieces I adhered the two edges together, placed a length of tissue paper over top and brushed adhesive over the tissue paper and onto the luggage tag to give strength to the join. This repair was allowed to dry under weight before the luggage tag was turned over, at which point another piece of tissue paper was placed along the join and adhesive brushed over. Small tears in the luggage tag were also adhered together and backed with tissue paper to support the repairs.

The final object I was able to work on was a charm from Sierra Leone. Two luggage labels were tied to this object: a larger pre-printed Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology tag, and a smaller tag with a paper label stuck on it (those used on Thomas’s Sierra Leone collection). Both were curled, with the larger label cracked and torn in places, while the smaller label was in mostly good condition.

Conservation of labels associated with Sierra Leonean charm
Stages in the conservation of two luggage tag labels associated with a charm collected by Northcote Thomas in northern Sierra Leone in 1914. The smaller label was conserved ‘in situ’ attached to the charm to avoid damaging its string. In an attempt to flatten it, it was humidified and held in a clamp (bottom left). Right: the pre-printed Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology label before and after conservation. (MAA Z 14499)

To treat the larger label I initially placed it in a polyester sheet tent with slow release water vapour to gently relax the paper fibres in the label and allow it to be gradually flattened. The label was then dried under weight to ensure it remained flat. Although the detached fragment had been included with the label, there still remained a gap in the long bottom edge of the label. To help support this I adhered the detached fragment to the large label and then backed both the fragment and gap on the label with tissue paper to strengthen the repair. Minor tears and weak points from folding were also adhered and backed with tissue paper to ensure the repairs were supported.

For the smaller label I decided not to remove it from the charm as this may have damaged the string holding it onto the object. Instead, I introduced water vapour to the label by clamping it between archival cardboard and Bondina polyester sheets, with a Gore-Tex barrier layer to stop direct contact between the damp paper and label to avoid saturation. Because this was not dried under weight, the label remained a little curved, but in a more stable and legible state.

As a conservation student it is often daunting to treat historic objects, especially when trialling new treatment approaches. Overall the treatments proved successful, allowing the labels to be more easily read and handled without worry of causing further damage. Perhaps the most effective method was the use of humidification to help flatten the various labels. The gentle and controlled introduction of water vapour, followed by careful flattening and drying, proved to be a very effective treatment for the labels.

It has been a great opportunity to work on these objects from the Thomas Collection and as a student I feel much more confident in treating organic materials, especially works on paper. I would like to give special thanks to conservator Carmen Vida for her support while treating these objects, and all those who are involved in the [Re:]Entangelments project for allowing access to these objects.

Thanks for your great work too, Ben!

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.

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.

Esan carving traditions, Ubiaja

Detail of carved door panel, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
Detail of carved wooden door panel, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, 1909.(NWT 1027; RAI 400.17422).

Northcote Thomas visited the Esan (or Ishan) towns of Agbede, Irrua and Ubiaja in August 1909. At the royal palace in Ubiaja, Thomas photographed some remarkable carved doors and house-posts. 71 years later, in 1980, the art historian Carol Ann Lorenz conducted research in Esanland as part of her PhD project Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture (Columbia University, 1995). In this article, we revisit Lorenz’s unpublished notes about the Ubiaja carvings in the light of our own research as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Carved houseposts, Obirrra's house, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, ,1909.
Detail of Northcote Thomas’s photograph of sculpted house-posts at ‘Obiria’s house’, Ubiaja palace, 1909 (NWT 1007; RAI 400.17390).

In 1980, Lorenz was able to document the remains of what she termed ‘figurated house-posts’ – or orẹ in the Esan language – in a number of towns, including 75 in Uromi, a short distance from Ubiaja. These sculptural posts supported the verandas of palaces and noble residences, providing a visual statement of the owner’s status and authority. At the time of Lorenz’s fieldwork, such posts were no longer made and those that survived were in a very poor state – some no more than mere stumps. Although the examples in Ubiaja were no longer in evidence, Lorenz noted the importance of Thomas’s photographs insofar as they provided a rare documentation of an assemblage of complete posts in situ.

Ubiaja palace complex

Lorenz was unable to find any oral traditions about the carvings in Ubiaja. She did, however, learn from the ruling Onojie (king) of Ubiaja, HRH Abumhenre Ebhojie II, that a fire had destroyed the palace in 1902. Evidently unaware that Thomas visited Ubiaja seven years later, in 1909, Lorenz made the incorrect assumption that he had photographed the palace sculptures prior to their destruction in the conflagration. It appears, rather, that the house-posts that Thomas photographed were part of a new palace, built after 1902, or of buildings that had not been affected by the fire. Indeed, we know from Thomas’s photograph register that he photographed at least two different buildings within the palace complex.

The palace, Ubiaja, Edo State, Nigeria
The Onojie’s new palace, Ubiaja, 2020. Photograph by Paul Basu.

When we visited Ubiaja as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a brand new palace had recently been constructed for the reigning Onojie, HRH Curtis Idedia Eidenojie. Adjacent to this impressive new concrete structure are various generations of earlier earthen-walled palace buildings, many in a ruinous state. It was not possible to say with certainty if any of these were the remains of the palace that Thomas photographed in 1909.

Ruins of old palace, Ubiaja, Edo State, Nigeria.
The ruins of earthen-walled buildings that formed a courtyard in the palace complex. Each new Onojie has built a new palace, and different generations of palace buildings sit alongside one another. It was not possible to ascertain if any of the ruins corresponded to the buildings Thomas photographed in 1909. The roof of the new palace can be seen rising above the ruins. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Thomas visited Ubiaja during the rule of Elabor, who reigned between 1876 and 1921. By 1909, however, Elabor was elderly and suffering from ill-health. In these circumstances, a power struggle existed between a senior member of the royal household, Prince Obiyan, and Elabor’s eldest son, Prince Ugbesia, over who should act as the Onojie’s regent. Thomas photographed Elabor alongside a man he labelled ‘Obiria’. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name Obiria was not recognised and it was felt that this was an incorrect transcription of Ugbesia. Some of the doorposts photographed by Thomas and discussed by Lorenz are, according to Thomas’s photo register, from ‘Obiria’s house’.

King and Obirrra, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
Left: ‘King and Obiria’. The figure on the left, ‘Obiria’, is thought to be the king’s son, Ugbesia. The figure on the right is the Onojie (king), Elabor. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 999, RAI 400.17389). Right: ‘King and Obiria’. Elabor and Obiria (probably Ugbesia) sitting in front of sculpted house-posts at the palace. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1000, RAI 400.17391).

House-posts

Lorenz provided descriptions of each of the house-posts photographed by Thomas. Regarding the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1000), the sculpture on the left depicts two kneeling figures, one above the other with a platform between them. Lorenz reported that this configuration was unique in her survey of Esan sculptures, although it was common in Yorubaland. The sculpture on the right depicts a figure carrying a fowl or bird on a head tray, possibly representing an intended sacrifice.

Carved houseposts, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909
Left: ‘Figurine in court’. Sculpted house-post at palace, photographed by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1002; RAI 400.17393). Right: ‘Figurine’. Decorated plank and sculpted house-post at ‘Obiria’s house’, photographed by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1003; RAI 400.17394).

