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Old 8th September 2011, 03:35 PM   #1
colin henshaw
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Default West African ? sword for I.D. and comment.

Hi

This is a recent acquisition - one of those West African (I think) cross cultural type swords, that I quite like.

Length in sheath is approximately 73cm. Trade blade ? I am thinking maybe Sierra Leone, perhaps Mende ?

Help with identification and comments are welcome.
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Old 8th September 2011, 05:52 PM   #2
Tim Simmons
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Looks to have one of those half moon marks. The blade also appears to me to be native. To me it suggests Western Sudanic origin blade but the scabbard and handle make me think of Cameroon. As we have discussed there is much cross over. I like the handle.
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Old 8th September 2011, 06:17 PM   #3
Iain
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It's Mandingo - a style popular with the sub-population in modern day Liberia.

Reference: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypl...=472807&imageID...

I like this one, often the blades are not of particularly high quality. This one looks quite nice. The example I linked above is from 1906, I know of at least one other that was collected from the same period, but your scabbard makes me think that at least that, is later work. The blade certainly seems to have the age to be turn of the century though.

Here's a chap from the same region holding a similar sword: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypl...k=0&print=small

The half moon mark is found rather widely and the blade trade flowing from and through the Hausa city states and then into West African no doubt helped to proliferate the mark as a sign of quality.

Other Sahel influences are clear on the scabbard, where the leather has been formed to mimic the brass throat with cutouts of a typical takouba scabbard.

Cheers,

Iainhttp://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypl...=20&pNum=&pos=9
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Old 11th September 2011, 07:38 AM   #4
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First class Iain, and good references too...

A few points :-

The scabbards on this type of sword/cutlass from West Africa I have seen, are usually pointed, following the shape of the blade, but this one has a square end, sometimes seen on Cameroon weapons - any ideas on this ?

Do you think the sheath style can be a date indicator, can you elaborate ?

So, would you say the blade is made in Europe or Africa ? If in Europe, where would you think - Germany ? Any pointers as to how to recognise a European blade and an African-made blade ?

Regards.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Iain
It's Mandingo - a style popular with the sub-population in modern day Liberia.

Reference: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypl...=472807&imageID...

I like this one, often the blades are not of particularly high quality. This one looks quite nice. The example I linked above is from 1906, I know of at least one other that was collected from the same period, but your scabbard makes me think that at least that, is later work. The blade certainly seems to have the age to be turn of the century though.

Here's a chap from the same region holding a similar sword: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypl...k=0&print=small

The half moon mark is found rather widely and the blade trade flowing from and through the Hausa city states and then into West African no doubt helped to proliferate the mark as a sign of quality.

Other Sahel influences are clear on the scabbard, where the leather has been formed to mimic the brass throat with cutouts of a typical takouba scabbard.

Cheers,

Iainhttp://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypl...=20&pNum=&pos=9
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Old 11th September 2011, 04:55 PM   #5
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Hi Colin,

I should preface by saying this is far out of my area of specialty - but I'll give it a shot!

The scabbard I thought could be later because a) the material is in great shape, no small feat for a tribal weapon in probably less than optimal storage conditions, b) the simplicity of the design. Even the work from Cameroon (I imagine you are thinking of Tikar scabbards?) is usually well formed, your scabbard strikes me as slightly crude on the bottom chape, no offense meant by that observation of course. Given that the sword is clearly Mandingo and corresponds to a type we have some records on and since the Mandingo are not, to my knowledge found in large numbers in Cameroon I'm fairly confident the sword is not from there.

That said, I don't know really if the scabbard is later or older. It may just be very well preserved! It was more or less a guess based on the rather basic design and fittings and the fact that older pieces seem, from what I can tell in photos, to have had more elaborate fittings and leather molding. So it was more or less a guess since it didn't match up with the examples I knew of collected in the early 1900s. So short answer, I don't really know.

The blade... very hard to say unless I have it in hand. I'm not even 100% always sure with takouba. I tend to assume though that anything I am unsure about is native. Native blades seem to usually have a lower carbon content and less flex. My guess is a soft blade was considered preferable to a brittle blade failure. Is the blade single edged? The placement of the fullers reminds me of export blades for nimchas from Italy (not centered on the blade, but higher). But I would then expect a more substantial spine. So my best guess is good native work.

