Ethnographic Arms & Armour

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Lee 21st August 2021 04:41 PM

Masai? Spear
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Few things are as pleasing to me as to find a really nice spear, in which I admire and respect the workmanship, as I slog through summer flea market fields. This example came from a general booth at the Bouckville (NY) flea market this week.

My first thought, of course, is that this is Masai, based on the short wooden handle joining the blade section with the long forged iron butt section. I did find a few of this configuration in old posts here ( see and in old auction listings on the general internet.

I am aware of the 'elders' variant and of the typical forms, such as in the top image below, with a long parallel to slightly tapering blade and a bulbous feature at the termination of the edges near the socket.

The typical examples usually appear to be well made and are forged and or more usually hollow ground and are symmetrical in two planes.

This new acquisition has a long and wide leaf shaped blade and has what I have always considered to be more of a central African cross section with a flat facet opposite a concave facet on one face with the reverse facet through to the opposite side (though appearing the same if you rotate the blade 180 degrees). The balance point is exactly at the senter of the wooden section!

I am curious if any forum members can confirm that this is Masai and as to whether this variation represents an earlier form than typically seen or origin from a particular region within the overall Masai cultural range.

Tim Simmons 21st August 2021 05:24 PM

These spears are very nice things to have and in your hand can conjure up many thought and dreams. Made over a vast area of East Africa, the latter day production being the shorter and narrow version. The spear in question in my opinion is just how a smith carried out the making of the spear. In my experience the central African spears have more of that z type of cross section seem on many central African weapons. There may well be variants where east meet centre so to speak. I would have liked to have my group of these big wonderful spear mounted fanned out in an arc on a wall in the house. Sadly in my small terrace house and a wife that has quite different ideas to me, it is not possible. I am sure some lucky chap somewhere is able to enjoy a display like that:)

colin henshaw 22nd August 2021 08:32 AM

The top spear is a good old example, congratulations. The lower one is much later, mid-late 20th century. As Tim mentioned ... this pattern of spear was used in the historic period by several different tribal groups in what is now Kenya and Tanzania. I have read that the Masai themselves did not practice iron working... this was done by a specialist subservient group.

fernando 22nd August 2021 01:08 PM

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Originally Posted by colin henshaw (Post 265529)
... I have read that the Masai themselves did not practice iron working... this was done by a specialist subservient group ...

That would be the Dorobo (Ndorobo, Wadorobo, dorobo, Torobo) as confirmed by Terry Thorp (2013), for one ...


fernando 22nd August 2021 01:25 PM

If i may, Lee ...
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Originally Posted by Lee (Post 265515)
... The typical examples usually appear to be well made and are forged and or more usually hollow ground and are symmetrical in two planes...

Years ago i owned a blade (i think it was) of such type. To my eyes it had an impecable forging.
In a different approach, i have read an article by D Storrs Fox (British Museum) where he writes that Maasai spears used to have a different shape.

" Long ago the spears of the Masai warriors were leaf shaped. The
long bladed spear was probably introduced about sixty years ago, when
the Laimer age, of whom very few now survive, were warriors. Their
spears were much broader than the modern ones. There is very little
to distinguish one type of modern warrior spear from another.



colin henshaw 22nd August 2021 03:28 PM

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Nice image from the book "Through Masai Land" by Joseph Thomson, 1885.

Lee 24th August 2021 02:15 PM

Thank you, Gentlemen, for your insights.

I have a friend who served in the (U.S.) Peace Corps in Tanzania in the mid 1960s and he brought back a Masai spear - very much like the newer example in my initial photo - purchased in downtown Dar es Salaam along with shield. A friend had asked him to bring back a set and he bought his own set at the same time. I'll opine that these were 'facultative' as tourist items - that is, something still made mostly for the local market - rather than "obligate" such as the three or so very degenerate examples I recently saw at the same flea market diminished in scale to fit into luggage and also something without impressive workmanship.

The newer one in my photo came cheaply from a local auction. I have another of the same form - an early purchase on my part - that was all forged to shape but which had been dulled and chrome plated. That one is actually hanging up along with a number of other early acquisitions of quite variable quality. I cannot manage a panoply either, more from architectural than social restrictions, but I have two 'braces' for my overflow of spears - one for African and the other for Asian.

