Category Archives: Museum Studies

Manilla or penannular bracelet currency


A manilla in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Cat.No: 1884.99.42.

On the lower gallery, in Case 75.A, Ornaments Used as Currency Objects, is an object known as a manilla (1884.99.42). Part of the Pitt Rivers’ founding collection, this manilla was salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast off Cork, Ireland, in 1836. General Pitt Rivers was stationed in the army in Ireland some thirty years later, from 1862 to 1866, when he probably obtained the object. Donated in 1884, it was originally displayed at Bethnal Green Museum in London. Made in Birmingham, this manilla was one of a quantity on a ship bound for New Calabar (Nigeria) where they were to be traded for palm oil and ivory. The old Pitt Rivers Museum label said that these manillas were to be traded in Ibo country, West Africa.

Manillas (which were a traditional African exchange medium) were originally metal bracelets or armlets. Later forms were made of copper, bronze, or brass open rings (penannular or almost ring-like), often horse-shoe shaped with enlarged finial terminations. The term is derived from the Spanish for bracelet or manella or the Portuguese for hand-ring (Rees 2000). The origin is from the Latin manus (hand) or monilia, or monile the plural for necklace. The universal name for manillas, which are an ancient form of money or barter coinage, is Okpoho.  Manillas originated at Calabar and the word ‘okpoko’ is the Calabar, Efik, Annang, and Ibibio term for money or brass.

During the 1470s Portuguese explorers became aware that, all along the west coast of Africa, copper bracelets and leg-bands were a means of exchange. Copper, regarded as the ‘red gold’ of Africa, was mined and then traded across the Sahara by merchants from Italy and Arabia. This ‘red gold’ was seen always as the primary metal for exchange and value judgements (Herbert, 1984), whereas gold was regarded by Africans for purposes of adornment and the export trade. For internal purposes one of the oldest, and original general-purpose currencies, was the copper or bronze manilla, and were known at Calabar in 1505. By 1859 manillas were reported on the Benin River and again seen in Calabar in 1688. (Einzig, 1949). These early Portuguese traders bought tusks of ivory, peppers, and slaves by exchanging currency ‘bracelets’ acceptable to the Africans (Rees, 2000). Eventually manillas became known as slave trade money after they were used by Europeans to acquire slaves. The slave trade in question was that to England and the Americas prior to 1807. Furthermore, Dutch traders “…bought slaves against payment in rough grey copper armlets which had to be very well made, otherwise the natives rejected them by the hundred.” (Meek, 1937). A slave cost about 12 to 15 brass manillas in the 1490s but correspondingly less if they were of copper (Rees, 2000). With inflation a female slave aged 16 in Benin cost between about 50 manillas in 1522. Indeed, smaller pattern Popo Manillas, which were too small to wear as bracelets, were manufactured in Birmingham solely for the slave trade, now referred to as ‘slave money’.

The earliest use of manillas was in West Africa. As a means of exchange they originated in Calabar.  Calabar was the chief city of the ancient southeast Nigerian coastal kingdom of that name. It was here in 1505 that a slave could be bought for 8-10 manillas, and an elephant’s tooth for one copper manila (Einzig, 1949; Talbot, 1926). Manillas were noted by voyagers and traders on the Benin River in 1589 and at Calabar in 1688. African names for manillas varied according to local customs. The Mkporo was probably a British or Dutch origin manila but a Popo was French. The British Consul to Fernando Po (1856) delineated 5 different manilla types used in Nigeria (Einzig, 1949). There was the Antony Manilla which was valued in interior markets; the ‘bottle necked’ Congo Singolo which was valued only in the market at Opungo; the Onadoo was best for trade in the Kingdom of Calabar, and also in Igbo country between New Kalahari and Bonny; worth half the value of an Antony the Finniman Fawfinna was acceptable in Qua market as well as Julu Town; finally other patterns of manilla represent types evolving at their point of manufacture in Birmingham, England. The Ibos of Nigeria and the Guineans still used manillas as currency in the nineteenth century (Talbot, 1926) (Einzig, 1949).

