Goldweight in the shape of a man, wearing a loin cloth and wielding a hoe against a large, oval object, sitting on a flat, square base.
The Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire have long used weights to weigh the gold dust exchanged in mercantile transactions. Figurative weights such as this one begin to appear in the 18th century, and some of these representations might be associated with one or more of the many proverbs that play a crucial role in many Akan societies. This does not mean that the interpretation of the meaning attached to a particular gold weight is always straightforward. For example, this example of a man wielding a hoe might refer to the proverb, "In order to survive one must work"-- a reference to the importance of hard work. But in another context, an individual might use the same material form of the hoe to convey a very different message: the feeling that the branching tree of one's family has been severed from its roots because one's mother has died. In order to understand the socio-cultural context for this message, it helps to know that most Akan-speaking peoples are matrilineal, and also that the hoe here is often associated with cemeteries and death. Yet even with this background information, the interpretation remains open-ended, because there is no direct correspondence between the figure and its message.
Goldweight in the shape of a fan: a small, thin handle attached to a flat, spherical form, with a spiraling motif coming out of the center; the attachment of the handle to the circular shape is by way of a semi-circle, decorated with a spiraling motif flowing in the opposite direction.
Fans are commonly used among the Asante and other Akan-speaking people of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire-- to cool a king or queen in court or in public, for example. Fans were made of strips of palm leaves and worked into various forms using basketry weaving techniques. Here such a fan is reproduced as a gold weight-- one example of the representation of utilitarian and courtly objects in Akan goldweights.
Goldweight in the shape of a war horn, with representations of three human jawbones at the mouth of the horn and a cup-shaped mouthpiece.
This figurative goldweight represents a war horn, such as those that were used at royal courts in what are now Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire to praise the king. Actual horns were made of ivory and sometimes decorated with human jaws, as in the example represented here. Horns with human jawbones served as a warning to the king's enemies that they might be next. Also, the fact that their own jaws were now used to praise the person who had slain them added a further insult to already defeated enemies. An Akan proverb points to the significance of attaching enemy jawbones to a king's war horn in order to make it into an emblem of courage and strength: "if a horn deserves a jawbone, they attach one to it." This means that recognition of one's valor is not granted gratuitously, but must be earned.
Goldweight in the shape of an axe, with a smooth handle attached to a rounded top with an inserted, triangular blade.
Farming tools are a rather common motif among figurative gold weights. Akan-speaking peoples in what are now Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire have used and produced weights to weigh amounts of gold dust for mercantile transactions from at least the 15th century onwards. This example shows an axe in the form that is typical for the Asante region: a handle, which is ticker at one end, through which an iron blade is mounted. Axes like these were used to fell of trees and chop wood.
Figurative gold weights were sometimes related to one or more of the many proverbs that have play a prominent role in Asante (and related Akan) language and culture. However, it is often hard to tell whether an individual weight was intended to signify a proverb or not, and if so, which one, or how this particular proverb would have been understood by the speakers and listeners in a specific context. Thus, it might be that this example of a gold weight in the shape of an axe was intended to evoke the proverb "no matter what the dispute, it must be settled by arbitration, not an axe," but we do not know for sure that it was always used or understood in this way. In fact, an incident where the King of the Asante sent a golden axe to the British colonial rulers in 1881 shows that the British were not sure how to take the symbolism of the axe or the proverbs associated with it-- did it refer to war or to peace?
Goldweight in the shape of a knife, with a short handle set between two protrusions, giving way to a longer blade.
Among the Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, gold dust was used as a form of currency until the end of the 19th century, and merchants used diverse kinds of weights to weigh out measures of gold dust. Among these gold weights, the representation of all kinds of weaponry is very common, especially knives, such as in this example. Knives were originally used as weapons and as instruments of the executioner, and were also frequently worn on cartridge belts. However, by the time knives and other weaponry became frequent forms for gold weights, they were no longer in active use for fighting or war activities.
Goldweight in the shape of a coiled rope, tied together in the middle.
Coiled ropes, like other knot and loop forms, are very common symbols represented in Akan goldweights. To this day, people in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire interpret the many variations of this form as "wisdom knots" (or "nyansapò" in Asante, an Akan language). Wisdom knots are associated with a number of proverbs, including: "Only the wise man can untangle the knot"-- which means that the higher position of rulers or superiors is based on their greater knowledge an experience. Alternatively, some local people have interpreted weights in the shape of bundles of cord, like this one, as wound-up lengths of plant fibers or leather strips. In the latter case, there is no particular proverb attached to this weight.
Goldweight in the shape of a small ball with a short, slightly curved, angular tail or handle attached to it.
This small representational goldweight might represent two distinct natural forms. First, it could be a seed pod-- in line with the representations of plant life that are quite frequent in Akan goldweights of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. Secondly, it could be a calabash-- in this case, the natural form would refer to a particular cultural practice in the various Akan-speaking kingdoms, where, in the past, calabashes were used to store the gun and cannon powder used in war.
Among Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, merchants and traders used weights to weigh golddust, by placing an amount of golddust on one scale of a hand-held balance, and a weight such as this one on the other. All traders used to have their own set of weights, and for a transaction, each trader would weigh the golddust using his own weights. There were no fixed shapes or forms to represent a particular weight (or amount of gold dust), but each trader would have weights in a variety of shapes and sizes and would know the mass of all the weights in his own collection.
Goldweight in the shape of a square, with a geometric pattern of 2 spirals in the center and edged teeth along two sides.
Most Akan goldweights, including the oldest ones, represent geometric patterns. Goldweights such as this one have been used by Akan-speaking peoples in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire since at least the 15th century. According to Akan oral traditions, the soothsayer Djeya was the first to conceive of the equipment to weigh gold, including a balance with two pans, spoons, boxes for storing gold dust, vans and sifters, a small brush, touchstones, and the goldweights themselves. All this equipment was held together in a packet of cloth and parchment that was called "dja"-- short for Djeya, the name of the originator of the goldweighing apparatus. ("Dja" is the name used in Cote d'Ivoire; in Ghana the same object is called "futuo" or "samaa").
Goldweight in the shape of a square, with a geometric pattern with a double "X" form in the center and edged teeth along two sides.
This is an example of a geometric goldweight, as they were used and produced by Akan-speaking peoples in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire between 1400 and 1900. Goldweights have long intrigued Western visitors to the region and are popular collectors' items; they have been objects of scholarly inquiry by European scholars since the beginning of the 17th century. Yet the multiplicity of meanings inscribed in these goldweights, sometimes associated with proverbs, goes beyond a simple equation of a particular form with a particular meaning, and includes the varied contexts in which the objects were used (from trade exchanges to court rituals), the conjunction with other weights, and the social position and relationship of the person using the weight for a particular audience.