The house-post in the photograph above left (NWT 1002) is described as ‘depicting a female figure touching her breast with one hand and her full belly with the other. Her abdomen is decorated with incised patterns’. Lorenz described the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) as ‘depicting a painted snake image on a plank post, and a three-dimensional trumpet blower’. While Lorenz identified all these sculptures as belonging simply to ‘the palace in Ubiaja’, those in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) can be identified in the photograph below, which Thomas’s labelled ‘Obiria’s house’. Although not the main palace, it is likely that this was located in the palace complex.

‘Obiria’s house’. Photograph of a high status house with sculpted posts supporting the veranda. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name ‘Obiria’ was not recognized and it was thought that this was an erroneous transcription of the name ‘Ugbesia’, the son of the king, Elahor. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1007; RAI 400.17390).

Lorenz described the sculptures in the photograph of what we now know to be ‘Obiria’s house’ (NWT 1007) as depicting (from left to right): ‘a naked male figure, a swordsman carrying a severed head, a warrior with a shield and spear, a man with a pith helmet, a trumpet player, and a seated king’. There is a strong formal consistency in the four central carvings (the swordsman, warrior, man in pith helmet and trumpet player), suggesting they were made together and were the work of a single artist or workshop. They also appear to be relatively recently carved, due to the lack of weathering or insect damage.

Although Lorenz did not comment on it, the post on extreme left of this photograph – that depicting ‘a naked male figure’ – is perhaps more interesting than it at first appears. Firstly, it has no head. Instead of a head, the post continues merely as a flat ‘plank’ to the roof joists. Could its head possibly be that held by the swordsman sculpted from the adjacent pillar? Secondly, the figure appears to be shackled around its neck and left leg to a pillar beside it. Pure speculation, but perhaps this figure represents the body of a vanquished enemy? Stripped, shackled and finally beheaded?

Although we cannot be absolutely sure that Obiria is the king’s son, Ugbesia, it is interesting to note that Ugbesia was known to be despotic and tyrannical. The Esan historian, Christopher Okojie, writes that with the decline in Elabor’s powers, ‘the light of the Ruling House of Ubiaja went out’ and was ‘replaced with darkness in which hatred, confusion, suspicion and bipartisan warfare’ reigned. As noted above, at the time of Thomas’s visit, there was conflict between Ugbesia and his competitor for the regentship, Prince Obinyan. This quarrel evidently split Eguare (the palace quarter) into two warring factions, which had a profound effect on the wider Ubiaja community. In 1914 Ugbesia was formally recognized as regent, but the following years were also spent embroiled in conflict until, in 1919, he died in ‘mysterious circumstances’, predeceasing his incapacitated father by two years.

King's wives bathing, Ubiaja. Northcote Thomas, 1909.
‘King’s wives bathing’. Courtyard at the palace in Ubiaja with carved house-posts. It is likely that this is the quarters of the king’s wives. Each wife would have a room accessed through the doors between the house-posts. When we were shown the ruins of later palace building, this same arrangement of wives’ rooms around a courtyard was pointed out. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 994a; RAI 400.17385).

In her notes on the above photograph of a palace courtyard (NWT 994a), Lorenz describes the house-post figures as depicting, from left to right, ‘a seated king, an ekpokin box bearer, an ujie group, two swordbearers, and a female figure nursing a child’. An ekpokin is a box used to carry gifts or tributes to the king. Ujie is music/dance genre in Esanland associated with royalty. According to Lorenz, these were common motifs in Esan sculpture.

Door panels

In addition to house-posts, Thomas photographed other sculptural forms in Ubiaja, including a number of carved doors and an agbala stool. The door carvings are quite distinct from the styles either of Benin or Igboland, of which Thomas photographed many examples. Lorenz argues that they are strongly influenced by Nupe door carving styles from the north, with discrete relief figures arranged in vertical rows. The Nupe had invaded the region to the north of Esanland earlier in the 19th century, and their influence extended to the Esan towns such as Irrua, Agbede and Ubiaja that Thomas visited. Unlike Nupe doors, however, the Esan examples include many representations of human figures, as well as the more typical representations of animals and inanimate objects.

Relief door carvings, photographed by Northcote Thomas at the palace in Ubiaja, 1909 (NWT 1025; RAI 400.17419 and NWT 1027; RAI 400.17422).

Lorenz interprets the figure at the top right of the photograph above left (NWT 1025) as being a male noble (okpia) holding a segmented ukhurhe staff. He is positioned above a female figure (okhuo), below whose feet a horizontal female figure lies. Lorenz observes that this door appears to have been repaired. The centre panel featuring a human figure, profile of a monkey and a lizard, has, she suggests, been carved in a different style to the two panels that flank it. She also observed that this and the left-hand panel were placed upside down when the door was reassembled. The larger male figure at bottom left should be at the top, holding the royal symbols of ada and eben aloft.

Thomas’s photograph above right (NWT 1027) features scenes of violence, which Lorenz argues is a common theme in Esan carving. At the bottom right is an equestrian figure (ohenakasi), depicted in profile, wielding a double-edged sword (agbada). The male figure at top left, interpreted by Lorenz as a warrior, carries a grid-like shield, known as asa in Benin. The shield was made of sticks or palm ribs, which, as Lorenz argues, ‘would not offer much physical defence’. They were, however, ‘fortified with protective medicine (ukhumun), which enabled it to repel or catch enemy weapons’. This door also features a leopard (bottom left, recognizable from its tail which arches over its back), a crocodile eating another animal (top right), and a ceremonial eben sword – all three emblems are associated with royalty.

Agbala stool

Lorenz devoted a whole chapter of her thesis to a discussion of a type of courtly furniture, the agbala or stool of office. Like other items of regalia, the stool illustrate both similarities and differences between Esan and Benin City, where the equivalent stool is known as agba. Lorenz argues that Esan elites ‘appear to have required a locally carved stool of office which was similar enough to the Benin agba to retain its association with prestige and authority, but divergent enough to be a distinctively Esan product’.

Such stools are used exclusively by the Onojie or other hereditary chiefs on ceremonial and ritual occasions. Lorenz notes that it is particularly forbidden for the owner’s senior son and heir to sit upon them. The stools are kept in the ancestral shrine room and often serve as a focus of offering to the ancestors. Thomas photographed one of these agbala stools in Ubiaja, and noted that they were equivalent to ukhurhe rattle-staffs, used to commemorate and honour the paternal ancestors.

Stool used for worship of father, Ubiaja and end of stool, Irua. Northcote Thomas.
Left: Agbala stool photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909 (NWT 1039; RAI 400.17436). Right: Side panel of agbala stool collected by Northcote Thomas in Irrua in 1909 (NWT 1-2564; MAA Z 12815).

Lorenz was able to locate nearly 30 examples of Esan agbala stools and was able to identify three distinct styles. The example photographed by Thomas in Ubiaja is typical of what she terms the ‘ridged figural’ style, which feature highly-geometricized caryatid figures, carved in relief on the stretchers, often – as in this case – with arms upraised. The side panels also feature relief carvings, with a semi-circle cut away at the base to form two legs. Unfortunately, the design on the seat of the stool is not clear in the photograph.

Thomas did not photograph examples of wood carving in the other Esan towns he visited. He did, however, collect the side panel of another agbala stool in Irrua. This is an example of what Lorenz defines as an ‘openwork’ style, associated with the town of Uromi. Indeed, by comparing this panel with other complete stools, she argues that it was likely made in Uromi, even though it was collected in Irrua.