By the early sixteenth century the Portuguese were actively engaged in the slave trade. Evidence shows that manilas were carried by bearers into the African interior. Eventually the Portuguese lost their monopoly to the English, French and Dutch – all of whom possessed labour intensive plantations in the Caribbean and eventually the Americas. Utilitarian brass manilas were transported from Europe, mainly England, to West Africa. Manillas were then exchanged for slaves who were then transported to the Americas and the West Indies. The final leg of the triangle saw American cotton shipped to Europe. Manillas eventually became the main currency underpinning the slave trade, but the price “… of a slave expressed in manillas varied considerably according to time, place, and the specific type of manila offered.” (Rees, 2000). In 1788 a Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the so-called ‘Copper King’ from Angelsey, and his partners “…declared that the slave trade in particular had led them to invest heavily in the copper industry.” (Herbert, 1984; Harris, 2003).

The Nigerian manillas in the African manilla trade have been described as “…an open bracelet in the form of a horseshoe with lozenge shaped ends, measuring about 2 ¼ inches across and weighing about 3 ounces.” (Herbert, 1984). They are the latest and the smallest pattern manilla and worth, prior to their withdrawal in 1949, three English pence or 20-25 centimes. Bristol, in the early 18th century, was a centre for the copper industry. An important manufacturer was R & W. King who were eventually absorbed by the later United Africa Company. After this period the most significant city manufacturing brass wares in Europe was Birmingham. Most patterns of manilla were made in Birmingham, including the middle period Nkobukob-Onoudu and the lighter in weight late pattern types. Pieces exported from Birmingham in 1836 appear to be of the smaller type – compared to the heavier Portuguese type of the 16th century. A later type was the Okpoho which is the Efik word for brass. Many Okpoho manillas were salvaged from the wreck of the slave ship Douro off the Isles of Scilly in 1843 (Receiver of Wrecks, 2003).

In the 1690s a series of fortuitous developments in the brass industry of Britain improved production. This eventually gave British manufacturers the edge in the brass trade in Africa. This led to the development of the crescent-shaped and flared ended brass piece known as the Birmingham manilla. These were well made and weighed about 90 grams though a larger pattern was about 300 grams. The trade in copper became enmeshed in the slave trade when Birmingham developed into a centre for finished brass wares. In 1767 a factory in Warrington was manufacturing manillas, in 1767 a Warmly company stocked listed its Guinea manillas, and the Cheadle Brass Wire Company opened its Manilla House and Assay Office in 1790 (Herbert, 1984).

Bracelets and manillas were being replaced by western currencies by the end of the 19th century.  Bristol established an important role in African commerce after 1807 in the palm oil trade. Manillas of various types were traded for oil instead of slaves.  Of interest here is the fact that the Pitt Rivers Museum’s manilla on display was for exchange in the palm oil trade. Whatever this manilla had been traded for, prior to its loss in a Cork shipwreck in 1836, it became an item of currency for the African palm oil trade. The Pitt Rivers manilla was not therefore associated with slavery when he collected it.

January 29th, 2010.

Originally printed online in January 2010 as a contribution to the Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Project, Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. My thanks to the museum for allowing me to place this article on my blog site.


Bowden, M.  Pitt Rivers…  CUP, Cambridge. (1991). Einzig, P.  Primitive Money, in its ethnological, historical and economic aspects.  Eyre & Spottiswoode, London (1949). Harris, J. R.  The Copper King: Thomas Williams of Llanidan. Ashbourne, (2003 2nd ed). Herbert, E. W.  Red Gold of Africa.  University of Wisconsin Press. (1984) Lynn, M.  ‘Bristol, West Africa and the Nineteenth-Century Palm Oil Trade’.  Historical Research, 64 (155), 359-374.  12.10.2007. Meek, C. K.  Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe.  p.5. London (1937). Receiver of Wrecks.  Annual report, (2003). Rees, A.  ‘Manillas’.  Coin News, 46-47, April 2000. Talbot, P. A.  The peoples of Southern Nigeria.  Volume 1.   London (1926). Williams, E.  Capitalism and Slavery.  83-84.  Chapel Hill. (1944).

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Kamene Baba Figure

Image (2)

PRM.1890.30.1: Kamene Baba figure beside the Collection Box.

This statue is a most intriguing artefact and the archetype of the Baba Yaga Cult. Towering over the more benevolent mortals in the Collection Box as you enter the Court from the right hand side, is the stone figure of Kamene Baba: Although easily upstaged by her more animated neighbours, she does have an intriguing tale to tell.

