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Jewellery Around The World: African Jewellery

Let’s enter the incredible world of African jewellery history.

Our latest instalment in our monthly jewellery around the world series, we want to focus on and learn about Africa’s rich and sentimental jewellery. Of course, as we are approaching a whole continent here, it is too simplistic and ignorant to say that all of the jewellery that we have found and researched is representative of the entirety of Africa. Africa is made up of 54 beautiful countries, each with their story to tell. Not to mention, in western culture especially, Northern African countries like Morocco and Egypt  are somewhat cognitively separated when it comes to thinking and discussing Africa because they are more “westernised” than others. This may be because historically they were closer to European trade routes. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that they too are part of African jewellery history. 

1885 Map of Africa (shows ill-defined borders and the rudimentary knowledge that colonisers had), Source - Nations of Online

 

Yet, it’s not just talking about jewellery history that has dangers of oversimplification, stereotyping or blanket statements. As illustrated on the UNESCO site, there is a general ignorance surrounding Africa’s history which is deeply rooted within ingrained racial prejudices and systems. Not to mention, the white history of colonisation and the slave trade has also clouded and warped how we have been taught about, and also as a consequence viewed, African history too. When we first set out on this mission to explore jewellery histories from around the world, we made it plain that colonisation has dramatically shaped the narratives of how we view these countries, often forgetting the painful ramifications that this created. Nevertheless, we will do our best to enlighten and also educate on the history of Africa and also stunning African jewellery. 


Africa’s Vast History In A Nutshell

It is believed that the first emergence of humans in Africa were 200,000 years ago in East Africa. Yet, the earliest recorded “history” in Africa is the Egyptian civilisation in 4th millennium BCE. The ancient Egyptians were geographically located nearer to Europe than the rest of the continent. This meant that the ancient Egyptians were the first to have contact with non-African civilisations. Whilst this meant that the ancient Egyptian empire could expand and grow, a consequence of this was the colonisation of North Africa by the Ancient Romans and the Ancient Ottomans. Yet further south, countries like Ghana, Oyo and the Benin Empire developed independently of this. 

Bas-Relief of a Benin Oba, Source - National Geographic

Because of Africa’s dry but also extremely fertile soil, it was central to growth and trade, especially in coffee and barley production from as early as 3000 BC. One of the most well-developed countries was Ethiopia, which had their own unique language, crop system and culture. Because of the knowledge that we have of Ancient Egypt, we know that metallurgy was well-established within Africa, from the use of Gold and Silver to Ironworking. 

Benin Cast Brass Mask, c.15th-17th century, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Like other major continents and countries, many nomadic tribes and empires were built in central and south Africa including the Kanem empire, the Bantu tribes and the Xhosa. What is so interesting about these central cultures and established nations is that they developed relatively independently rather than being influenced by outside sources. There is of course evidence that the ancient Egyptians did migrate further south bringing their “western” touch with them, but many of these communities still retained their indigenous origins and cultures for hundreds and thousands of years. That being said, countries in what we know today as the Horn of Africa like Somalia and Ethiopia, had established merchant trade routes with India and the Arabian peninsula, trading historic materials and ingredients like frankincense. The Swahili  also had established trade routes with the Islamic countries and Asia too. One of the other most prominent Ancient African empires was the Nubian civilisations. Ta-Seti, their first sacral kingdom, was incredibly powerful, and in the context of jewellery, Nubians were one of the first people in the world to wear Gold hooped earrings!

Ancient Nubian bracelet with image of Hathor, Source - Ancient History

It was in the 11th to the 16th century that Arabic immigrants started to colonise Northern Africa, which created a large absorption of Berber culture. In West Africa there was the Mali empire which consolidated much of western Sudan in the 13th century and then the establishment of the Songhai empire in Middle Niger and western Sudan in the 15th century. Of course in forested regions on the West African coast, many civilisations grew independent of these influences and it's so interesting how Africa’s vast geographical landscape and dense flora contributed to how these separate nations and settlements established themselves.

Photograph of a Songhai Woman by Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, Source - Google Arts and Culture

People first think that colonisation and the slave trade started in the 17th and 18th century, but it was as far back as the 15th century that the British planned to acquire African colonies and territories for themselves. This eventually developed into the Atlantic Slave Trade which had a momentous impact on Africa itself and also how much we are educated about this beautiful country. Today, Africa is still a huge mystery to many people and is incredibly racially stereotyped and prejudiced against because of this slave trade. This also culminated with a multiplicity of wars and financial issues in Africa that are still present today. Not to mention, hundreds and thousands of Protestant and Catholic missionaries invaded Africa from the 15th century onward, with a mission to “civilise”. 

Illustration of an 18th century British slave ship, Source - Wikimedia Commons#

So many European and western countries saw Africa as this landscape to conquer, to break apart, to divide and also to completely drain the landscape for their own profit. In the 19th century, the European nations created a map of Africa that marked out the possessions of the different countries that “belonged” to Germany, France, Britain, America, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. British settler colonies included Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. There was this disgusting view that these were philanthropic rather than exploitative measures and it was their duty to “civilise” these African territories and tribes. From 1800 to 1945, this created immense struggles with Africa’s right to independence which was granted in 1945. 