So in summary, I am suspicious of the scabbard mainly because it doesn't confirm to the normal examples, but I have nothing firm to go on to indicate it is not "old". The blade is obviously quality workmanship but I don't immediately recognize a known European pattern - hopefully those more in the know will chime in at this point. Sadly my studies have been in such a narrow field I tend to get out of my depth quickly in other topics!

Cheers,

Iain
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Old 12th September 2011, 03:46 PM   #6
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Thanks Iain, most interesting.

The scabbard and handle covering appear the same work and seem newer than the blade. Perhaps the blade has been refurnished at some time. Was this common ? The blade is single edged and does not have much "spine", also the quality is not so great. I usually assume this means native work, but I suppose European trade blades would also be of cheap/poor quality sometimes ? Also to be considered is whether native blades were made from smelted local iron ore, or European scrap metal...

The scabbard on my sword, with the squared-off end looks slightly as if it was a longer scabbard cut down maybe ?

An aspect I have noticed on blades that are presumably native work, is how they rust. Somali blades, some kaskaras, and these West African blades often seem to develop deepish black rust patches... Have you any observations on this ?

Can you recommend any references/books on the historical European export trade in sword blades to Africa ? I wonder if there are any old manufacturers' export blade catalogues in existence ?

Regards, Colin
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Old 12th September 2011, 05:37 PM   #7
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Iain, you are far too modest! Your command of the particulars and overall nature of the production and diffusion of the swords of North Africa is stellar!!! Thank you for always adding such great detail and links to illustrate the observations and identifications as well.
It seems that I have seen these 'rondel' type hilts often mounted with 'kaskara' blades and typically classified as Sierra Leone as well, obviously a bordering region and as you have noted the diffusion of these blades was comprehensive throughout contiguous regions along with tribal movements and trade.
I completely agree that presuming native work on blades that cannot be definitively established as European by either characteristic or notable markings is the best policy. I also agree that the 'dukari' or twin moon marks so well known in Saharan blades became well established as a 'quality' device and later applied in degenerated context widely. The 'off center' fullering on this blade seems to be a considerably altered blade of 'kaskara' type, and perhaps the seemingly quite modern scabbard was simply fashioned by a local tribesman to accomodate the piece. It does not seem the work of an artisan who typically carried out such work, the carrying ring is crudely mounted through the braided leather trim rather than in a ring mount or specifically designed mount and the rather industrial metal chape seems roughly fashioned from some type of sheet or scrap.

Colin, I have little metallurgical knowledge, but I have always presumed that these dark patches of corrosion on many of these latter 19th century weapons resulted from the failure of galvanized or other similarly treated sheet steel or industrial metalwork products often used in these blades.
On the well placed note on European trade blades, we only wish there were such literature. While in the latter 19th century, the commercialization of this industry did have some types of catalogs in Solingen for mostly military type swords... the only other type catalogs I have been aware of is in certain cases of smallswords in England and in degree in Europe .

For the most part, blades were simply a commercial commodity which were included with other materials carried for trade, and were not selected or ordered from catalogs. The only material which has lent to tracing the producers of these blades has been the compilations of markings and devices presumed to certain makers, and associated with accord with guilds. These records have only existed in less than accurately documented cases with the exception of some of the records in Solingen. It is a topic which has never been sufficiently researched or published, and in the many years I have been intrigued by it, I feel I have barely scratched the surface

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 13th September 2011, 09:37 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by colin henshaw
Thanks Iain, most interesting.


Glad to be of some help. It's a nice excuse to look into some other areas than takouba and kaskara.

Quote:
The scabbard and handle covering appear the same work and seem newer than the blade. Perhaps the blade has been refurnished at some time. Was this common ? The blade is single edged and does not have much "spine", also the quality is not so great. I usually assume this means native work, but I suppose European trade blades would also be of cheap/poor quality sometimes ? Also to be considered is whether native blades were made from smelted local iron ore, or European scrap metal...


That's about what I figured from the photo, that the mounts and scabbard were newer.

Refurnishing blades was very common and but for the odd, non centered placement of the fullers, I could almost imagine your blade as a cut down takouba. What's the width on the blade? Might be that the back edge was in fact cut down and thus the lack of a spine. If the quality does not seem particularly good I would be quite confident calling it native work.

