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Old 23rd June 2020, 09:19 PM   #1
Yvain
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Default A somalian billao

Hi everyone !

I recently cleaned a Somalian billao that I bought during the quarantine, and I thought it might be of interest to you !

(Sorry for the didactic tone of what's below, this is adapted from a post on my facebook page.)

The billao is usually associated with the Somali ethnic group. Its main features are its distinctive asymmetrical leaf shaped blade and composite buffalo horn (or sometimes ivory) hilt. This is a classical end of the XIXth century example. The blade, while broad, is also very thin and nicely shaped, with a well formed central rib, and would have been an amazing cutter (it is still sharp !). This example also features a three annulets ornamentation on each side of the blade, which is unusual but not unheard of (there is another example in the references), it might have had a symbolic value.

The blade shows some damages that looks like edge on edge contact. Interestingly, they are all located on one of the edges (the flattest one), in a very small area, suggesting a specific way to use this kind of knife in a fight.

The hilt is made of buffalo horn, and is very nicely shaped and carefully polished. The guard, for lack of a better term, is made of brass, with decorative incisions towards the blade. The two parts of the hilt are separated by a brass spacer, sandwiched between two thin zinc (most likely) plates.

The intricate pommel is made of low grade silver, or (most likely) silver plated copper alloy. It is (in my opinion) an amazing piece of filigree art.

Those older types of billao mostly come in two varieties : with a single pommel spike, usually made of silver, silver alloy, or silver plated copper; or with a three pronged pommel, usually made (at the time) of brass.

The single pronged pommels are way more scarce, and are usually present on the high end billao, mostly with ivory hilt (Iíve only seen one other example with a horn hilt, itís in the references). The three pronged ones are more common, but Iíve not been able to find hard evidence explaining the difference between those two types.

Iíve found some speculative explanations about it (the single pronged ones are older, or they are a symbol of social status, or they were made by a specific Somali clan ...), but nothing that was sourced or verifiable sadly. The only sure thing is that the one pronged pommels are scarcer, and usually associated with valuable materials.




Some measurements :
-total length : 40,4cm

-blade length : 22,3cm

-hilt length (without pommel) : 14,2cm

-pommel length : 3,9cm

-max blade width : 6,6cm

-weight : 273g




This is, in my opinion, a really nice knife, with a good balance between aesthetic and efficiency. The blade is really well made, it would have been devastating in a real fight, and the whole thing handles very nicely.





REFERENCES :

A really similar billao from the end of the XIXth century : http://www.africanarms.com/gallery?...th-cent-38-7-cm

A billao with a similar three annulets ornamentation : https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/362789

Professional restoration of a billao : https://sites.durham.ac.uk/duct-tap...018/october-18/

Some leads regarding the difference between the three pronged and one pronged billao : http://www.forensicfashion.com/1900SomaliWarrior.html

An interesting discussion regarding the billao, with some other leads concerning the different types : http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showt...=prong#post9196

And just for fun, a really weird looking billao, maybe made from a European knife blade : https://collections.royalarmouries....ject-10749.html
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Old 24th June 2020, 11:32 AM   #2
Yvain
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Maybe with a before / after picture ? 😉
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Old 24th June 2020, 09:11 PM   #3
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You've done a great job of bringing this back to life. Well done!
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Old 25th June 2020, 02:43 AM   #4
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A nice example Yvain. Thanks for sharing it here. Most of the ones I've seen have been of the three prong type and lesser quality. Congratulations on a good find and your restoration of it.

Ian.
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Old 25th June 2020, 04:26 AM   #5
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Nice billao Yvain - from the pictures it is obvious it is well made. Like other Islamic weapons from Africa there does not seem to be a ton of published information on the billao. You have already commented on the pommel types - 1 vs 3 spikes. There is also a difference in blades - some billaos have shorter, wider blades like yours, while others are longer and more slender, approaching short swords. From the examples I have seen, the longer bladed ones tend to have horn hilts and the spikes that are just that - one or three crude spikes. The nicer billaos with ivory hilts and better made pommels like the pommel on yours tend to be predominantly of the shorter variety. In fact, I cannot recall seeing a longer example with an ivory hilt and silver pommel.

The conclusion seems to be that wider, shorter blades with a single spike of better craftsmanship are likely older, from the 19th century, while the longer bladed examples evolved later, in the first half of the 20th century. Of course, there probably are exceptions to this rule, but I am just going based on the general trend of the examples I have seen.

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Old 25th June 2020, 06:52 AM   #6
Martin Lubojacky
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Nice billao and cleaning (BTW, "billa" in Amharic language means knife - generally, in Somali language I donīt know, maybe too ?)
I am enclosing several old pictures with billao pommels (group in the shooting range - fourth man from the left, billao with ivory pommels used by the soldiers...(?))
Best,
Martin
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Old 25th June 2020, 07:24 AM   #7
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fourth from the left
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Old 25th June 2020, 06:36 PM   #8
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Thanks everyone ! It wasn't really a difficult clean-up (mostly old varnish and gunk), but surely a satisfying one !

Teodor, your analysis is interesting, I always thought of the two types as distinct categories (dagger and short sword), but now that I think about it, the short sword ones indeed seems later. Although, having looked into the Quai Branly collections, I suspect there is way more different types of billao than we usually think, I'll need to dig into this one day. In the meantime, we can also point out the existence of later daggers like billao, usually with a shorter but thicker blade, with a simplified blade shape, and almost always with a three pronged pommel.

Martin, thanks a lot for those interesting pictures, old contemporary photographies are in my opinion one of the most important sources we have at our disposition when studying ethnographic weapons !
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Old 25th June 2020, 07:46 PM   #9
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Adding this billao from the Quai Branly collections to the references, also showing those annulets ornamentation : http://www.quaibranly.fr/fr/explore...ourreau/page/1/


Anyone here as a billao with this type of ornamentation ?
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