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Old 6th May 2021, 05:31 PM   #1
Mefidk
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Default Songye axes - different types

Looking for a good reason to show you some of my latest pieces I started to wonder about Songye axes. A lot of Congo axes are sold as Songye, but to my eye not all are equally easy to attribute, and I wonder if some information is available on the different types.

I thought I would start out with the easy ones (correct me if I'm wrong). This group of axes are Nsapo, a group on the north western edge of the Songye range. Their axes were highly prized and travelled quite widely, but I think are generally easy to identify due to the forms of the blade.

There are other threads on these on the forum too, but these particular examples are all from my collection.

The first one is an example with six heads on the supports to the blade. One of these (I guess there is a technical name for it?) is made to resemble a twisted rope. The heads are well made. These are said to represent the status of the axe holder and relate to the number of families he was in charge of. Although I have also seen alternative explanations related to revering their ancestors. I'm not certain of the origins of either explanation. In this case the shaft is covered in monitor lizard skin, club-shaped and flared at the bottom, but flattened laterally at the top.
This piece has an interesting provenance being owned by Werner Fischer author of one of the reference books on African weapons, in the 1940s.

The second example is simpler, 8 heads (six on one side and two on the other). This is quite normal, sometimes there are the same number of heads on both sides but typically not - suggesting some kind of significance. This is very like the first example but with the blade supports all having heads and no 'rope' work. The shaft is covered with snake skin (probably ball python).

The third example has many more heads and a more complicated blade. In this case there are 22 heads. There are examples with hundreds, but 22 is quite a few. This time the shaft is covered in copper sheet and is heavily flared at the bottom, club-shaped at the top but more rounded than the first example.

The fourth example is a smaller version of the third, fewer heads but the blade edge is extended into points both top and bottom. Also covered in copper sheet.

The 5th and 6th examples have a different blade shape, very few heads but similar construction of the supports.

As far as I can see, of the examples with the forged then incised heads, these form these three groups (and flow quite a bit between forms). I have heard that the copper covered ones were more sought after, copper had significance to them, but I don't know of any information that might help classify these further. All examples are close in size typically 38 x 25 cm.

As far as I am aware, all these are bona fide Nsapo. It does not mean that the people who used them were Nsapo because these were valuable trade commodities and were traded quite widely. Here I believe though that the Songye were indeed the primary users.

I will post some examples of some other forms of Songye axe in a few days, and then the ones that I think are questionable as to origin.

I would happily receive corrections and additions to the information I have
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Old 6th May 2021, 05:32 PM   #2
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and the rest of the items
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Old 6th May 2021, 07:24 PM   #3
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Just looking again in Fischer and I see that he describes the heads on the axes as being significant showing an example of one with 52 heads on each side, stating it must have belonged to a powerful person. He also suggests there is normally an equal number of heads on both sides. So it would be interesting to know what other people's experience of this is?
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Old 6th May 2021, 07:50 PM   #4
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Really cool and interesting pieces, thank you for sharing!!
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Old 7th May 2021, 07:12 AM   #5
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Thanks Pindang

Here is the next set. These are what I think are the typical Songye axes. In size and shaft form they are very similar to the previous set, but the blades are more traditional in form, strengthened along the upper and lower edge by a T-section.
The three of this form that I have range from the rather utilitarian to standard, but there are examples out there with blades with brass inlaid decoration. These seem by and large usable examples and perhaps have a less ceremonial function than the previous set. Axes with this general form seem to occur over the whole Songye range, but there are variations in the details. Apart from the shafts there is little in common with the Nsapo type with the heads.

Decoration on the blade seems to involve holes, moon-shapes, and a kind of snake or rope-like pattern as on these. Rarely you get an inlaid head. Like the other axes monitor or snake skin or copper are often used to cover the shaft, but these also often turn up with no covering as in the example I have. The bottom of the shaft is usually flared, for some reason at some point the flaring has been removed from mine to leave a widened but rounded end.

I think my third example is snake skin, probably some kind of python (ball?). Light spots on a dark background is not very common.
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Old 7th May 2021, 07:31 AM   #6
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Impressive axes Chris, thanks for posting. Great metalwork, presumably the iron and copper were sourced and smelted locally in the Congo ? Looking at the British Museum & Pitt-Rivers sites, they say these axes were often made by the Nsapo (a Songye sub-group) who specialised in metalwork.

As you say, apparently the ornate examples at least were insignia of chiefly rank; the carved faces to the iron representing the chief's people subordinate to him.

A noteworthy point about Congo axes is ... they don't really seem to have been used as weapons, whereas in Southern Africa they were.

Looking forward to more posts.

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Old 7th May 2021, 07:46 AM   #7
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Very nice examples, thank you for sharing!
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Old 7th May 2021, 08:17 AM   #8
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Thanks guys.
Yes, this is entirely local work, and as I said above the first six are Nsapo made. They were quite famous for this and hence their products were prized and traded widely. The other exmples probably not Nsapo. Although there are examples of this form from the Nsapo the basic type extends over the whole Songye range and into Luba and Tetela at least. I don't think that trade networks were so extensive to service such a large area.

