Thursday, 8 June 2017

Object Assessment of the Nasca Bowl G. 046

The object (G. 046) assessed in this report is a pottery vessel with a gently curved rim with a flaring out lip and a rounded base, which belongs to the Ethnographic Collection at UCL (  The height and the diameter of the upper rim are both 15 cm; the circumference of the waist is 52 cm; the thickness of the wall is 0.4 cm. An Anthropomorphic Mythical Being is depicted on the exterior surface of the pottery ware. The figure seems to be a human monster, combining a human face and a lower animal, perhaps a centipede or scorpion. The eyes are wide open, and the bottom part of the face seems to be covered with a mouth-mask extending with wing-like projections to each side. Tentacle-like projections are found under the face with two human hands or feet.
Image 1 A front view of the pottery ware G. 046. 

Nasca people express their idea of art and religion through pottery wares. The aesthetic value started to attract collectors and scholars in the 1900s. Archaeologists were able to develop a chronology relying on the artistic style of the Nasca pottery. It is uncertain when, where and why Sir Henry Wellcome collected those Nasca ceramics, but because of the Wellcome Collection’s change of focus, those ceramic objects were donated to UCL Anthropology Department. The Nasca pottery wares were then used as a teaching tool.
Image 2 A close-up photo of the flaking surface.
Image 3 A photo of the interior surface of the object, which shows the missing paints.
    The whole structure of the vessel is complete. Small portions of paints are missing on the internal surface. Some abrasions are found in the lower area of the external surface. Paint in the lower area adjoining to the decoration is flaking off, which seems to be the most serious issue of the pottery ware. Adhesive remnants were detected under the Ultraviolet light, possibly caused by the incomplete removal of labels. With the help of Dr O’Grady, a solubility test was carried out on the flaking off paints in an attempt to narrow down the possibility of the material. 

The paint was extraordinarily brittle, which was easily broken into pieces. The solubility of the paint was tested in three different solutions: water, IMS (alcohol), and acetone. It turned out that the paint was insoluble in all the three solutions. Therefore, Dr O’Grady suggested that the paint might not be the ceramic surface (slip paint), and it was possibly applied post firing. There are two hypotheses: one is that the paint is the evidence of the previous repair and the other is that the entire vessel is fake. A thorough analysis of the vessel’s material will be needed.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A Naga 'battle axe' from Arunachal Pradesh, India @ the Ethnographic Collections of the Department of Anthropology at UCL

Figure 1. One side of the axe (dao) showing the hair secured through holes into the handle.

Figure 2. The reverse side of the axe (dao).

The object (cat. no. A.0042) is described on the label as a 'Battle axe' and as being  'SE Asia. Nagas Wellcome Trust' and the place as 'India/Arunachal Pradesh'. It was acquired from the Trust in 1954 without documentation. In other collections similar artefacts are called chopper, hatchet, dao or knife. The terminology is significant as they are both weapon and tool. Dao is commonly used in ethnographic studies.

Figure 3. Detail image showing the distinctive end grain of bamboo and the tufted hair.

Figure 4. Detail image showing the red and black cane work on the haft and the metal ring with rivets.

The dao comprises a forged single edged iron blade hammered into an ornamented haft. The entire length is 772 mm. The haft (handle) is bamboo and coated in a dark resin. It is wrapped around by two bands of woven plant fibre, one dyed red probably from a plant in the wider madder family Rubia sikkimensis (Hutton 1921, 51). The second band has an alternative weave which is almost a 'herringbone' pattern. The most extravagant ornamentation is comprised of rows of bunched hair secured into neatly drilled holes. The hair is of two sorts: one dark, the second pale straw coloured and dyed with bands of red. Typically the hair is identified as goat or occasionally human. This example is as yet unconfirmed.

The dao was used exclusively by men and was an indispensable article throughout an entire life with no distinction made between a war dao or one for everyday use. Naga material culture is extensively represented in UK collections. The word 'Naga' was first applied to various peoples with different cultures and languages who had seemingly more differences than similarities. They defined themselves by reference to family, village or clan. Yet following the end of colonial rule 'Naga' has been used as a term to define nationhood and seek independence from India. The British used the cultural material as a way of classifying groups within the larger designation of Naga (West 2011, 182). Tribal names are often used as a prefix to 'Naga'. In this way it can be said that the blade shape and decoration are more typically Sema Naga and the other ornamentation Konyak Naga as in figure 5.