The statue is a rough hewn sandstone female figure holding a cup in her hands called Kamene Baba weighing 10 cwt 10 lbs and 21000 mm high. It is from a burial mound at Ekaterinoslav in southern Russia dated from 1000 to 1100 AD. Kammennaia Baba is ascribed to archaeological stone statues discovered near southern Russian burial grounds.

Baba Yaga is a witch or crone archetype whose cult occurs in Slavic mythology. These stories originate in the myths and beliefs of northern Russian and Finnish peoples who worshipped stone goddesses. These groups had stone statues called Yagas or Golden Babas which represented a local goddess who could be asked for advice and empowered with deciding people’s fate. These figures had their own huts on tree stumps where they were offered food gifts. Yaga comes from the Nentsy (a northern Siberian tribe) word yaha, meaning lake or sea. Russian soldiers called these figures babas – also known in Finno-Ugarit.

Linguistics shows the prehistoric features of Baba Yaga. Yaga is also considered to derive from Proto-Slavic (y)ega, meaning disease, fright, wrath. In Old Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish (Jezda), and Slovene, it is cognate with Lithuanian engti – strangle, press, torture. Earlier forms come from Proto-Samoyed nga meaning goddess of death. The Slavic etymon baba means grandmother, woman, or cloud woman (a mythic rain-maker and pelican).

In Russian folklore Baba Yaga is known as an ogress derived from an archaic goddess of death and regeneration, and therefore not a ‘Venus’ but dualistic death-bringer and life-giver for ancient northern Russian peoples. She is preserved in Slavic and Baltic folklore – Ragana in Lithuania and Latvia. Slavic folktales depict her as an evil cannibalistic old crone and as a wise prophetic old woman. Her main image is avian, but she can shape-shift into a frog, toad, turtle, mouse, crab, vixen, bee, mare, or goat, implying an origin in totemic belief and shamanic practice. Baba Yaga never talks and either flies, or stays in her hut supported on birds legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones and skulls.

Her avian nature correlates with the vulture and owl goddess archetype of European prehistory where she represents both death and regeneration. Baba Yaga is a Slavic version of Hindu Kali – Goddess of Death and Dancer on Graves. These statues represent an ancient goddess cult where sacrificial offerings by shamankas and shamans (note the Turko-Siberian origins of her mythology) were brought in order to activate her beneficial features. Kamene Baba rpresents one of the most intriguing archaeological artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Originally printed in the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, number 51, January 2005.

Postcript. July 6th, 2014.

The Kamene Baba figure in the Pitt Rivers Museum is and example of stelae found from Turko-Mongolia to southern Russia. Closer examination of the figure shows the presence of preserved lichen on her back – indication that in her original placing she faced north.

Many of the stelae in Russia and the Ukraine are called ‘stone babas’ and others are called ‘balbals’ a word derived from the Turkic for ‘ancestor’.


 Table showing types of Kipchak idols.  Source: public domain.

The Kipchak people were a Turko-Mongolian confederation of tribes who conquered much of the Eurasian steppe-land. They were known to the Russians as the Polovtsy.


Kipchak steppe art in Dnipropetrovsk

These anthropomorphic stone statues, or stelae, were situated on top of or nearby to tumuli called kurgans. They occur in large numbers from southern Russia, the Ukraine, southern Siberia, Mongolia and through central Asia. Some may be memorials to dead elites whereas others are representations of Mother Goddesses, Tabiti among them.


Polovtsy ‘Babas’

The earliest stelae or ‘babas’ date from the 4th millennium and have their origin in many cultures spanning 3 millennia, many from 600 BC to 300 AD. A number are dated to the 11th century AD.

Female ‘babas’ are often crudely sculpted bare breasted women, sometimes wearing girdles or adorned with necklaces. Many examples have their hands clasped at the navel where they hold a bowl or vessel resembling a votive cup. The early stelae are primitive carvings with few defining features. Strictly speaking they are religious artefacts and were not intended as ‘works of art’ – though later Russian modern artists sought inspiration in them.



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In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in case 111b in the Court is an example of scrimshaw. It is a sperm whale tooth, 150mm long, incised with a ship and Masonic symbols (1936.26.31). It was collected between 1800 and 1820 by Captain Edward Lawson and donated in 1936 by Charles Miskin Laing. Lawson owned South Pacific Whalers whom Janet West, of the Scott Polar Research Institute, says was active in the South Seas from 1819-1840.