As regards their non-weapon status, axes for sure were not the weapon of choice. But at least in the case of the Zappo Zap, there are accounts of axes being used in raids. The 22 head axe I posted is probably too heavy to use as a weapon, but all the others are sharp and solid. Whilst they may not chop down trees, they would certainly make a mess of an unarmored person if push came to shove.

The next group (and the last, at least of my examples) are certainly not weapons, but are rather nice objects, heavily decorated/made with copper. I'll try to post these later or tomorrow.
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Old 7th May 2021, 12:51 PM   #9
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The next examples I have are a bit more variable and introduce some more forms and decoration.
The first one is a kind of transition piece from the previous set to this new set. It has an iron blade in the form of the others but is smaller 14x10 cm cf 17x15 cm, and the decorative copper on the shaft is more elaborate. This example also has two depressions in the club end of the shaft on both sides which is not present on the previous examples.
The next example is very similar, but now we have a copper blade rather than iron, and only one depression at the end of the shaft. The blade shape is the same.
The third of this group is like the second, but no depression in the shaft, and the blade, although a single piece of copper is shaped differently, reminiscent of the Nsapo axe shapes of the first group.
The fourth example is similar to the others, small completely copper, but this time with a double crescent mark on the blade.
I donít have an example of the type yet, but as far as I can see Eastern Songye axes usually have a figure 8 decoration on the blade, shaft or both. The crescents and moons appear to be more related to axes that have Nsapo/Songye/Tetala attributions, so there may be some way to distinguish areas based on decoration.

The last two examples copper variants of the axes with heads, and I think from the Nsapo/Songye group, but here Iím really skating on thinner ice. One has a crescent, but both share the similar form of head surrounded by a hatched pattern.

That concludes my Songye axe variant overview from my collection. Of course ,there are many others out there, some really impressive axes and variants of types (e.g. single person Ďholdingí the blade), brass blades and a diversity of forms as we go from Songye to Luba. Having only spent a few months collecting and researching these I still have very many questions and not so many answers, so it would be really great if some of the experienced Congo people have some ideas about how to classify these axes (and corrections where I made errors). Forms and types do seem to be fluid but also it seems to me that there are patterns to be found as well.
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Old 7th May 2021, 12:53 PM   #10
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the last two
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Old 7th May 2021, 08:50 PM   #11
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I am far from an expert but can provide this link: http://www.africanarms.com/gallery?a...axes&ba-page=2

Maybe you will find some answers there!

Regards,
Detlef
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Old 9th May 2021, 05:16 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sajen View Post
I am far from an expert but can provide this link: http://www.africanarms.com/gallery?a...axes&ba-page=2

Maybe you will find some answers there!

Regards,
Detlef
Thanks Detlef, I know this site, it belongs to a member here (and I linked to it in the thread on Congo sword Id)
I guess what I am asking for is whether there is any more detailed information other than the identification as Songye group. There are the Nsapo axes and a few designated as eastern Songye or Songye/Luba, but it would be really neat to know what the tell-tale characteristics are. Maybe there is no answer. However, some people have been collecting these for much longer than me, maybe they know more and will chime in, even if its to say that there is no way to go deeper.
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Old 9th May 2021, 05:54 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by Mefidk View Post
Thanks Detlef, I know this site, it belongs to a member here (and I linked to it in the thread on Congo sword Id)
I guess what I am asking for is whether there is any more detailed information other than the identification as Songye group. There are the Nsapo axes and a few designated as eastern Songye or Songye/Luba, but it would be really neat to know what the tell-tale characteristics are. Maybe there is no answer. However, some people have been collecting these for much longer than me, maybe they know more and will chime in, even if its to say that there is no way to go deeper.
Chris, you would find a visit/contacting the Congo Museum in Tervuren, (near Brussels), very useful. There are "tribal art" monographs just on the Songye that should have information on weapons as well as culture, religion, symbolism etc.. I know of "Songye Masks & Figure Sculpture" by Dunja Hersak 1985 (difficult to get hold of). Often, African sculpture and such weapons can be interlinked.
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Old 11th May 2021, 04:29 AM   #14
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Thanks Pindang

Here is the next set. These are what I think are the typical Songye axes. In size and shaft form they are very similar to the previous set, but the blades are more traditional in form, strengthened along the upper and lower edge by a T-section.
The three of this form that I have range from the rather utilitarian to standard, but there are examples out there with blades with brass inlaid decoration. These seem by and large usable examples and perhaps have a less ceremonial function than the previous set. Axes with this general form seem to occur over the whole Songye range, but there are variations in the details. Apart from the shafts there is little in common with the Nsapo type with the heads.

Decoration on the blade seems to involve holes, moon-shapes, and a kind of snake or rope-like pattern as on these. Rarely you get an inlaid head. Like the other axes monitor or snake skin or copper are often used to cover the shaft, but these also often turn up with no covering as in the example I have. The bottom of the shaft is usually flared, for some reason at some point the flaring has been removed from mine to leave a widened but rounded end.