Figure 5. Described as a Konyak dao (Jacobs et al. 1998, 245).

Figure 6. The blade with forged repair 

Figure 7. Detail image of the forged repair.

The dao is structurally sound and apparently complete. The blade and riveted ring show considerable signs of use wear. The cane work and hair are in a stable condition. Under magnification damage to the hair is visible. The dao is safe for display and loan. The hair is vulnerable and care should be taken when handling.

Figure 8. Detail image of a hair at taken with Leica DM LP at 40 x magnification showing the scale pattern of the hair and a dark line of damage running down the hair. Possibly the acetone used in taking the cast has stripped the dye from the hair.


J.H.Hutton. 1921. The Sema Nagas. London: Macmillan & Co.
J. Jacobs, S.Harison, A.Herle, A. McFarlane1998. The Nagas - Hill people of North East India: Society, Culture and the Colonial Encounter. London: Thames and Hudson.
A. West. 2011. Museums, colonialism and identity: a History of Naga Collections in Britain, (Contribution to critical museology and material culture). London: Horniman Museum and Garden.

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2016-17), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Ornamental blade from the Belgian Congo (UCL Ethnographic Collections)

Ornamental blade from the Belgian Congo (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Throughout history weapons served various purposes as implements of war and hunting tools. They were also employed as symbols by different cultures to communicate certain messages. The ornamental blade shown here is exemplary of the various styles of decorative or status-related weapons created in the Congo. This item measures 41.5 cm long. The blade is 6.9 cm wide, 18.8 cm at its widest. Towards the bottom the blade flares out into two points. It is most likely iron, which corresponds with its silver color and the popularity of the metal in Central Africa in previous centuries (Anon. 2017, 2; Kriger 1992). This theory is upheld by the dark color of the decorative carved lines running the length of the object’s center (Anon. 2017, 2). The wooden handle is enveloped in a long, thin strip of metal. Its light brown, reddish hue hints at a copper alloy as its identity. The catalogue card declares it to be brass. Due to the flatness of both metal portions it could be surmised that they were hammered into shape. The catalogue confirms this possibility.

Carving detail on blade (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Brass strip wrapped around wooden handle and held in place by rivets (by Maria Melendez 2017)

This object shows signs of damage in the metal components and the wooden handle. The blade itself has dark brown spots of inactive corrosion. One of the points at the bottom is bent upward. Part of the brass strip coiled around the handle is misshapen, as if it was dropped or pulled. In this area a fragment of the handle has broken off. There are no clues of previously performed treatments. The condition of the whole is good and stable. It does not require urgent attention.
Portion of brass strip that has been deformed (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Corrosion stains on blade (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Wooden handle with portion missing and misshapen brass strip (by Maria Melendez 2017)

Bent tip of blade (by Maria Melendez 2017)

This type of weapon is known as an ingóndá knife and is representative of a person’s title and authority in a society (possibly a chief or other high-ranking figure). While a similar shape had been used for hunting, this model’s blunt edges reinforce the idea that its use was ornamental. How this object was incorporated into the Ethnographic Collections is unclear yet its alleged provenance, the Belgian Congo, points to certain likelihoods. Considering the colonial context of this location during the 19th and 20th century it’s feasible that this ingóndá was taken out of the Congo by a missionary, scholar, or government official and sold or gifted in England. In fact, Daryll Forde, British anthropologist and founder of the Ethnographic Collections, worked in this region of Africa and given the little information provided by the record it is possible that it belonged to him. The historic, aesthetic, and technical values have always formed part of its significance; its social value, regarding the symbolism of status, has been stripped from it. The main stakeholders evidently are the people of Congo and the descendants of the object’s creators.

Kriger, C. (1992). Ironworking in 19th century Central Africa. Doctor of Philosophy. York University. Available: [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Anonymous. Metal Identification. King Saud University. Available: 
[Accessed 4 April 2017]

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