Esanland at a crossroads of culture

Through her analysis of Esan sculpture, including the examples documented by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909, Lorenz’s main thesis was that Esan culture was essentially hybrid in nature. It was the mixture of Benin, Nupe, Yoruba and Igbo traditions that gave Esan art its unique character, as evidenced in these remarkable sculptural house-posts, carved doors and stools of office. Alas, these arts are no longer practised, and, due to the ephemeral nature of the materials, susceptible to decay and insect damage, and to collectors (Northcote Thomas included), very little of this sculpture has survived. We found not even a memory of it at the palace in Ubiaja.

Perhaps a new generation of contemporary Esan artists will one day discover Thomas’s photographs of these amazing sculptures and revive – or reinterpret – the tradition?

Further reading

  • Lorenz, C. A. 1995. Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture, Unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University.
  • Okojie, C. G. 1960. Ishan Native Laws and Customs (Yaba: Okwesa)
  • Ukpan, J. A. 2010. History and Culture of Ubiaja (Benin City: Obhio)

Collection notes: Ngene alusi figure

Ngene alusi figure, Awgbu, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Ngene alusi figure, collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. Now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. (NWT 378; MAA Z 14234)

One of the most impressive objects collected by Northcote Thomas during his 1910-11 anthropological survey of present-day Anambra State, Nigeria is this Ngene alusi figure. Thomas appears to have acquired this 1.25m high sculpture in Awgbu, about 11km south of Awka.

Thomas wrote a great deal about alusi (or alose) in his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria. According to Thomas this referred to a wide range of deities or spirits, which were subordinate to Chukwu, the supreme being of Igbo religion. Some, he explained, had personal names such as ‘Ngene’ or ‘Ofufe’, whose shrines were often located in large enclosures, sometimes surrounded by highly decorated walls. These shrines were the locus of weekly and annual rituals, sites for oath-taking and sacrifice. These deities are given material form in different ways, including through sculptures such as this Ngene figure.

In Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos, Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor note that in the area around Awka ‘sculptures of gods and their supporters are typically arranged against a shrine wall often hung with cult apparatus’ (1984: 89). The carvings, they explain, are rarely by the same artist – over time the figures rot, are eaten by termites or otherwise deteriorate and are replaced as necessary. They are repainted and re-dressed during annual festivals, when the community’s allegiance to the deities is renewed through feasting and sacrifices.

Inspecting Ngene alusi figure, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Left: Detail of Ngene alusi figure showing ichi scarification marks on forehead and white, yellow and red-brown paint pigmentation. Right: [Re:]Entanglements project researchers, George Agbo and Paul Basu, examining the Ngene figure at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores. (Photograph by Katrina Dring)

When we first located the Ngene figure in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores, we were struck at how fresh the carving and its paint was. Unlike such figures we have seen in situ, it did not appear to have accrued the signs that it had been installed in a shrine or used in rituals. We know that Thomas commissioned carvers to make other objects he collected, such as a large number of ukhurhe rattle staffs in Benin City, and we wondered if this was the case with Ngene.

Photographing Ngene in the field

Three interesting photographs of Ngene exist from the time that it was collected. During his 1910-11 tour, Thomas began the practice of lining up objects he had collected in front of a cloth backdrop and photographing them prior to shipping them to Cambridge. Numbers are set up alongside each object, and Ngene stands in a row of objects numbered 374 to 388, including two masks, a dance paddle, an iron staff for ozo title holders, two drums, an ogene gong, a rattle, a yam grater, dish, basket, cup and a mat used for carrying the dead. In total, Thomas collected 19 objects in Awgbu. One of Thomas’s assistants can be seen on the left holding the backdrop straight.

Northcote Thomas collections, Awgbu, Nigeria, 1911
A photograph by Northcote Thomas or one of his assistants documenting collections made in Awgbu prior to being shipped to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Note one of Thomas’s assistants holding up the backcloth on the left. The numbers, 374-388, correspond with those in Thomas’ collection catalogue. (NWT 2968; MAA P.31227)

There are two even more intriguing photographs of Ngene in an album held at the National Museum in Lagos. The photographs were made using Thomas’s Kodak Panoram camera, which had a swivel lens and created a ‘panoramic’ exposure measuring 7″ x 2¼” on 105 format film rolls. In contrast to the formality of the documentation photo of the objects lined up with their catalogue numbers, these offer a glimpse of humour, even frivolity, behind the scenes.

Panoramic photographs taken by Northcote Thomas or one of his assistants, captioned ‘Chief dancing’ in Thomas’ photo register. The Ngene figure and other objects in the formal documentation photograph can be seen in the scene. Note the children sitting on Thomas’s camp chairs, watching the scene, and one of Thomas’ assistants on the left hand of the lower image. (NWT 3995 & 3996)

In Thomas’ photo register, the images are captioned ‘Chief dancing’, and we can see two robed men in bowler hats dancing in front of an audience of young man and children, some lounging on Thomas’ camp chairs. To the left of the photographs is Ngene. It appears that a number of caps have been placed on its head, but they may be placed on top of the iron staff in front. Looking carefully, one can see other objects from collection documentation photograph in the frame, and indeed it appears musicians are playing the drums and rattle that also feature in the object line up. Again, one of Thomas’ assistants can be seen, smiling at the joyful spectacle, to the left of one of the photographs.

Notes on Ngene’s form

The Ngene figure acquired by Thomas in Awgbu shares many formal similarities to other alusi sculptures from the region, although it is also quite distinctive (it is less naturalistic than many examples). Like many alusi, it has ichi scarification marks on its forehead and a carved pattern on its chest and torso. It has a prominent umbilical hernia, a small penis, large nipples and carved bracelets and anklets. It is made from a single piece of wood and painted with white, yellow and red-brown pigments.

Formal comparison of Igbo alusi figures
Formal comparison of Ngene figure from Awgbu (left) with other alusi sculptures. The three figures on the right were collected, controversially, by Jacques Kerchache from the area around Awka in the late 1960s during the Nigerian Civil War. They featured in an exhibition Igbo: Monumental Sculptures from Nigeria in 2010.

The hands and feet of alusi fugures are often not naturalistic. As Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor note, ‘One conventionalized feature of these carvings, the palms-up hand position, has meanings which contribute to our understanding of the deities and their cults. Informants report that this shows the open-handedness or generosity of the deities, as well as their willingness to receive sacrifices and other presents. The gesture also means “I have nothing to hide”, suggesting honesty and a “good face” (1984: 92).

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, we will be recreating the line up of objects, including the Ngene alusi figure, as per Thomas’ documentation photograph above. These objects are being prepared for display at the conservation labs at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. The remainder of this article is written by Bill Mastandrea, a postgraduate conservation student who has been working on the figure.

[Re:]Connecting across time: Human hands and the conservator’s eye

by Bill Mastandrea

As mentioned in previous blog posts, conservation can help to provide a voice to objects which may otherwise have little to no context. Where objects are left voiceless, we run the risk of losing the valuable, humanizing information which surrounds them. It is these intangible facets of object biography that have personally interested me and propelled me to pursue conservation as a career. While the physical materiality of an object is integral, it is arguably its invisible stories which bring us closer both to it and to the people associated with it. Objects are not simply empty remnants of the past, but are living things, full of traces of what they have witnessed, endured, and experienced. While objects reveal different things to different people, the tools of conservation allow us to see particular narratives that others might miss, helping connect people of the present to those in the past.