That image from Thomson's book could be the same spear :) The dealer indicated that it had been from a museum deaccession, with no further details, but well worth the $100.

kronckew 31st August 2021 07:57 PM


Samburu spears (for Maasai)

Chart in my post no. 3, example marked a. at the top of the chart.

Lee 2nd September 2021 11:48 PM

Thank you for sharing that chart - it is most interesting how styles evolved and varied by location.

Peter B. 9th September 2021 05:32 PM

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Hello dear friends of african weapons.

I was on vacation a few weeks and would now like to contribute some information to the thread.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to buy a lot of 40 african spears.
They come from an East German museum, so they come from before 1939, probably from colonial times before 1918.
It also contained 10 Masai spears. 5 with a wide blade, 3 with a narrow blade and a strong central ridge and two pieces with a narrow blade but a flat central ridge.
It can be assumed that they were all acquired at the same time.
The forms mentioned existed at the same time at the beginning of the 20th century. So the shape of the blade is not a sign of age.
In Springs "African Arms and Armor" it is stated that around the turn of the century there was a change from broad-edged to narrow spears. This would mean that the wide specimens are always "old" and are no longer used today, while the narrow ones can be over 100 years old or new.
Here you can make a distinction based on the quality of the production. The old specimens in my collection have exactly straight edges, and the central ridge is sharp and straight. The surfaces are polished and show no forge marks.
I saw newly manufactured spears of the same type for the tourist market in Kenya, and the Maasai may still use them in this form today: The blade is roughly and unevenly forged, you can sometimes see welds between the blade and the spout and you can see that the final shape was electrically ground.

The long spear in the picture is 2.55m long (my rooms are only 2.50 high)

Peter B. 18th September 2021 04:02 PM

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I did a little research in my library and found very conflicting information in the historical literature on the manufacture of Massai spears:

F. Kallenberg (Auf dem Kriegspfad gegen die Massai, 1892, p. 89) claims that there is only one kind of real Massai spears and that the Massai are often falsely depicted with Chagga / Dschagga spears in other contemporary literature. (Picture 1 + 2)

M. Merker (Die Masai, 1910, p. 126) states that the Massai use their own spears as well as those made by others (by the Chagga). It shows the distinguishing features based on the cross-section. (Picture 3)

Others claim that the Massai do not make their own weapons at all, but always have them made by other tribes.
(See also the posts by Colin and Fernando)
@ Fernando, could you specify Terry Thorp's publication more precisely?

I think, it is possible that all the informations are correct and that there is a historical development from the late 18th century to the present day, which runs parallel to the development or change of the spears.

Peter B. 18th September 2021 04:12 PM

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Here are some additional old pictures with Massai speras.
Abb. 41 and 42 is from 1910, the others earlier.
The spears in figs. 41 and 42 show the transition from the broad shape to the narrow one (here still with a flat ridge)

Note also the sword in Fig. 41 in its original form

Peter B. 18th September 2021 04:15 PM

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And here some recent photos from an illustrated book from 1980

fernando 18th September 2021 07:13 PM


Originally Posted by Peter B. (Post 266196)
... Others claim that the Massai do not make their own weapons at all, but always have them made by other tribes.
(See also the posts by Colin and Fernando)
@ Fernando, could you specify Terry Thorp's publication more precisely ...


colin henshaw 19th September 2021 05:43 PM

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Here are some extracts from "The British Museum Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections" 1910 that mention these types of spear. The handbook also illustrates an older type of Masai spear with a heart-shaped blade, (presumably older than the broad-bladed variety).

Peter B. 27th September 2021 06:50 PM

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Here are two more old pictures, both from Benitez & Barbier - Shields (2000), the drawing from page 2 and the photo with the long spears from page 118

Lee 28th September 2021 01:47 AM

Thank you Peter and Colin for the further and continuing enlightenment.

colin henshaw 3rd October 2021 02:46 PM

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Unearthed some more old pictures of these East African spear examples, for interest. Note that one image shows Kikuyu not Masai warriors...

Peter B. 4th October 2021 07:27 AM

As you can see in the first picture, despite the traditional way of life, they have no problems with new technology.
When I was in Kenya in 2003, I saw a Maasai warrior with traditional clothing and sword and spear using a cell phone. Presumably to ask his wife if dinner was ready. (Yes, I know, El Moran don't have women ...)

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