Ethnographic Edged Weapons
Report from Agadez: Tuareg Edged Weapons
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posted 04-06-2000 20:26
I again had an opportunity to make observations relative to Tuareg edged weapons during a visit to Niger in February of this year. In contrast with my recent observations in Timbuktu (in Mali), the majority of the edged weapons offered in the shops of Agadez as well as in the bush were genuine ethnographic articles, as defined on the home page of this website, and not degenerated examples made specifically for the tourist trade. Significant tourism is only now resuming with the continuing truce between the Niamey government and the Tuareg rebellion; presumably within a decade most of the residual stocks of these now largely obsolete weapons will have come to market and the opportunity for the collector in Agadez will become about as bleak as it is now in Timbuktu.
Swords (takouba) may still occasionally be seen hanging horizontally, or with the hilt slightly raised, almost always at their owner's left side, suspended by a baldric of multiple fabric strands crossing the torso and over the right shoulder. I observed these being casually worn by encamped nomads in the area around Agadez and by occasional solitary figures in the desert in this area as well as in the Hausa lands immediately to the south. Takouba were very much in evidence at festive occasions both among the Tuareg and the Wodaabe. These examples in use tended to be of fairly usual type, mounted in leather with a brass and copper pommel and brass scabbard tip. Only once, more in the Hausa lands south of Agadez, did I briefly notice, as we drove by, a mounted man wearing a silver trimmed takouba.
Each of the four or so "antique & touristique" shops our group visited in Agadez would have one elaborate silver and copper mounted takouba among their wares for which the asking price would commence between $500 and $1000. These mountings were either obviously new or showed only light wear and the condition of the leather suggested to me that these swords had been so mounted within the last decade. In every case, the pyramidal formation of the pommel was rounded and high, something which I associate with more recent work. The blades of these swords were uniformly of very good quality, flexible and with well defined fullers. The styles of fullering of the blades varied and my assessment is that these were older blades which had been remounted. Some blades bore engraving (lions, serpents, talismanic squares, etc.) of traditional form and good quality which I suspect are more contemporary with the recent remounting of the blade than its previous incarnations.
I'll briefly digress here to consider the remounting of these blades. As was well pointed out by Paul de Souza in the recent "Restoration" thread, ethnographic edged weapons which still have a role in their culture are subject to refurbishment and remounting as a normal part of that culture. Prior to the early 19th century, Europeans attempting to visit the domain of the Tuareg would have had the opportunity to collect not takouba but rather takouba cuts and this has limited our knowledge of how the takouba would have been mounted prior to the 19th century. The mountings of the takouba, as we know it, are practical and servicable, but not so temporally robust as those of a European medieval sword. The hilt is essentially leather over sheet iron and the scabbard is leather with sheet metal trim especially at the tip. Before visiting the shops our guide cautioned the group that things aged fast in this harsh and gritty environment and that between imperfect tanning techniques and this environment, leather goods which were only five or ten years old could appear quite ancient. Similarly metal artifacts experience accelerated wear owing to the abrasive effects of the omnipresent grit. This means that the mounts of a regularly worn takouba could be exhausted perhaps more quickly than in a quarter of a century, such that examples mounted before the 20th century are now quite scarce. Documented takouba collected in the 19th century exist in museum collections and reflect 19th century styles. Evidence of takouba mounting styles before the 19th century is likely irrevocably lost to time, even though many of the older blades remain in service to this day, though now in very recent mounts.
In one of the shops in Agadez there were two vertical "piles" of takouba in corners in the small shop, with a dozen or so swords in each pile. While most were well-worn examples of typical form, the diversity of blade types, especially in terms of fullering, was surprisingly broad and a few with old European blades, such as are described in Briggs' monograph, were identified. Briggs had commented in the monograph (1965) that these earlier blades were becoming quite scarce in the areas he visited by mid-century, so it was a pleasant surprise to still find examples in the market. Pricewise, I saw good quality, typical takoubas sell for as cheaply as $50.
After dinner one night, in our encampment, I was called upon to do a "takouba show and tell" for our group. A question arose for which I did not have an answer, so I went over to the campfire to enlist the aid of one of our Tuareg drivers and of some of the local Tuareg. They said that within their culture the sword should be drawn only if there is intent to use it, and that, if drawn, it should be immediately employed to cut (and never brandished as an attempted deterrent). I also asked about how these swords were sharpened and was given a demonstration at the the campfire. One of the Tuareg rubbed his tea glass on cloth until the side of the glass was without oils or moisture. Sitting, he then held the hilt of the takouba in his left hand and supported the point on in the hollow just above his medial heel. With his right hand, he then pressed the glass against the flat of the blade and ran the glass along the surface beginning several inckes from the guard and stopping short of the tip. The next morning our Tuareg driver presented me with a smooth rounded stone of quartz which he had picked up near the campsite and explained that such a stone would be the most preferred tool.
Whenever you encounter an actual fighting sword whose hilt is made to be used with a single hand, it is usually a safe assumption that, at least when fighting on foot, the other hand would have been occupied in combat holding a shield. The Tuareg shield, or ayar, is formed of slightly transclucent hide, oryx (a variety of antelope) being reported in the literature and young camel also being mentioned. Obviously, in this age of firearms, such a shield would offer essentially no protection and thus such shields are firmly artifacts of the past. The antique shop in Agadez had three old Tuareg shields, of which, that ilustrated was the largest.
In my earlier post concerning observations in Mali, I had mentioned the "heavy brass style" in Tuareg arms. I asked our guide, well traveled in the area, if he was aware of where it had originated from. He said that he was not. He also said that he believed it was possible that the worn gaudy edged weapons occasionally encountered may well have been made for tourists, but caught a local eye, and hence came to have a sort of legitimacy as an ethnographic edged weapon.
posted 04-09-2000 01:49
Thank you very much for a posting which is detailed and entertaining at the same time. Reports "from the field" are essential in gaining a better understanding of what we study and collect (mostly) from the relative comfort of armchairs, libraries, gun shows, and auctions. Your travels to this area are significant in that you have obtained a personal glimpse of one of the very few cultures left in the world where "les armes blanches" are or were til "yesterday" a part of everyday life. It is very likely that, barring worldwide depletion of petrol, gunpowder, and silicon chips, that this will very shortly vanish completely in the new century that is almost upon us. Keep up the good work!
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