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Symbolism and Significance of Bronze Rhomboid Beads/Pendants from Jenné and the Inland Niger Delta, Mali.

Symbolism and Significance of Bronze Rhomboid Beads/Pendants from Jenné and the Inland Niger Delta, Mali.

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Published by Lloyd Graham
Over the last century, numerous hollow bronze/brass rhomboid (i.e., lozenge or diamond-shaped) objects have been excavated from the Inland Niger Delta region of Mali. Cast using the cire perdue technique, these Jenné (Djenné) beads or pendants may date to any time from the 7th to the 19th centuries CE, but most likely to the 17-18th centuries. Their shape and ornamentation suggests a codified and potentially amuletic function. They resemble modern Tuareg amulets in shape, and their serpentine decorations recall the snakes on 13th-15th century CE Jenné-jeno terracottas, but ultimately their symbol repertoire dates back to prehistoric times. The minimalism of their design affords a wealth of interpretative possibilities: the rhomboid as a stylized snake-head, frog belly, human form, or symbol of female generative power. Most of the ornamental motifs – wavy lines, spirals, wheatsheaf/twist motifs – turn out to refer to snakes, so it is tempting to view the Jenné rhomboids as fertility amulets consisting of female shapes adorned with phallic motifs. However, sexual ambiguity pervades to the deepest level, and ultimately all of the symbols have female referents.
Over the last century, numerous hollow bronze/brass rhomboid (i.e., lozenge or diamond-shaped) objects have been excavated from the Inland Niger Delta region of Mali. Cast using the cire perdue technique, these Jenné (Djenné) beads or pendants may date to any time from the 7th to the 19th centuries CE, but most likely to the 17-18th centuries. Their shape and ornamentation suggests a codified and potentially amuletic function. They resemble modern Tuareg amulets in shape, and their serpentine decorations recall the snakes on 13th-15th century CE Jenné-jeno terracottas, but ultimately their symbol repertoire dates back to prehistoric times. The minimalism of their design affords a wealth of interpretative possibilities: the rhomboid as a stylized snake-head, frog belly, human form, or symbol of female generative power. Most of the ornamental motifs – wavy lines, spirals, wheatsheaf/twist motifs – turn out to refer to snakes, so it is tempting to view the Jenné rhomboids as fertility amulets consisting of female shapes adorned with phallic motifs. However, sexual ambiguity pervades to the deepest level, and ultimately all of the symbols have female referents.

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Published by: Lloyd Graham on Mar 08, 2011
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Symbolism and significance of bronze rhomboid beads/pendantsfrom Jenné and the Inland Niger Delta, Mali.
Lloyd D. GrahamIntroduction
The subject of this research essay is the set of hollow bronze rhomboid (i.e.,lozenge or diamond-shaped) objects that have been recovered during excavations,official and otherwise, in the Inland Niger Delta region of Mali, West Africa.These items were cast from bronze or – more likely – brass
1
using the
cire perdue
 or lost-wax technique.
2
While not especially rare, this type of object is seldomdescribed in the academic or popular literature, perhaps because their enigmaticnature makes them difficult to assign to a recognized category; they have beenvariously described by archaeologists, traders and auction houses as beads,pendants, amulets, and even ‘belt finery.’ There is, however, general agreementthat they are ‘Djenné’ (Jenné) in style and origin, by which is usually meant theancient city of Jenné-jeno and its hinterland, so the objects will be referred to inthis essay by the term ‘Jenné bronze rhomboids.’
Fig. 1.
Jenné bronze rhomboids. Major (i.e. hollow) axis dimensions are a, 8.5 cm; b, 9.2 cm; c,10.5 cm; d, 11.7 cm; e, 9.8 cm; f, 8.8 cm. Some carry parallel ‘scarification lines’ on the reverse.Images used with permission of David Spetka, © Niger Bend,www.nigerbend.com 
 
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Fig. 2.
Jenné bronze rhomboids. Major axis dimensions are a, 8.3 cm; b,7.6 cm; c, 9.8 cm; d, 10.9 cm; e, 8.0 cm; f, 7.7 cm. Images used withpermission of © Jan Rinzema.
One of the few publications containing an image and description of a Jenné bronzerhomboid is André Blandin’s definitive
 Afrique de l’Ouest – Bronzes et Autres Alliages
. The caption of the monochrome figure describes the object as a ‘largeflattened pendant bead, with in the centre a tablet decorated with undulations,symbolizing water. Green archaeological patina.’
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The figure illustrates a sectionwhose text focuses on the early excavations of Florentin (1896) and Desplagnes(1901 & 1904) at tumuli (burial mounds) in the north of the Inland Niger Delta,near Goundam. Eugenia Herbert notes in her book 
 Red Gold of Africa – Copper inPre-Colonial History and Culture
that ‘The tumuli of the Lower Senegal andSaloum valleys have also yielded a variety of copper objects, particularly rings andbracelets, but also more enigmatic conical and lozenge-shaped pieces whose usewas probably ornamental.’
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 Another publication to show examples of the rhomboids is collector MarcGinzberg’s book 
 African Forms
. This contains a colour photograph of two bronzerhomboids (alongside a T-shaped bronze pendant from the same culture) with thecaption ‘These bronze Djenne pendants are hundreds of years old; an attractive
 
3
Fig. 3.
 
Jenné bronze rhomboids. Major (i.e., hollow) axis dimensions are a, 6.7 cm;b, 6.6 cm; c, 10.0 cm; d, 7.5 cm (incomplete); e, 5.8 cm.
 feature is their archaeological patina. The diamond-shaped ones, which are quitecommon, all have similar sinuous designs representing snakes. […] We may neverlearn what significance they had for their wearers or how exactly they were used.’
5
 The purpose of the present essay is to explore some of the possibilities attendingthese ambiguous objects.A selection of Jenné bronze rhomboids that have not been published in print isshown in Figs. 1-3. In size, the major axis (which, in this article, always denotesthe hollow one) ranges from 5.8 cm to 11.7 cm. There is a striking similarity in theshape and ornamentation of the objects: in outline, they are angular or curvilinearrhomboids; each is flattened, with a hollow interior open at the two ends of themajor axis; each has closed projections (‘arms,’ ‘wings’ or ‘tips’) at the two endsof the minor axis. In the centre of one face only, the rhomboids contain anenclosed rectangular or oval area – a ‘cartouche’ – in which are found the maindecorative motifs: serpentine wavy lines, wheat-sheaf/twist patterns; spirals; raisedcircular studs or buttons, and the like. The patina may range from a minimal layer

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