EUropean blades, particularly for kaskara, were often chunky, even ugly, pieces of work, but one thing they all had was excellent temper and usually a lot more heft and thickness than native blades.

Native blades were made from both ore and scrap. Scrap of course coming a lot later, in the Sudan this matches up with construction of the railroad in the very late 1890s and in N. Nigeria a somewhat similar time frame I believe.

Cheap European machetes I think would be a more common alternative to scrap. There was a lot of local ore refining around the Sahel so I doubt the raw materials were in short supply.

Quote:
The scabbard on my sword, with the squared-off end looks slightly as if it was a longer scabbard cut down maybe ?


Possible, but I think as the hilt and scabbard seem to be the same age it's unlikely the scabbard was shortened along with the blade. So I'd say probably built this way.

Quote:
An aspect I have noticed on blades that are presumably native work, is how they rust. Somali blades, some kaskaras, and these West African blades often seem to develop deepish black rust patches... Have you any observations on this ?


I am not sure that pattern of deep, black rust is due to the use of European galvanized steel. I have seen that occur, but I have also seen iron rich native blades entirely covered in active red rust. When cleaned reasonably well, it has revealed absolutely clean sections and then patches of heavy black rust of the exact same nature. So I think it is something that possibly effects native iron and lower carbon steels? Magnetite I believe is the technical term, otherwise known as Fe3O4. A wild guess would be that it effects certain areas due to uneven steel consistency? Then again I am not a metallurgist and am quite probably wrong! But I can't think of a better reason as to why, in various levels, I've seen it occur on newer African blades likely sourced from scrap, as well as good, old work as well.

Quote:
Can you recommend any references/books on the historical European export trade in sword blades to Africa ? I wonder if there are any old manufacturers' export blade catalogues in existence ?


I think Jim answered this quite well. Nothing really out there yet, myself and a few other folks would like to change that over the next few years. But it's very much a case of being 100 years late to the party in terms of first hand resources. We have a few patterns and marks we can recognize at least in takouba and kaskara, some of them we can also date that way for European blades. I imagine something on machetes exists somewhere? That's a specialty I never looked into. As Jim said, I only wish I could recommend a good resource.


Jim,

As always, much to kind. The hilt style you mention does seem to occur in northern Sierra Leone and is very much of a family with Colin's sword. The Manding are such a wide ranging group with many sub groups the variation in swords should not be surprising I guess. It is interesting to remember they trace their heritage to the great Mali empire, which was ruled by them.

We are very much on the same page regarding the fittings and possible explanation behind this piece I think.

Cheers,

Iain
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Old 18th September 2011, 08:43 AM   #9
colin henshaw
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Iain
Many thanks for your comprehensive replies to my specific points, and I apologise for the delay in reply as I have been away for a few days.

It certainly seems there is a bit of an information gap on these subjects and that it would be a fruitful area for research. I look forward to reading your completed reference work ! On an aside, I have once seen a takouba with the blade made from a European woodsaw...

Unfortunately, the sword I posted is no longer in my possession so I can't measure the blade width. Looking at the images again, it could well be that its from a larger blade reduced in size, (there is only one half moon impression to one side). Regarding the odd rust patching observed (particularly on Somali spears and swords), I had assumed this was an anomaly in the local iron ore used in smelting, but due to the lack of any references, only a guess on my part.

Jim
Thank you for your input on this thread, and as mentioned above this is an interesting, relatively untouched area with plenty of scope for research.

Regarding the possibility of trade sword blade catalogues, its fairly obvious sword blades would not be selected by tribesmen from catalogues, but it could be that factories in Europe would publish something to enable traders/wholesalers to make their purchases at the point of export ? I mention this because I have seen sample cards of trade glass beads destined for Africa, also if my memory serves me, catalogues of a sort regarding European trade muskets.