As a post-graduate student in Conservation at UCL, the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project has afforded me the great opportunity to investigate and conserve this Ngene alusi figure prior to it being exhibited. Here I want to report particularly on discoveries made during the initial stages of the conservation process, including condition checking and visual examination under visible and ultraviolet (UV) light. My observations point to a particular episode in the figure’s life history, which will inform my treatment proposal and future work on the object.

Details of Ngene alusi figure, collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. (NWT 378; MAA Z 14234)

Condition checking of the figure began routinely, with investigation under visible light. The figure is carved from a single piece of wood and painted with white, yellow, and red-brown pigments and stands 1.24 metres tall. Intricate carving on the face, chest, upper arms, and stomach are interpreted as representative of scarification marks; and the carved rings around the ankles and wrists, bangles. Prominent areas of physical damage are noted on the head of the figure, where a non-terminal crack has formed, likely from fluctuations of temperature and humidity, and the right foot, which has been broken in two. Small flight-holes in the object are evidence of prior insect infestation, made by boring insects after reaching maturity.

Left: Photograph of Ngene figure taken probably in the 1930s held by the British Museum, showing the right foot apparently in tact. Right: The figure photographed by George Agbo at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018, showing the broken foot.

Comparison with historic photographs shows that damage to the foot occurred after it had been accessioned into the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology collection. The foot appears to be in tact in a photograph of the figure probably dating to the 1930s held at the British Museum. The crack in the head is already evident in that photograph and, indeed, on close inspection, it can be seen in the field photograph of the figure lined up with other objects. The crack appears, however, to have worsened over time. It is presently unclear when the insect damage took place. Remnant material on the break edge of the foot suggests that someone in the past has attempted to adhere the foot back together.

In order to investigate the historic repair to the foot, the figure was observed under UV light. Some materials, including those used in the creation of objects or in their repair/conservation, have characteristic fluorescence, which can help in preliminary material identification. The use of UV is a valuable tool for a conservator trying to ascertain whether a repair was carried out with an historically-used conservation material, or through a more traditional repair practice carried out by the ‘source community’ itself. When I inspected the repair on the Ngene figure’s foot, the material was crusty and flaky in nature, and barely visible against the colour of the wood under ordinary light. Under UV, however, the material flouresced a pale yellow-white colour.

Ultraviolet light Ngene alusi figure, damage to foot
Top: Detail of the figures broken right foot, showing sides A and B of the break in visible light. Bottom: Sides A and B of the break under ultraviolet light. Note the crusty, pale yellow-white material under UV.

This routine investigation into adhesive material on the figure’s foot under UV light led, however, to the discovery of something unexpected. Hidden in plain sight, but made more obvious by UV light, were a series of hand prints on the back of the left leg and on the back of the head. In visible light, they appear only as a clear, glossy film, while under UV, these hand prints fluoresce strongly, similar in colour to that of the adhesive material used on the foot of the object. What information is there for the conservator to glean from these prints?

Ultraviolet light Ngene alusi figure
Left: Back of the head of the figure in visible light (A), showing no clear hand print, and under UV light (B), where finger prints are visible. Right: Back of the right leg of the figure in visible light (A), showing an unknown clear, glossy material, and under UV (B), where the finger prints are more visible.

After discussion with the project conservator, Carmen Vida, and with Kirstie French, the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s conservator, it was decided that non-destructive material identification of the adhesive material used to make the hand prints will be conducted. In order to identify adhesive materials, conservators use a number of methods, including solubility tests, microchemical tests and what is called Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR). By identifying the material trace on the broken foot, it will be possibly to establish when and where the repair was likely to have taken place. And, by comparing this with the material of the hand prints, we will be able to ascertain if these were left at the same time as the repair or relate to another episode in the figure’s biography.

While we wait for the tests to be completed, we can only speculate as to who the hand prints belong to: Perhaps the object’s creator, or a member of the community? Perhaps N. W. Thomas himself, or one of his assistants? Perhaps a long-since retired conservator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology? Other questions arise. Do the prints on the head and leg belong to the same person? Were they created at the same time? Their orientation may tell us more about how they came to be left. Was the figure being carried or set up straight?

Further investigation will hopefully provide at least some of the answers to these questions. For now, the hand prints remain an opportunity for personal contemplation. Tactility is an essential aspect of human experience, and one that is experienced by nearly everyone as we navigate through our world. So much of our past has come into being through the hands, as well as minds, of artisans, craftspeople and other specialists. At the very least, these hand prints add to the biography of the Ngene figure, instilling in it yet another story of lived experience with which we can connect.

Reference

  • Cole, H. M. and C. C. Aniakor. 1984. Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles.

Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.

When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹ staffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.

Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,

When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.

The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.

Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.

Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹ staffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ (which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹ propped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.

In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹ of community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.

It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹ that had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹ from Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.

The story of how the ukhurhẹ were obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.

Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹ in the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021. Our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Art, appropriation, activism

Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Photographs of Benin objects from the Northcote Thomas collection. Artist Rosa-Johan Uddoh preparing for a workshop with the Art Assassins at the South London Gallery.

[Re:]Entanglements is collaborating with the Art Assassins, the young people’s forum of the South London Gallery in Peckham. As part of the project, the Art Assassins are working with a number of London-based artists and researchers with connections to West Africa. The idea is for each artist or researcher to use their creative practice to help the Art Assassins explore the collections and archives assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early 20th century, and consider their relevance for young people in South London today. The Art Assassins’ work will culminate in an exhibition at the South London Gallery which they will curate themselves.

The second artist to collaborate with the group is Rosa-Johan Uddoh. Rosa is an interdisciplinary artist inspired by black feminist practice and writing. Using performance, ceramics and sound, she explores a seeming infatuation with places, objects and celebrities in British popular culture, and the effects of these on self-formation. Rosa originally studied architecture at university, and she continues to draw upon this background, rooting stories in specific spaces and materials. 

Rosa Johan Uddoh, The Serve, 2007
Blurring reality and fiction, Rosa-Johan Uddoh’s performance art, The Serve, 2017-19. Photograph by Sam Nightingale.

For her project with the Art Assassins, Rosa is working with the group to create a performance piece inspired by the material culture collections made by Thomas, now in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Linking back to her own practice, Rosa is challenging the group to consider what these objects can tell us about colonial legacies in contemporary British society. Confronted with the huge number of items within the collection, the Art Assassins and Rosa have chosen to focus on materials Thomas collected from Benin City, in present day Edo State, Nigeria. Benin and Britain both possessed empires – a fact that has provided a starting point for the Art Assassins’ performance.

Art Assassins workshop with Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Rosa and the Art Assassins working on their collages at the South London Gallery.

In her first workshop with the Art Assassins, Rosa asked the group to explore the possible dialogues between the Benin City objects and contemporary British culture. Presenting the group with a stack of free newspapers, Rosa asked the Art Assassins to produce collaborative collages that juxtaposed the objects with images of celebrities, current affairs headlines and advertisements. When sharing back their finished collages, the group discussed whether notions of empire were still prevalent in the UK today and how pop culture can address serious subjects.

