When gold was the currency of choice on Africa’s West Coast, known in those times as the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Ashanti artisans produced cast gold weights known as abrammo. The weights served as a counterbalance to gold dust, when placed on a scale. This is how transactions were carried out, for hundreds of years.
Early gold weights were geometrical; however, over the years, artisans began to craft figural gold weights: human and animal figures were cast into bronzes. Thus, gold weights became more than just utilitarian objects for use in the gold trade. The pieces took on meaning: they depicted daily activities, animal life in the area; or they represented Ashanti folk tales and proverbs.
Gold weights were, and still are, cast using the lost-wax process. In this age-old method, a figure is carved from wax; then clay is brushed onto the wax and built-up by adding additional layers, until a mold is formed. Hot brass is poured in, which melts the wax; when the brass cools, a “bronze” is formed. The mold must be broken in order to obtain the bronze within; therefore, each piece is unique – because each mold is destroyed.
My camera tends to enlarge small items. These gold weights are quite small. They range in height from approximately 1” to 3” tall. I purchased the majority of my collection in the late 1980’s from an older gentleman known as “Mori”, who knew and loved African art. Buying a piece from Mori meant enjoying a visit and conversation. It was pointless to attempt to “run in” and hurriedly buy something and leave. Time needed to be allotted for a visit! Mori told me some of the story that I am sharing with you here.
Determining the age of a gold weight is somewhat easier, if you know the following facts: in 1894, gold dust was banned as currency by the English colonial rulers. Then, in 1896, the use and production of gold weights was prohibited. Therefore, many gold weights you encounter will have some age on them.
The people of Ghana struggled to gain independence from their colonizers, chiefly the British, for centuries, and finally gained the right to self-govern. Ghana became a republic in 1960. Years of struggle still lay ahead, as is often the case when a country has been colonized by foreign governments for centuries. A multi-party constitution was introduced in 1991.
The ban on the making of gold weights is gone. Modern artisans make reproductions of earlier pieces, which people can buy as decorative items. A collector with a good eye can discern the difference between an older piece and a reproduction. Reproductions usually lack the fine detail seen in an older piece. And, as a bronze ages, it develops a green patina. A newer piece will most likely be lacking the patina.
I suggest never cleaning gold weights with brass cleaner, as you will remove the beautiful green patina, and you will remove a hundred or more years of history from the piece, in a manner of speaking (assuming it is an old piece).
Most of the pieces in my collection appear to have some age to them. That is, they were most likely made in the late 1800’s. They have the beautiful patina and fine detail which denote older works.
I have a couple of pieces which appear newer; however they feature excellent craftsmanship and detail, so it is possible that their patina was removed before I purchased them. The female figure depicted above is difficult to place an age on, because when I purchased her, she had no patina. But she was carved with good detail; so it is possible she was made long ago, and then cleaned “too well”.
This box, below, is definitely newer. I purchased it approximately ten years ago. I am certain it was newly made at that time. But the price was right, I had not seen another one, so I snatched it up.
I made the necklace which features this pendant, incorporating old trade beads, leather, hand-formed African brass beads, and wood spacer beads. I collect trade beads, and have made necklaces for about 30 years. Trade beads were made in Europe, often in Venice, and traded to indigenous people all over the globe. Bead making was a cottage industry in Venice. The kente cloth behind the necklace is another example of Ashanti art.
I won’t say for certain if my collection is made up of old or new pieces; but the gold weights are beautiful, and they hold a great deal of meaning for me. I didn’t purchase these treasures as an investment. I bought them because I appreciate their beauty!
Older pieces may command relatively high prices; however, I do not plan to sell my collection. These Ashanti works of art, and the rest of my folk art collection, are what transform my apartment in a senior citizen’s building into a true home, and into a haven for old, beautiful creations. And that is what feeds my soul.
And now, here’s the perfect music video featuring Riannon Giddens’ early band, Sankofa. This is a short TED talk with songs and…. talking about the songs. They talk about the Ashanti/Akan Sankofa legend.
Would you like to visit Ghana? It is reputed to be the friendliest country in Africa. Here is their Ministry of Tourism website: http://www.touringghana.com/default.asp
For further reading regarding gold weights, I recommend a visit to this website (The Hunterian). By clicking on various links, you can learn much:
Wikipedia also has a rather good entry on this subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akan_goldweights