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These small objects were essential tools for trade in West Africa until the end of the 19th century. Depicting important proverbs and symbols from Akan culture, they illuminate intricacies of a complex society and historical networks of commerce.

Cast brass gold weights, West Africa, Ghana, Asante, late 19th century

They show how materials, ideas and technology have been exchanged between different parts of the African continent and Europe for centuries. They give us a glimpse of how the rich and colourful language of proverbs permeated every aspect of Akan culture and shaped the way people communicated everyday.

Gold weights fact file

Date

Late 19th century

Made in

Ghana

What culture are they from?

Akan

Material

Brass

Did you know?

These gold weights come from the Akan region, a part of West Africa which now lies across Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Historically, the area contained substantial gold deposits which led to the region being known as the ‘Gold Coast’ by European traders.

How were they used?

Akan people produced gold weights like these in Ghana from around 1400 to 1900. Made from imported European brass, these weights represented units and could be adjusted with drops of solder or copper plugs. They were used to measure gold-dust, the currency of the region at the time. Units of gold dust were weighed out for all transactions, from the smallest market sale to the largest state enterprise. 

Gold weights made of brass, West Africa, Ghana, Asante

Traders carried many weights and most families would also have a collection that could be passed down as heirlooms. The gold weight would sit on one side of a pair of scales and gold-dust would be scooped onto the other with a brass spoon. The weights and scales would be part of a larger gold weighing set.

Spoon of beaten brass sheet, West Africa, Ghana, Asante, late 19th-early 20th century

Impurities were removed with blow pans of hammered brass and the quality of gold nuggets would be tested with a touchstone. Gold dust was kept in a twist of cloth inside a brass box for everyday use and sometimes stored in large, elaborate brass containers called kuduo.

Brass box for holding gold-dust, rectangular with decorated detachable lid, produced by lost wax casting: West Africa, Ghana, Asante, late 19th to early 20th century

Why was gold so important?

Mining and panning for gold was a major industry in the Akan region, which held rich natural reserves. Gold could be seen glinting in the silt of rivers and was washed out of the earth after heavy rain. 

The trade of this precious metal attracted merchants from west Sudan who took it to North Africa. European traders also arrived along the coast and carried huge quantities back to Europe by ship. Commodities such as salt, kola nuts, iron, cowrie shells, brassware, fabrics, liquor and gunpowder were exchanged. Increasingly at this time, enslaved people were also a key part of this trade.

The wealth and prosperity generated by the gold trade led to the emergence of the Asante Kingdom in the eighteenth century. Following the Anglo–Asante trade treaty agreed in 1817, the British mounted a military campaign to gain control of trade routes. In 1896, they annexed the region and abolished gold-dust as a currency, replacing it with the British pound sterling. Combined with the gradual decline of the ancient gold trade, this marked the end of the large-scale production of gold weights. No longer needed for everyday use, huge numbers of weights were sold and brought back to Europe.

Why are they so intricate?

Akan gold weights appear in two main forms: geometric and figurative.  The tiny sculptures of people, animals, birds, plants, tools and weapons usually carry a symbolic meaning and often depict scenes from proverbs.

In traditional Akan culture, extensive and subtle use of proverbs was a sign of high culture and education. Many gold weights conceal symbols that hint at the need to recognise and respect hierarchies. Being proficient in such proverbs was key to navigating trading relations.

Trading involved much haggling and the use of proverbs was important, to communicate double meanings and indirect criticism, thus avoiding conflict. The gold weight chosen for a transaction may have contained a coded message.

Cast brass sculpture in form of a gunboat with figures of men and birds, in the style of a gold weight: West Africa, Ghana, Asante, late 19th-early 20th century

Gold weights could also be worn as charms to cure ailments, gifted with dowries of gold dust or sent as pertinent messages. Proverbs depicted in the form of the weight could provide a piece of advice, recall a debt, serve as a warning or token of friendship.

What do they mean?

Some gold weights depict a single proverb and others combine symbols to create complex meanings. Explore the meanings behind some of our gold weights below. 

Sankofa

A very common gold weight theme is the mythical Sankofa bird. The Sankofa, which is always depicted looking backwards, means ‘don’t forget your roots’ or ‘use what is behind you’. It’s still an important visual symbol in Ghana that reminds people to learn from the past. 

Gold weight of brass, in the form of a bird with head turned round to tail, on square stepped base: West Africa, Ghana, Asante

Birds

The bird as an emblem of the state can be merged with a knot, which represents wisdom, to create a figure that indicates ‘wisdom of the state’.

Gold weight for valuing gold-dust, West Africa, Ghana, Asante, late 19th century

Sandals

Gold weights often appear in the shape of objects used and worn by high ranking chiefs. These objects had symbolic meaning associated with power and maintaining social order. Sandals could be a reminder for those in power need to keep their feet on the ground.

Gold weight of cast brass in form of a pair of sandals, West Africa, Ghana, Asante

Chair

In other objects, we can see evidence of trade with Europeans. A chair decorated with 19th-century upholstery tacks demonstrates how decorative details were appropriated. It was common practice to embellish furniture with these brass tacks, which shone like gold if polished with lime juice.

Cast brass gold weight representing a chief's asipim chair: West Africa, Ghana, Asante, late 19th century

How were they made?

Gold weights were cast in brass using the lost wax process. The form would be modelled in purified beeswax, coated in a clay slip and encased in a larger clay ball. When heated in a furnace, the molten wax would drain out, leaving behind a perfect indentation of the model.

Gold weight of cast brass, four birds perched on open rectangle, West Africa, Ghana, Asante

Molten brass would be poured in and once cooled, the clay would be cracked to reveal the gold weight. Sometimes small objects were used instead of wax models. Popular items included beetles, shells, fruit and crab claws, which were small enough to be incinerated in heat of the fire. This method has been called the ‘lost-beetle process’.

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