Rosa Johan Uddoh, Benin collage
Examples of the Art Assassin’s collaborative collages – appropriating the archive, juxtaposing historical collections from Benin with newspaper images, headlines and adverts.
Art Assassins, Benin collages

In the next workshop the Art Assassins started to plan more specifically which objects they would focus on for their performance. By looking into the biographies of objects in more detail, via the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge’s online catalogue, the group found out about their origins. Rosa then asked the group to ‘cast’ these objects into a TV show format of their choice. By combining the object biographies with a TV show structure the group then formed possible narratives for the performance. These played out the complex relationship between anthropology and its subjects and objects.

Art Assassins workshop with Rosa Johan Uddoh, South London Gallery
Rosa and the Art Assassins discussing TV show narratives inspired by the object biographies of material culture collections assembled by Northcote Thomas in Benin City.

In recent workshops the Art Assassins have been working on ideas for the costume in their performance. As research the group have been looking at how archival objects and images have been appropriated in design for activism and protest. The group explored examples such as Black Lives Matter in the USA, Sisters Uncut in the UK and the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment in Ireland. These have all used strategies of appropriation, scaling and performance to convey a message.

Black Lives Matter, Eric Garner eyes
Examples of the appropriation of images and objects in activism. Above, Black Lives Matter protesters march behind a large banner featuring a photograph of the eyes of Eric Garner, New York City, 2014 (Photograph JR-ART.net); Below, Rachel Fallon’s ‘Aprons of Power‘, part of the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment, Limerick, 2018. (Photographs by Darren Ryan and Alison Laredo.)

Over the next months the Art Assassins will continue to work with Rosa to develop the narrative, costumes and staging for their performance. They will also participate in museum conservation training at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology to learn more about uncovering the stories that objects in the Thomas collection can tell.

The Art Assassins are making a film about their explorations of the Northcote Thomas archive. At each of their meetings, they take it in turn to make video diaries recording their experiences. Here Mia and Phaedra reflect on the workshops run by Rosa.

Sacred stone axes on Benin altars

Detail of ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City, showing stone axe head. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. NWT 160, RAI 400.17962.

During his anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking people of Nigeria in 1909-10, Northcote Thomas spent several months working in Benin City itself. His photographs of the City’s prominent chiefs, its architecture, shrines and markets provide an important record of the capital of the Benin Empire just 12 years after its fall at the hands of the British Punitive Expedition. Although accounts of the sacking of Benin City in 1897 suggest that little was left of Benin’s centuries-old civilization, it is clear from Thomas’s photographs that much escaped destruction and not everything was looted.

Ozomo shrine, Benin City, 1909
Ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. NWT 160, RAI 400.17962.

Thomas documented a number of Benin shrines in considerable detail. His photographs of the ancestral altar at Chief Ezomo‘s palace, for example, shows many of the classic Benin shrine objects such as rattle staffs (ukhurhẹ), memorial heads (uhunmwun) and altar bells (eroro). Of these ritual objects, Thomas seems to have been particularly intrigued by the presence of polished stone axes or celts in these assemblages.

Polished stone axe, Ozomo shrine, Benin City, 1909
Close up of stone axe head from the ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Note that the axe head has been propped up against Thomas’s pith helmet to take the photograph. NWT 157, RAI 400.17960.

Thomas’s anthropological reports and other publications contain no information about these stone axes. Indeed, it is important to note that the vast majority of Thomas’s fieldwork findings remained unpublished. In a letter written in 1923 to his friend and colleague Bernhard Struck, Curator of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden, he notes that he published only 10 per cent of his material from his Edo tour – that deemed to be of relevance to members of the colonial service. Among the fragments of unpublished fieldnotes and manuscripts that survive, however, there are a few pages in which he discusses the celts.

Northcote Thomas, Edo manuscript, stone celts
Unpublished handwritten manuscript notes on ‘stone implements’ from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour. The hand-writing on these pages is not Thomas’s – possibly that of an assistant or his wife. University of Cambridge Library.

Thomas writes that ‘Aro [i.e. Chief Ero] told me that they were used with Osun [a deity] or put in the ancestral shrines to represent their fathers, and were also used in foretelling’. They could also be used as objects to swear by or curse: ‘Chief Ine of Edo said that when they have to reprove a wife or child or anyone, they take a stone implement and lick it and curse them. If a man is before them whom they wish to curse, they take a stone and an uxure [ukhurhẹ]. They knock the uxure on the ground, lick the stone and blow the spittle over the man and wish that he may not prosper’.

Northcote Thomas, Edo manuscript, stone celts
Unpublished handwritten manuscript notes on ‘stone implements’ from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour. The hand-writing on these pages is Thomas’s. University of Cambridge Library.

It was not only in Benin City that Thomas encountered these stone implements. He also records examples in Irrua, Okpe, Otua and other locations in what is today Edo State. At Okpe he was shown a stone called ‘esax evalalox umu‘ [?] that was said to have fallen from the sky. Elsewhere he was told that ‘a stone axe is a “steward” of lightning’, and in Otua he explains that they are placed in the Osun shrine, and if they are given palm oil (as a sacrifice), then lightning will not strike the house.

The association between these axe heads and lightning is widespread, not only throughout West Africa, but also in Europe and elsewhere, where they are regarded as ‘thunderbolts’ or ‘thunderstones‘ – weapons wielded by gods of thunder, hurled to earth, and not of human manufacture. In 1903, Henry Balfour, Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, had written about such ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’ in the anthropological journal Man, which was then edited by Thomas. In a later article in Folklore, in which he surveyed the phenomenon of thunderbolts throughout the world, Balfour also discussed a number of small bronze pendants in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection made in the form of miniature stone axes, which had also been acquired in Benin City

Pitt Rivers Museum, bronze amulet representation of thunder stone
Left: excerpt and figures from Henry Balfour’s article ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’, originally read to the Folklore Society in 1929. Here Balfour describes and illustrates the miniature bronze reproductions of stone axes from Benin in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection. Right: a more recent photograph of one of these bronze pendants (Figure 11 in the 1929 article), PRM 1909.61.1.

In addition to the examples he photographed at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Thomas also photographed an assemblage of stone axes from an ancestral shrine at Chief Ogiame’s palace in Benin City, and another set at a shrine dedicated to the deity Oxwahe at Eviakoi, in the north-west outskirts of Benin City. Thomas also appears to have collected a number of examples, including one evidently dug up during forestry operations, although we have been unable to trace any of them during our research at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores.

Stone implements from Ogiame shrine, Benin City,1909
Stone axe heads from an ancestral shrine at Chief Ogiame’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Clockwise from top left: NWT 80, RAI 400.17889; NWT 83, RAI 400.17893; NWT 82, RAI 400.17893; NWT 81b, RAI 400.17891.
Face of Ochwaihe, Eviakoi, Benin City, 1909
Oxwahe shrine, Eviakoi, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. In addition to the stone celts placed on the altar, the assemblage in the recess includes lozenge-shaped shaped blocks of kaolin clay/chalk (orhue), also a ritual substance. On the envelope in which the negative was stored, Thomas has written ‘Face of Ochwaihe [Oxwahe]’. NWT 1206. RAI 400.18311.
Stone implements from Ochwaihe, Benin City,1909
Stone axe heads/implements from the Oxwahe shrine, Eviakoi, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Clockwise from top left: NWT 1208, RAI 400.18313; NWT 1209, RAI 400.18313; NWT 1210b, RAI 400.18316; NWT 1210, RAI 400.18315.

