Fiona S and I spent a happy day in the British Museum storerooms as part of our cowrie-related work. Fiona was leading this particular visit, having selected objects from Ghana – many of them Asante – which feature cowrie shells.
We went through the objects, carefully documenting how the cowries had been used – whether they were pierced, strung, sewn, threaded… – and what other objects they were associated with.
We also tried wherever possible to determine whether they were cypraea moneta or cypraea annulus. This is important because some have argued that moneta was the first cowrie into Ghana, brought along trans-Saharan routes, while annulus was brought in after AD 1800, with the opening of European trade with East Africa. This is one of the hypotheses that we are testing. In terms of Fiona’s work specifically, she is interested in seeing whether certain types of cowrie were selected to use in certain objects, and why.
The objects we saw covered a range of periods, some as old as 1850 AD. Many were ritual or protective objects, that is to say commissioned by people to solve particular problems they were having, or used in ceremonies.