Basic scrimshaw material is sperm whale (Phyceter macrocephalus) ivory or bone. These whales were hunted for their high quality oil and spermaceti (head cavity wax) for superior candles. Ambergris (grey amber), a flammable waxy substance from the intestines of sick whales was harvested for perfumes, aphrodisiacs, and medicines. Sperm whale teeth, from mature bulls, comprised 25 large conical ivory teeth either side of the jaw. An example of whale tooth scrimshaw is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1.  Example of scrimshaw etched on a whale tooth (not in Pitt Rivers Museum).

Scrimshaw is “…the art of carving or otherwise fashioning useful or decorative articles as practised primarily by whalemen, sailors, or others associated with nautical pursuits.” (Flayderman, 1972). The engravings were highlighted with candle black, soot, or tobacco juice as pigment. Another example of a tooth is in Figure 2.


Figure 2A scrimshaw whale tooth from the Galapagos Islands (1817), not in museum.

Scrimshaw is inaccurately described as an indigenous American ‘folk art’ because mariners of other nations (e.g., England and France) were also engaged in its creation. The art developed in the whaling industry between 1817 and 1824 in the Pacific in response to market demands by Chinese traders for use in the islands. Herman Melville used the term ‘scrimshankers’ in his novel Moby Dick (1851) and was himself a onetime sailor on the New Bedford whaler called the Acushnet.

References: Flayderman, E. N. (1972). Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders Connecticut.

West J. & Credland, A. G. (1995).  Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler.  Hull City Museums.

Written for the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. 29.1.2010.


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A ‘Lucky Holed Stone’ from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, at the front of the Sympathetic Magic case, 61 a, is a black limestone beach pebble with a string attached through a hole. This ‘lucky stone’ [19808.11.1] once hung behind the cottage door of a William Twizzell, fisherman of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. The hole was made by a burrowing bivalve mollusc called Pholas dactylus, or common ‘piddock’.

The stone was donated in 1908 by the Oxford academic researcher Alexander James Montgomerie Bell, a Miss Humble of Newbiggin, and William Twizell (actuall Twizzell). The stone was one of a number that hung in various places around the cottage. William Twizzell died in 1909, his wife Mary having died in 1907. Newbiggin-by-the-Sea was for centuries a maritime locality of some importance, as a large fishing village, a grain import port, lifeboat station, and eventually seaside resort.

The exhibit is an example of holed stones that have been regarded as magical or sacred since time immemorial. Many were affixed to dwellings, byre or stable doors to keep way witches and pixies, as protection against the evil eye (which they were said to resemble), or as time passed just as good luck charms. These stones are known variously as hagstones, witch stones, holey stones, Holy stones, snake stones, thunderstones, dobbie stones, and in the North East of England sometimes as adderstones.

In days of yore it was common to see such stones hanging above cottage doors, or attached to bedposts to deter ‘nightmare’. Nor was it uncommon for such holed stones to be attached to the bows of rowing boats to keep evil spirits away and protect from the sea.

The fishing families of Newbiggin and the North East are very close-knit and often intermarried, sharing therefore a handful of surnames. A common local fishing family name was Twizzell. Newbiggin fishing folk were a god-fearing people and regularly attended church and chapel. It may seem odd that such devout people would readily keep charms against witchcraft and as a protection against misfortune. Yet it may not be so strange after all.

Newbiggin fishing families regularly lost husbands, fathers and sons to the vagaries of that old grey widow-maker the North Sea and Tyne estuary. It is no wonder then that these hardy, short and sturdy people whose eyes resemble the colour of the sea from whence their livelihood came, kept lucky charms, such as holed stones as an additional recourse to a safer life.



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Irish Bronze Brooch

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, on the Middle Gallery in case 98a there is an early medieval clothes fastener described as a penannular bronze ring brooch with a long pin (1884.79.13). Of northern Irish provenance it is part of the Pitt Rivers founding collection(142-1649), and was originally displayed at the Bethnal Green Museum. It is an example of the wide-ranging nature of the collection of General Pitt Rivers. This zoomorphic brooch is described having continuous coarse ribbing along its 4.6cm diameter hoop and is complete with its 10.5cm pin. Its splayed terminals are plain enamel decorated, have no ears, and with rounded eyes. The pinched-in snouts are also enamelled with prominent upturned tips. There is side hatching on the more or less formless pin-head. Such brooches are thus made with a “…pin which swivels round a hoop with a break to enable the pin to be inserted in the cloth (Laing, 1996). Beside this brooch is a much larger and donated, and collected by General Pitt Rivers, which comes from Lough Neagh in Ireland (the largest lake in the British Isles) and is labelled P.R.Coll [1728] (403 Blue).