It was not until Graham Connah‘s Polished Stone Axes in Benin, published in Nigeria in 1964, that a more substantial study of these stones became available. A British archaeologist, Connah had been appointed by the Federal Department of Antiquities to conduct a programme of archaeological excavation in Benin City in 1961. Connah was interested in these prehistoric stone axes since they represented the earliest evidence of ‘human industry’ in the region. During his research, Connah was able to consult authorities such as the well-known historian and curator of the Benin Museum, Chief Jacob Egharevba, as well as the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II, himself.

Connah, Polished Stone Axes in Benin
Front cover and illustration from Graham Connah’s Polished Stone Axes in Benin publication. The photograph (top right) is a detail of a brass altar group thought to depict Oba Ohen at the Agwe festival, holding a stone axe head in his left hand. The line drawing is of an axe head obtained from Chief Osuabor of Benin City. Both were/are in the collection of the National Museum, Benin.

Connah provided a review of the existing, though scant, literature on the celts and drew attention to the depiction of such axes in some of the famous Benin bronze artworks. With Egharevba, he also acquired over 20 examples for the Benin Museum, the close examination of which formed the focus of his publication. It is evident that Connah had no knowledge of Northcote Thomas’s unpublished photographs and notes, which would have otherwise made an important contribution to his study.

Connah, Polished Stone Axes in Benin
Plate 5 from Graham Connah’s Polished Stone Axes in Benin. ‘Group of polished stone axes etc. on Oba Akenzua II’s shrine to Eweka II. (Note matchbox positioned for scale.)

In the present context, perhaps the most interesting section of Connah’s publication is that on ‘Bini beliefs about stone axes’. Connah notes that the Bini call the axes ughavan, a contraction of ughamwan (axe) prefixed to avan (thunder), and meaning ‘thunder-axe’ or ‘thunderbolt’. In the early 1960s they were evidently not uncommonly found on household shrines throughout Benin City, and Connah states that they could be seen on Oba Akenzua II’s shrines to his predecessors, Eweka II, Overamwen and Adolo. In historical bronzes, obas are sometimes depicted holding an ughavan in their left hand. Here, its function is ‘to increase the potency of a cursing or blessing’.

Altar pieces Benin from Plankensteiner, Benin Kings and Rituals
Two 18th-century altar groups depicting obas holding thunder-axes in their left hands. Left: Oba Akenzua I (ascended throne c. 1711-15); right: Oba Ewuakpe (ascended throne c.1685-1700), both in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. Reproduced from Benin Kings and Rituals exhibition catalogue, ed. Barbara Plankensteiner.

Connah further notes that there was no realisation in Benin that these prehistoric stone tools had a functional origin. ‘To the Bini’, he writes, ‘they are “thunderbolts”, and “thunderbolts” they remain. Any suggestion that they could be stone tools made at a time before the availability of iron in West Africa is met by polite misbelief’. He also doubts that they have been made in more recent centuries for ‘cult purposes’, having recorded stories about how they were found during farming or embedded in trees that have been struck by lightning.

In her recent book, Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre, Kathy Curnow provides a succinct summary of these fascinating objects:

Prehistoric stone axe heads antedate metal tools. Easily damaged, they were tossed away and replaced, and readily turn up today when land is farmed. In Benin, as in many other parts of the world, they are not always recognized as man-made objects. Instead, they are considered thunderstones (ughavan), the product of lightning strikes. The Edo believe Ogiuwu, the god of death, hurls them to the ground as manifestations of his power and anger. The Oba likewise has the right to kill, and gripped thunderstones or celts to magnify his curses. Still kept on altars, they call the ancestors into service as witnesses and supporters.

References

  • Balfour, H. 1903. ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’, Man, vol.3, pp.182-3.
  • Balfour, H. 1929. ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’, Folklore, vol.40, pp.37-49, 168-173.
  • Connah, G. 1964. Polished Stone Axes in Benin. Nigerian National Press.
  • Curnow, K. 2016. Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  • Plankensteiner, B. (ed.) 2007. Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. Snoeck Publishers, Ghent.

All Northcote Thomas photographs reproduced here have been scanned from the glass plate negatives in the collection of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and are reproduced courtesy of the Institute.

Conservation notes: ‘Akosi’ figure from Fugar

‘Akosi’ shrine figure collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909.

In her latest blog post from UCL’s Conservation Lab, Carmen Vida discusses how Northcote Thomas’s historical field photographs inform the work of reassembling ‘composite’ objects from the collection and help conservators’ make decisions about appropriate conservation treatments.

It often comes as a bit of a surprise to people when they first get to know about museum conservation to learn that conservators do not necessarily always do everything that can be done to an object, or try to make it complete, new, or ‘like it was’. Out of many possibilities, conservators decide on what is an appropriate treatment for each object in dialogue with experts, curators and other stakeholders. As a conservator, I am very aware that every conservation intervention is a new event in the life of an object, an event that can be ‘life-changing’ – though, hopefully, a change for the better by extending the object’s life and making it more meaningful to others. It is the conservator’s job to ensure that the conservation intervention always fits with and helps reveal what the ‘life’ of the object was and is, and that it never obscures its significance, values and stories, but rather helps to reveal them.

For conservators, damage is not always bad. It can, rather, be an interesting thing: it can, for example, tell us about the way an object was used, help us to understand its ‘biography’, inform us about the conditions in which it has be stored, and so forth. For this reason, conservation always starts with research and investigation. We seek to get to know an object as closely as possible through documentation, through comparison with similar or related objects, and through the signs left on the object by its previous history. This helps us to design conservation treatments that fit with the object’s past history as well as its present and future use. In a way, conservation is a bit of a time machine, moving between the object’s past, present and future!  

As discussed in a previous post, Giving Objects a Voice, many objects appear to be ‘mute’. That is, they have no accompanying information, and conservators must rely entirely on what they can discover from their analysis of the object itself. But working with the collections assembled by Northcote Thomas is providing me with a unique opportunity because the archive itself is so rich and varied: not only objects, but written records, sound recordings and, very importantly for the conservator, historic photographs. These different elements in the archive can sometimes be brought together to shed light on each other. So just as the historic photographs of people have been affording their descendants in West Africa the possibility of reconnecting with their ancestors (see for instance the blog Ancestral Reconnections), the historic photographs of the objects are affording conservators the possibility of reconnecting with the earlier life of some of the objects we are treating. This information is vital to guide our conservation treatment choices because it allows us to compare two different moments in the life of the object, and it helps us decide what the treatment should achieve and how. It ultimately helps us make ethical treatment decisions.

Elements of the figure prior to conservation. NWT 2659. MAA Z 12292, Z 12293, Z 12294.

Some of the objects we have been working with in the UCL Conservation Lab illustrate this well. I have recently been revisiting the treatment of a figure that Thomas collected in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909, which was conserved by one of our students last summer. In Thomas’s catalogue, the figure is labelled with the single word ‘akosi’, with no further information. The object is a ‘composite’ insofar as it consists of several elements and materials: (1) a carved wooden figurine with a feather, (2) a red glass bead ‘necklace’ or ‘bracelet’, and (3) a ‘headdress’ consisting of strings of cowrie shells threaded though cane and plant material. At the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, these three elements have been accessioned and stored separately. Bringing together the [Re:]Entanglements project’s archival research, collections-based research and fieldwork, it has, however, been possible to re-associate the elements that make up this assemblage with reference to a photograph that Thomas made of the figure at the time of collection. This, we assume, shows the assemblage as Thomas initially encountered it in its original context.