Regards.
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Old 8th October 2011, 03:44 PM   #10
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I have a similar sword in my collection with what I think is its original scabbard. These swords are similar to the Mandingo sword but to my knowledge they belong belong to the Toma people, that live close to the Mandingo. Unfortunately I received this suggestion from a friend of mine and I am not able to find a reference. Therefore this is simply a suggestion to further investigate on it. The Mandingo has a rounded handguard and a simmetric round leather protection close to the pommel that is frequently made of brass. My blade has geometric decoration at the forte made of zig zag motif and dots close to the margin that would suggest it is a local production. It has also two holes filled with white metal (iron ? tin ?). A very peculiar similarity is the leather work of the handle.
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Old 9th October 2011, 08:44 AM   #11
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Thanks Mauro. I can't access your images properly - can you attach them directly to the forum thread please ?

Regards,
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Old 9th October 2011, 08:16 PM   #12
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I hope they are clear enough. Mauro
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Old 9th October 2011, 08:20 PM   #13
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Yesterady I also added another photo: I add it again
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Old 9th October 2011, 09:01 PM   #14
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interesting geometrics on the blade.
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Old 10th October 2011, 01:58 PM   #15
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Thanks Mauro.

Your sword certainly looks to be from the same family as the one I had. I wonder if the two metal inserts have some type of talismanic meaning. Maybe a native-made blade ? Is that a brass cartridge case at the end of the sheath ?

Here are a couple of images from the book "The Sherbro and its Hinterland" by T J Aldridge, 1901 (Sierra Leone), showing swords with similar shaped handles, for reference.

Plenty of scope for research here...
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Old 11th October 2011, 09:19 PM   #16
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Dear Colin, I don't know the meaning of the holes and their filling but they are very common in central African blades especially in the Congo basin. I also suspect it is some kind of talismanic work. In the Congo blades the holes are usually filled with copper that surely had a talismanic significance but also great value. I do not have the sword with me and therefore I am not able to confirm that is an old cartridge case. I shall check. Many thanks for the beautiful photos. I love these old African photos. Many thanks also for the reference of the book that contain it. I already received in previous time the photo in the left side that is a late XIX century photo of a Mende chief. The sword is therefore Mende. The Mende sword is different from ours because it has a wooden pommel with a anular guard with rounded edges made of wood. It is separated from the forte and from the end of the handle by a brass or iron ring (ferrule in English if I remember well) that is missing in these example. Very great photos
thanks
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Old 14th October 2011, 09:18 AM   #17
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Hi Mauro and Colin,

I think I know the mutual friend with a Tomba sword in his collection! I think this is a case where we have a lot of inter related people groups with broadly similar sword styles. I don't have the knowledge to distinguish between them unfortunately.

As a dominant regional group the Mandingo would have I believe a large degree of influence over their neighbors and this probably extended to stylistic cues and weaponry.

Brass, or white metal fills in blades are fairly common in the area, as Mauro pointed out especially in the Congo. But I've seen similar things on swords more from the Sahel (Martin posted a very odd sword a while ago with several copper or brass dots like these).

Colin, really great pictures of the Sherbro! I particularly like the contrast between the chief and the men. The patterning of the cloth the chief is wearing is strikingly similar to what was coming out of major Hausa cloth production centers like Kano. Since I've seen a few trade blades in similar hilts might be interesting to see what we can find about trading between Hausa city states and this area.

Cheers,

Iain
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Old 14th October 2011, 11:38 AM   #18
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I would be happy to see this Tomba sword and the degree of similarities. The scabbard of my knife has many similarities with the Hausa scabbards and I agree that the Sahel area was almost an highway for exchange of ideas and items. The real Mandingo scabbard is quite different. I am going to find some good photos.
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Old 14th October 2011, 12:25 PM   #19
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Hi Mauro,

I agree the Mandingo leatherwork style is entirely different to your sword.

I will send you a PM about that other Tomba sword.
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Old 14th October 2011, 03:11 PM   #20
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Actually the filled holes in blades are indeed believed to likely be talismanic and similar practice is described in "Islamic Swords and Swordsmiths" (Yucel) as to bring good luck to the swordsman. The practice actually extends into ancient times and in Frankish swords a gold filled hole or nail driven into a hole in the finished blade was a practice known. This may of course have certain religious proposition as of course blades were inscribed with such invocations.
Briggs in his work on Saharan takoubas notes copper filled holes near the blade tip, and mentions the number of European swords with such features.
It would not be surprising to see the custom or practice diffused well through African regions through trade and colonial activity.
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Old 14th October 2011, 06:02 PM   #21
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Hi Jim, thanks for your informations. You find holes usually filled with copper or other metal such as this from Sudan to the West African coast. You also find them southward in the Congo basin but I do not remember this practice used in east african blades. If I remember well Ethiopia, Eritrea and also the highland of Kenia and Tanzania have no holes in their blades.
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Old 14th October 2011, 11:12 PM   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mauro
Hi Jim, thanks for your informations. You find holes usually filled with copper or other metal such as this from Sudan to the West African coast. You also find them southward in the Congo basin but I do not remember this practice used in east african blades. If I remember well Ethiopia, Eritrea and also the highland of Kenia and Tanzania have no holes in their blades.