The decolonisation of Africa started in the 1950s, with the last country to be freed was Ethiopia in 1993. However in the 1950s in South Africa there was also the incredibly racist Apartheid laws that continued until 1994. 

As can you see from this general gloss over of African history, there is so much to learn and so much more to dive into. If you want to find out more, we highly recommend heading to the UNESCO site. 

African Jewellery

Now onto African jewellery! 

There is a myriad of evidence to suggest that Africa was the first continent that started wearing jewellery.

African jewellery is known for being bright, colourful, textural and exquisitely handcrafted from techniques that have been passed down for generations. African jewellery is not just bodily adornment, it is so much more! From rituals to religious adornment, African jewellery is weighted with beautiful stories. 


The oldest African jewellery piece that has ever been discovered is mollusc shell beads that are over 75,000 years old, with worn areas that suggest they were used to make a necklace. Much of traditional and tribal African jewellery is crafted from organic materials like hide, porcupine quill, bone, animal teeth, animal hair, seeds, nuts, husks, clay, shells, egg shells, wood, ivory and stone.  For instance, archaeological discoveries have found many pieces crafted from cowrie shells and ostrich shells. Not to mention, cowrie shell jewellery is still widely worn today. In fact, much of African jewellery is eco-friendly by origin and design, often recycling and reusing materials. 


Egyptian Shell Necklace, c.1850-1750 BCE, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the 15th and 16th century, established trade routes brought coral, ceramic and amber beads, as well as brass coins. Due to metallurgy being pre-existent, copper and iron alloys were made into pendants and simple jewellery.

Traditional African jewellery was largely dependent on what was available locally, what was available through trade and the different customs and traditions that pervaded within each individual culture and tribe. One of the prime examples of this is a 13th century wax method that was used to cast Bronze in Nigeria and Benin. This was started by the Yoruba tribe and has since been able to cast absolutely beautiful and intricate Bronze jewellery. 


 

18th Century Brass Yoruba Bracelet, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gold was also widely used in African jewellery, but especially for adornment. The coronation of Kings and leaders amassed to a wealth of Gold with Gold being largely extracted in the Sahara and widely used by Sengalese Goldsmiths. Senegal is one of the West-African countries that is most famous for their Gold-work, creating complicated and intricate pieces that were widely replicated in Europe and beyond, but of course, many Europeans passed this off as their own creations! Infact, Sengalese women would bedeck themselves in Gold as a way to communicate a cosmopolitan identity and prestige, and in many ways this was an act of self-empowerment. What is one of the most interesting details about this  is that in the 15th century these Sengalese women would marry European men, specifically Portuguese and teach themselves multiple European languages so they could partake in trade and earn money. Called signares in Portuguese, they also inherited the wealth from when their husbands died. Although these women did have part to play within the atlantic slave trade, because they owned property and slaves, it is very important to see how Gold was used to create an identity and fashion a new life for themselves. Not to mention, it also shows how jewellery has historically been a complex mixture of human exploitation and empowerment. 


Mid-20th Century Gold Plated Sengalese Pendant, Source - The Smithsonian

Mid-20th Century Gold-Plated Sengalese Heart Pendant, Source - The Smithsonian

What is most interesting about African jewellery is the language of beads. In southern and eastern Africa, beaded jewellery is commonplace amongst all in society. However, in Yoruba culture, beads are only worn by rulers in the form of stunning beaded crowns, and in Cameroon, beads are an expression of a privileged upbringing. But this form of distinct bead culture is actually a relatively new concept in Africa’s vast history, with historians believing that this only was adopted in the 1850s.  This is because, it was during the 1850s that there was the import of small colourful glass beads from Italy. 


19th Century Zulu Bead Girdle, Source - The British Museum

However, for thousands of years beads was also a form of African currency. The earliest African bead jewellery dates back to 10,000 BCE, originating in Libya. The tribes that are most known for their exquisite beaded creations are the Zulu, Masai, Pokot and Turkana tribe.

Gemstones are also widely used in Africa jewellery. These usually include Turquoise, Coral, Lapis Lazuli, Sapphires, Emeralds, Rubies, Topaz, Rose Quartz, Amethyst and Moonstone. Like other countries, these gemstones have accrued talismanic qualities. Amber was believed to attract and harness the powers of the sun to protect tribes from evil shadows, Coral was known as the “water tree” which was used as a protective amulet. 

Carnelian, Agate, Turquoise Necklace of Wah, c.1981-1975 BCE, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the most recognisable style of African jewellery is large, sculptural and dignified pieces that alter the body. And it is this alteration and change that is part of the reason why many tribes wear these pieces. One of the most common is the lip dish that is placed on the lower lip of a woman before her marriage. This is very common in Ethiopia, and it is believed that the larger the dish is an indication of the families wealth, symbolic of how many cattle the family has.  Another is the neck-ring in the Ndebele tribe which creates the illusion that the neck is longer as elongated necks were a sign of beauty. 


We have only touched the surface of African jewellery history, and there is so much more to learn, uncover and understand! 

Molly Chatterton

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