Northcote Thomas's photograph of 'akosi' figure, taken in Fugar in 1909.
Northcote Thomas’s field photograph of the ‘akosi’ shrine figure, taken in Fugar, present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909. NWT 1095. MAA P.29204.
Fieldwork in Fugar, examining Thomas's photograph of the 'akosi'.
Discussing Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ‘akosi’ figure during fieldwork in Fugar, March 2020. Paul Basu notes that ‘Those we spoke with in Fugar did not recognise the type of figure or the word”akosi” recorded by Thomas. In some dialects of the Edo language, however, “akosie” refers to shrine figures moulded from mud. The Fugar carving resembles an “ikenga” or “okega” figure more typically found in Igbo- and Igala-speaking areas of Nigeria, where they are a form of ‘alusi’ (deity). Igala and Igbo influence can be discerned in masquerades and material culture in the area around Fugar. An example of an “okega” from Igala in the Smithsonian collection shares some features with that collected by Thomas in Fugar’. Photograph by Paul Basu.

This ‘akosi’ figure will form part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in April 2021. As such, one of the conservation treatment aims was to ensure that, after 111 years, all three elements could once again be put back together for display.

'Akosi' assemblage collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar in 1909.
Elements of the figure prior to conservation annotated to highlight areas of damage (see notes below).

An initial condition assessment of the object revealed several instances of damage:

  1. The wooden figure was covered in surface dirt and dust, and debris from insect activity.
  2. There was a through crack in the left wrist that severed it completely from the rest of the arm.
  3. The left foot had suffered extensive insect damage and was largely missing.
  4. The feather had also suffered extensive insect damage and was dirty, broken and misshapen. There is a corresponding hole on the right side of the figure where presumably a second feather used to be, but this is totally missing now.
  5. The cane and plant fibres in the cowrie shell headdress had become brittle, inflexible and unable to support the weight of the cowries. The headdress was made up of five tendrils. Of these, one was very short and another slightly shorter than the other three. There were also loose cowries bagged separately, indicating that perhaps originally there were only four strands and that when one had broken, the broken end had been reattached at the top.

We had to decide what level of treatment would be appropriate for each of these issues, and we were able to do so thanks to the possibility of referring to the historic photograph.

Annotated photograph of 'akosi' figure, taken in Fugar in 1909.
Annotations on Northcote Thomas’s 1909 photograph of the figure showing existing condition and damage at the time of collection (see notes below).

Close examination of the photograph revealed:

  1. That the surface dirt present was most likely museum dirt, although there were areas of dirt in the original figure the ghost of which could still be seen in the object. For this reason, it was decided to sensitively clean the wooden elements with only dry cleaning methods and to avoid the use of any solvent which may have removed more than simple surface dirt. In this way we could guarantee the cleaning of recent dirt but leave behind any deposits that may be related to the use or beliefs associated with the figure.
  2. The through crack on the wrist can already be seen in the historic photograph. Wood is anisotropic and moves in different directions in reaction to changes in humidity and temperature. Cracks of this type often occur through movement tensions in green wood that has not been properly allowed to dry before being carved. That the crack can already be seen in the historic photograph suggests that the object may have already been in existence for some time before Thomas acquired it. This information clarified that it would be totally inappropriate to fill that crack because it has been there for over 100 years and allowed the wood to move in response to environmental changes without further stresses, but also because a fill would have obscured important information about the object history.
  3. The insect damage caused to the left foot can also be seen in the historic photograph, although perhaps it was not as extensive then. Because of this, only minimal intervention fills were done to support any areas at risk. The fills were done with long fibre Japanese tissue paper (a very thin but strong paper) and a cellulose based adhesive that was sympathetic to the nature of wood. Watercolours were used to tint the Japanese tissue paper to blend the fills with the surrounding wood. The insect damage visible in the historic photograph again seems to indicate that the object was not new when it was acquired by Thomas.
  4. Two feathers are visible in the historic photo, one on either side. The remaining feather was repaired with fills done in the vane to strengthen it and realign it back to its original shape. The feather was also dry surface cleaned and also cleaned with solvents to restore its shape as much as possible.
  5. It was clear from the historic photos that only four strands of similar length were originally present as part of the cowries headdress, confirming that the two shorter strands were originally one and that the loose cowries were probably part of this broken strand. That information, together with the need to strengthen the cane so that it would be able to support the weight, allowed us to take quite an interventive approach: the fourth strand was lengthened with the lose cowries, and all the strands were stabilized by threading them with nylon fishing wire, to support the weight instead of the fragile cane threading. Tinted epoxy buttons were made matching the colour of the cowries to serve as stoppers for each of the cowrie strands. Three nylon lengths were braided to create a stronger wire that was used at the top of the object to connect the nylon fishing wire used on the cowrie strands, and to allow the headdress to sit again on top of the figure during exhibition.
Cowrie 'headdress', part of Aksoi assemblage photographed and collected by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, 1909.
The cowrie ‘headdress’ after conservation treatment. The nylon thread is nearly invisible, but can just be made out, particularly at the top.

The conservation treatment given to this object is a good illustration of the decision making processes we conservators go through as part of our work. Ethical treatment decisions were made in this case because we were seeking to stabilise the object and bring it to the condition that best reflected its values and affordances. This meant different approaches to different areas of the object:  minimal intervention was adopted for most elements whereas the headdress required a far more interventive solution to allow the object to be displayed back together and have its integrity restored.

Giving objects a voice: conservation and the N. W. Thomas collection

UCL Conservation student conducting visual inspect of headdress collected by N. W. Thomas for condition report
UCL students conducting an inspection of objects from the N. W. Thomas collection at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology prior to their transfer to the UCL Conservation Lab. Photograph: George Agbo.

Among the many collaborations involved in the [Re:]Entanglements project is a partnership with the Museum Conservation programme at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Under the supervision of Drs Dean Sully and Carmen Vida, students on the graduate programme have been working on a selection of objects collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Project coordinator, Carmen Vida, introduces some of the contributions of conservation in this the first in a series of posts from the UCL Conservation team.

Starting in February 2019, as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a selection of objects belonging to the N. W. Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) have come to UCL’s Institute of Archaeology for conservation. The project is allowing us to interact with the collection in new ways and to approach, explore and elicit some of the past and present meanings of the archive Thomas put together. As a result, in many cases the objects in the stores are being studied for the first time and the cobwebs are being dusted off, sometimes quite literally.

Conservation has a particular role in the [Re:]Entanglements project: not only does it ensure that the objects are stable enough to be used by anyone interacting with them, but as a distinct form of engagement, it provides intimate knowledge of the objects and can shed light on their make-up and their biography. Due to the lack of contextualising documentary evidence, museum objects often appear to be ‘mute’. But even where there is documentary evidence, the histories and narratives that have reached us provide one side – often someone’s side – of the story. Conservation can help provide a voice to the objects themselves, which may sometimes corroborate, but at other times question, the established histories associated with the objects. In doing so, conservation affords present day audiences the possibility to re-engage with the objects, whilst exploring the way in which the archive came to be both from past and contemporary perspectives.