Penannular open ring brooches start in pre-Roman Britain and probably originate from provincial Roman prototypes. In 4th to 6th century Ireland the zoomorphic penannular brooch was the main form found, though the type has been found from the 2nd century onwards. The term derives from the fact that the brooch terminals simulate animal heads because “…the terminals bore a faint resemblance to a backward turns animal head…” (Laing, 1996). In fully developed brooch types the snout, eyes and ears are all present. These brooches show both regional and chronological variations in style and comprise a circular hoop of metal flattened at the ends – the terminals. Attached to the hoop is a movable pin, the loop of which runs along the hoop. The rings is incomplete in order to allow passage of the pin between the terminals. These brooches exhibit great variation from crudely alloyed simple rings to creatively elaborate examples decorated with enamelling, glass, and gold filigree.

The zoomorphic brooch originated through the combined efforts of the Brigantes and their allies the Votadini, being derived from a Brigantian bangle. From this the Votadini created a new motif unlike other representations of animals, it was an abstraction. This new stylised form had, unlike previous examples, the animal facing inwards. The Brigantian bangle was penannular, square ended and lightweight. The Votadini occupied the region from the Forth to the Tyne. The Brigantes, the only tribe to exist in Ireland as well, occupied much of northern Britain.

Most Irish penannular pins are unprovenanced but they were producing proto-zoomorphic Votadini type pins in the second century. Refugee craftsmen may have sought sanctuary in Ireland after the abandonment of the Antonine Wall in 196 AD. Many examples of zoomorphic brooches date from before the Roman occupation. However, only the early forms have been found in Britain whilst later development was peculiar to Ireland. The terminal types are characteristic of these islands. Some found in Wales, Scotland and England but most numerous in Ireland. One of the early metal working centres in Ireland was at Fort Clogher, County Tyrone. Examples of penannular brooches similar to those collected by General Pitt Rivers were found at crannog 2 at Ballindery, County Offaly, and at the River Shannon near Athlone, County Westmeath. The Shannon example is charteriesd by being decorated with triskels (Celtic symbol of three legs radiating from a centre) and double spirals, whereas the Ballindery brooch is animal headed with a fine ribbed ring.

These brooches were more than mundane clothes fasteners. They had secular and religious significance in Celtic society. Their greater purpose was to serve as, often personalised, symbols of wealth, rank and status. Not only were the most expensive and elegant examples the preserve of the rich. They functioned as portable wealth for payment and gift giving amongst the upper echelons. They indicated sexual equality because women possessed as elaborate brooches as men. These brooches show forms fixed and adopted by the ancient Britons before the Roman invasion, and furthermore their development involved both the British and the Irish. Indeed, open-ring brooches were being made at Clogher by the 6th century. At this time “…distinctively Irish forms of pennanular were in vogue across the country and were occasionally taken over to Britain.” (Laing, 1996). The long and increasingly elaborate development of the penannular brooch ensured their survival into the Dark Ages where their continued use illuminates conditions in England, though most brooches found in Anglo-Saxon graves were re-used Roman examples.

References and Sources Consulted

Campbell, E.  (2001). Were the Scots Irish?  Antiquity (75) 285-92.

Kilbride-Jones, H. E.  (1935-36).  Scots zoomorphic penannular brooches.  Proc.Soc.Antiq.Scotland. LXX 123-38

Kilbride-Jones, H. E.  (1980).  Zoomorphic penannular brooches.  Report XXXIX, Society of Antiquaries.  Thames & Hudson.

Laing, L. & J.  (1996).  Art of the Celts.  Thames and Hudson, London.

Lewis, J. M.  (1982).  Recent finds of penannular brooches from Wales.  Medieval Archaeology. 25.  151-54.

Megaw, R. & V.  (2001).  Celtic Art.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Smith, R. A.  (1914).  Irish brooches of five centuries.  Archaeologia, 65, 223-250.

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