You're welcome Mauro, and well noted on the East African blades, a most interesting observation. It seems that this custom or practice, while dating to ancient times, was not universally practiced, but seems well known over vast cultural spheres.

All the best,
Jim
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Old 17th October 2011, 08:59 AM   #23
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I also can't think of an example with holes in the blade.

As an interesting side note, if we all agree this basic sword form is most widely known from the Mandingo with various tribal variations, it is interesting to speculate how far back the form might date - given the history of the Mandingo as the driving force behind the Mali Empire.
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Old 17th October 2011, 10:47 AM   #24
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In my opinion there are major differences between Toma, Mandingo and Mende swords with some common peculiarities: Mandingo also use curved blades that I do not know among Toma or Mende (but they could exist and it is simply my poor knowledge). The Toma sword that I know are medium sized straight blade while Mende have longer ones such as in the examples illustrated in the photos. Again it is possible that there are shorter swords but I do not know them. There are major variation in the handle and guard that however, in all these tribes is not particularly pronounced. I do not know if Mende and Toma belong to the larger Mandingo group. I know that Mende and Mandingo belong to the Mande linguistic group but I don't know of the Toma. It would be interesting to get information about these kind of swords in the past but unfortunately I do not have any document.
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Old 17th October 2011, 11:21 AM   #25
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I agree there are differences between the types - but I would consider them all from the same family. Hilt style is broadly similar - wood, with bulbous protrusions to form guard and pommel (of course the Mandingo of the Sahel are using a leather hilt with a brass pommel that is entirely different). Blade style also often shares common characteristics with half moon stamps and fullers taken or influenced by takouba blades.

Mandingo curved blades are either usually French military sabre blades or native copies.

Toma also belong to the Mande linguistic group. So they should be related to some extent.

Sadly I have never seen a good resource for Mali Empire era weaponry. It is not a widely studied area I think.
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Old 17th October 2011, 12:10 PM   #26
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This is a quite interesting topic because it deals with the characteristics that can be used to create a hierarchy of more or less related items, in this case swords. To put a clear cut between groups is usually an individual process with a certain, sometimes large, degree of subjectivity. In this case one could also find similarities between some short Takouba and these swords. Kaskaras for example have also a scabbard that has more similarities with the Mandingo sword than these other ones where the scabbard has not an enlargement. However, in general I agree with you although I would easily say that Mende and Toma are closer than Mandingo.
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Old 17th October 2011, 10:34 PM   #27
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Thank you very much for this interesting discussion, which I enjoyed a lot, just reading and learning (unfortunately nothing to add). I would be very interested in Briggs work on Saharan takoubas...(it may be there would be some info about the sword - see http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/searc...searchid=190791 - which is still a small mystery to me)
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Old 17th October 2011, 10:40 PM   #28
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Sorry for the wrong link (I was trying to find old thread from the list) - correct should be http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showthread.php?t=12296
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Old 18th October 2011, 07:06 AM   #29
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Hi Martin, unfortunately Briggs has nothing really about your sword, it is really only a detailed article about . If you want I can scan and send you a copy - I have the papers somewhere in my house and will try to find them for you!

Mauro, I agree, it's very subjective topic and I would agree there are many connections also with takouba. The Sahel region was/is very interconnected and their trade routes extended into West Africa. The half moons and the triple fullers on these Toma and Mende swords are clearly taken I think from the takouba. For example I have also a Lobi ceremonial sword which is exactly in the same style as a takouba, so this style had a huge influence across this area of Africa. Wolf and Martin also have some interesting Mandara/Cameroon swords that seem related as well.
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Old 18th October 2011, 10:58 AM   #30
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Thank you in advance Iain !
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