UCL Conservation student conducting visual inspect of mask collected by N. W. Thomas for condition report
Detailed documentation is essential in conservation practice. Here a student annotates photographs of a mask collected in Ibillo in present-day Edo State, Nigeria prior to conservation treatment. Photograph: George Agbo.

By the time the project is finished more than 40 objects will have been worked on at the Institute of Archaeology’s conservation lab and at the MAA. The objects being treated vary in type and size, and are but a small part of the N. W. Thomas Collection, which includes over 3,000 objects. Some will form part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition due to open in Cambridge in April 2021, whilst others are being conserved because, after over a century of existence, they have become unstable even when packaged away in a museum store. The work is being carried out both by professional conservators and students, and is allowing these students to develop their skills and further their training, another affordance of the project. We are also providing running some workshops for the Art Assassins, the youth forum of the South London Gallery, which is another collaboration within the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Fish trap collected by N. W. Thomas being reconstructed in UCL Conservation Lab
A fish trap collected by N. W. Thomas in Awgbu in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria undergoing reconstruction in the UCL Conservation Lab. Made from strips of bamboo, tied with plant fibres, this fragile trap was little more than a pile of sticks prior to conservation. NWT (2) 2, MAA Z 13941. Photograph: Paul Basu.

There is a whole array of tools and techniques that we use in conservation to better understand the objects and inform our treatments. Documentation is essential, starting with any existing historical information to which we can correlate the object itself: documents, photographs, previous museum information in the form of labels or markings on the objects. Labels are interesting things: sometimes informative, sometimes deceptive and indicative of misidentification at some stage. Our conservation work on the N. W. Thomas Collection includes the preservation of labels and museum numbers marked on the object, as they have by now become part of it and of its history.

Historical labels attached to a fish trap collected by N. W. Thomas
Documentation of labels associated with the fish trap being conserved.

Visual analysis of the objects can be extremely revealing for a trained eye. We use microscopes to examine the surface of the objects, looking for evidence of damage and instability, but also for clues as to the history of the object: manufacture materials and techniques, damage and/or repairs (whether before or after collection), evidence of rituals or of use are all things we will be looking for in our work. All these tell stories and give the object a new voice. Some of the objects treated so far exhibit extensive pest damage, and microscopy has helped us find evidence of the pests themselves, which will be later used by expert entomologists to identify the species and give us a good idea of where the damage might have occurred. The insect damage in some of the objects reflects their places of origin in West Africa (termites) as well as their later history (wood boring insects that can be found in the UK).

Horned mask collected by N. W. Thomas exhibiting insect damage
Horned mask, described by Thomas as ofulu mpi, collected in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria in 1911. Conservators use microscopes to inspect the insect damage: top-right: insect carcass; bottom-right: insect eggs. These will be sent to an entomologist for identification. NWT (2) 375, MAA Z 14231.1.

But conservators do not rely on visual inspection alone and we are trained to use most of our senses as part of our work, not just our eyes and hands. Smell, for instance, can help us identify fungal infestation, or certain materials used in the past. And by listening to the sound when we very gently tap a surface, we can ascertain the extent to which it may be hollow under the surface as a result of pest activity. One sense we are definitely not encouraged to use is taste! – not least because of the toxic materials earlier conservators may have used to treat objects.

Other techniques we use help us to identify materials whether original or introduced by repairs done in the past. Ultraviolet fluorescence, for instance, can reveal the presence of modern adhesives and materials in objects. Chemical tests can help identify binders and pigments used in their decoration. Elemental analysis with portable technology such as p-XRF (portable X ray fluorescence, which detects inorganic elements such as metals and minerals) can help us identify not just what the objects are made of, but also, for instance, if they were treated with pest treatments no longer used such as arsenic or mercury salts. And we can use Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to identify organic compounds. In this way we were able to establish, for instance, that a white deposit on one of the masks (Z 13728) was paraffin wax. This identification helped us both clean it safely by using the right solvents, but also to speculate that the mask may have received some treatment, possibly soon after arrival at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Paraffin wax was often used as a filler and protective coating treatment for wooden objects from the end of the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century. In this case, our findings support documentary evidence from the museum’s Annual Reports in the years shortly after acquisition that the objects were cleaned, mended and restored.

Horned mask collected by N. W. Thomas showing parafin deposits
Mask described by Thomas a onye kulie collected in Nibo, present day Anambra State, Nigeria in 1911. Using FTIR techniques, conservators were able to identify the white deposit evident on parts of the mask as paraffin wax, likely to have been used to treat the mask at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology soon after it was accessioned. NWT (2) 428, MAA Z 13728.
Excerpt from Cambridge Report of the Antiquarian Committee, 1913
Excerpt from the Annual Report of the University of Cambridge Antiquarian Committee, 1914. The report notes that much of the museum assistant’s time ‘has been devoted to cleaning, mending and restoring’ objects collected by Thomas, many of which had been damaged in transit from Nigeria. The report also notes that Thomas himself spent a week at the museum ‘classifying and labelling his collections’. This would have been during the period of leave between his third and fourth tours.

Our work so far has also allowed us to interrogate and qualify some of the other knowledge resulting from the [Re:]Entanglements project’s collections-based research. Thomas’s correspondence, for instance, indicates that – in stark contrast to the current practice in his time – he commissioned some of the objects he collected to be made or else bought them at markets. One of the objects conserved at UCL in 2019 is an Igbo maiden spirit mask. The initial visual examination of the mask identified a number of historical repairs, including an iron sheet stabilising one of the bird figure on the proper right of the headdress, an iron staple across a crack on the proper left side of the headdress, and a plant fibre tie on the same area as the staple but further down. In the case of the iron staple and the fibre ties, they are covered with the same pigment used on the rest of the mask, suggesting they are original repairs. Checking the current condition against Thomas’s field photographs showed that the iron sheet repair securing the bird was already there when the mask was photographed by Thomas, presumably at the time of acquisition. These repairs could both be indicative of use prior to collection, in which case the mask would had had a previous life and not been simply commissioned by Thomas, or else be repairs carried out during the process of manufacture, not an uncommon occurrence. Currently we have not been able to resolve the matter of previous use in relation to this object, but nevertheless this conservation work has raised the question, allowing us to continue looking for evidence of previous use in other objects. That is one of the research questions we will be looking to find evidence for when treating other objects.

Maiden spirit mask collected by N. W. Thomas showing historical repair
Maiden spirit mask collected by N. W. Thomas showing historical repair
Maiden spirit mask described by Thomas as isi abogefi collected in either Agukwu-Nri or Nibo, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. Thomas also photographed the mask in the field (top right), revealing that the repair to one of the bird decorations was made prior to acquisition. A close examination of the the iron staple and fibre tie used to repair a split on the proper left of the mask shows that they are covered in the same pigment used on the rest of the mask, suggesting that the repair was done during the making of the mask. NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689.

To date, nine objects have received treatment, and conservation of the remaining objects is underway. In this and subsequent conservation-themed blogs we will be sharing some of the stories that are coming to light as a result of the conservation work.

As noted above, many of the objects undergoing conservation and being discussed in this series of posts will be exhibited at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology due to open in April 2021.