22 May Behind the Scenes: Ghanaian Gold Weights
Akan-speaking communities on the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) have been home to a vibrant brass-casting culture (Garrard 1983, 30). From the 15th century, brass-casting focused on producing equipment for the local gold trade: boxes, scales, and weights (Garrard 1983, 30) Weights cast from copper alloy, known colloquially as gold weights, were made in two varieties: smaller geometric ones used as the counterbalance for weighing gold, and figurative models that referenced Akan proverbs and stories. (Fig. 1&2)
Gold was one of the primary currencies from the 15th to late 19th century, when the British colonial government shifted the colony’s currency to the British pound Sterling in an attempt to gain further control over the region (Cole and Ross 1977, 70; National Museums of Scotland; Sheales). Up to the end of the 19th century, gold weights had been integral tools in local financial exchanges. With the decline of gold as legal tender, weights became obsolete in the gold trade and gained popularity as souvenirs (Sheales). European merchants, soldiers, and diplomats, among others, returned to Europe with Ghanaian goods, including vast numbers of weights, some formerly used to weigh gold and others made for tourists.
In 2019, the Fowler Museum received a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to research part of the Museum’s collection of African arts, specifically a gift of some 30,000 objects, including 449 Ghanaian gold weights, received in 1965 from the Sir Henry Wellcome Trust. Supported by the Mellon, a Fowler team has been examining these weights, diving into their histories, material compositions, and meanings.
First, looking at our museum records, we discovered that the previous owner, Sir Henry Wellcome, had recorded the names of individuals or auction houses where he purchased 255 of his weights.
Our team focused on three of the identified sources, representative of the range of people living, working, and passing through Ghana in the late 19th–early 20th century. One was Dr. C.S. Patterson, an English medical doctor who went to Ghana (then called the Gold Coast) in 1901. Patterson worked for the Gold Coast Government Railways, aiding the British railroad workers who supervised the laying of tracks from the coast to the country’s interior. (Fig. 4) The second was Mrs. Debes Davies, who received the weights from her brother, who had acquired them from his wife’s family who collected them on their travels from South Africa to England. (Fig. 5) The third source was listed as an Officer in the West Indian Regiment at Cape Castle. (Fig. 6) Given the history of the West Indian Regiment in this area, the weights could have been collected as early as 1874. Study of these collections raise questions about connections between war, industrialization, trade, and gold in the context of colonial Ghana.
Our team is equally interested in learning more about the Ghanaians who made these weights, as well as where and when they did so. In search of these answers, we are conducting material analysis to determine the metallic composition of the weights, identifying any modifications or non-metal materials, and recording the weight of each object. (Fig. 7)
To identify the weights’ metallic composition, we are using a portable X-ray fluorescence handheld spectrometer. (Fig. 8) This tool allows us to specify which elements comprise the metal of each weight. Brass is a copper-zinc metal alloy, so all of the weights contain those two minerals, but they also show varying levels of lead, tin, arsenic (Depending on the levels of these metals in relation to the copper, their inclusion can result in noticeable color differences in the brass: higher levels of lead result in a more muted, darker, greyer tone; tin leads to a silvery-yellow brass; and copper alloy that is just copper and zinc imparts a bright yellow color.) In some cases, there is even residual gold from coming in contact with the flakes that they were meant to weigh. In this image you can see one of the weights that still has flecks of gold imbedded in the groove of the design. (Fig. 9)
Once we compile our data regarding the previous owners and the composition of the weights, we can, hopefully, begin to identify where in Ghana they were made. At this time, we have many questions: Will we be able to identify specific forges and workshops? Will the materials analysis enable us to determine a date range for the weights’ manufacture? Will the data be entirely inconclusive? This would be a frustrating outcome, but as with all research, sometimes paths of inquiry lead to a dead end. Now we can only guess at our findings. Check back with us as we learn more and share our discoveries online.
Cole Herbert M. and Doran H. Ross, The Arts of Ghana. Los Angeles, CA: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 1977.
Garrard, Timothy F. “A Corpus of 15th to 17th Century Akan Brass-Castings.” In Akan Transformations: Problems in Ghanaian Art History, edited by Doran H. Ross and Timothy F. Garrard, 30-53. Los Angeles, CA: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 1983.
National Museums of Scotland, “Gold Weights from Ghana.” Accessed April 2, 2020. https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/world-cultures/gold-weights-from-ghana/
Sheales, Fiona. “African Gold-Weights in the British Museum,” British Museum, 2014. Accessed March 23, 2020. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20190801115527tf_/ https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/online_research_catalogues/agw/african_gold-weights/preface.aspx