I think my third example is snake skin, probably some kind of python (ball?). Light spots on a dark background is not very common.
Mefidk, I just picked up this axe. Itís similar to the first examples you posted. This is my first African piece. Itís pretty cool !
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Old 13th May 2021, 04:26 PM   #15
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Congratulations Pingdang, that is a really nice first axe (or even first African piece). Its a Nsapo axe (they are a subgroup of the Songye). Very nice example of the type with ropelike metalwork and copper covered shaft.
I would say that this blade edge shape is a bit less common than most of the ones I posted, being almost an exact pair to the axe in the second part of first group.
You might want to gently remove the active rust, especially if you live in a damp climate - fine wire wool works wonders.
Btw that black coating on the blade is probably soot - it was used to protect the weapons in the early 20C after they were collected. Its quite common to see these Congo axes looking black.
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Old 15th May 2021, 01:18 PM   #16
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Default Songye axes

Hi Chris
A late reaction on your songye axes, a great group off axes, as your intrest in African weapons in is reasonable new i recommend buying a bigger house, its a bit addictive. Been collecting for the almost 30 years and my only problem is space , my lovely wife do not want it in the living space so i've got the smalest room in the house (not the toilet). There is a little book about the songye axes , kilonda, both authors are or had been a member off this forum.
A interesting book , i included a foto from the cover and a foto from my songye/ tetela axes.
Best regards
Marc
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Old 15th May 2021, 06:25 PM   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mefidk View Post
Congratulations Pingdang, that is a really nice first axe (or even first African piece). Its a Nsapo axe (they are a subgroup of the Songye). Very nice example of the type with ropelike metalwork and copper covered shaft.
I would say that this blade edge shape is a bit less common than most of the ones I posted, being almost an exact pair to the axe in the second part of first group.
You might want to gently remove the active rust, especially if you live in a damp climate - fine wire wool works wonders.
Btw that black coating on the blade is probably soot - it was used to protect the weapons in the early 20C after they were collected. Its quite common to see these Congo axes looking black.

Thank you so much for the info and the tips sir, have a great weekend!
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Old 15th May 2021, 08:36 PM   #18
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Hi Marc
I had no idea Luc had published this book. I guess its hard to find (I will try!).
Thanks for the information.

Glad to know there is another addict out there. I've been collecting for 20 yrs, but only just recently got into the Congo, and decided to focus on axes.

Yep, space is a problem. I share the house with about 40 kaskaras, and 200 or so pointy other things (and my wife). Now the little collection of Congo items seems to be growing faster than I can make space. I should sell some stuff, but I can rarely bare to part with anything At least axes are usually smaller than kaskara - and can be put on stands on shelves.

That is a nice set of axes you have there. Please, if you can, post some more pictures of your collection, I'd be really interested to see someone else's take on Songye axes.
/Chris
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Old 16th May 2021, 08:15 AM   #19
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Hi Marc
I had no idea Luc had published this book. I guess its hard to find (I will try!).
Thanks for the information.

Glad to know there is another addict out there. I've been collecting for 20 yrs, but only just recently got into the Congo, and decided to focus on axes.

Yep, space is a problem. I share the house with about 40 kaskaras, and 200 or so pointy other things (and my wife). Now the little collection of Congo items seems to be growing faster than I can make space. I should sell some stuff, but I can rarely bare to part with anything At least axes are usually smaller than kaskara - and can be put on stands on shelves.

That is a nice set of axes you have there. Please, if you can, post some more pictures of your collection, I'd be really interested to see someone else's take on Songye axes.
/Chris
Hi
Chris
A few 100 sharp things in the house , seems like a nice collection.
Would like to see some pictures also especialy the kaskaras.
The only axes i have are those 3, half off my collection is metal ( i'm a blacksmith / worker) metal but i shall take a few pictures from my things.
regards
Marc
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Old 17th May 2021, 08:50 AM   #20
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Marc, I'll send you a pm and then I can share collection pictures of kaskara, no need to bore everyone else. I remember now that you posted about the Ethiopian kaskara not long ago. Seems like our interests are quite well aligned.
If you can only have three Songye axes then those are very nice ones to pick. Although I have a suspicion that the one in the front is drifting out of Songye. The one striking similarity in these axes is that the shaft shape is very consistent. This changes as e.g. Luba and Tetela variants come in. I'm originally trained as a biologist and this reminds me of the question of speciation - when do we say its species A or B or a sub-species. For these weapons there is so much influence of inter-tribal dynamics and cross-over between types (let alone the scarcity of data on collection), that it seems hard to attribute a rigid classification.

Being a blacksmith I bet means you can make your own stands. I think that adds a nice dimension to be able to create your own display.
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Old 17th May 2021, 05:24 PM   #21
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Marc, I'll send you a pm and then I can share collection pictures of kaskara, no need to bore everyone else. I remember now that you posted about the Ethiopian kaskara not long ago. Seems like our interests are quite well aligned.
If you can only have three Songye axes then those are very nice ones to pick. Although I have a suspicion that the one in the front is drifting out of Songye. The one striking similarity in these axes is that the shaft shape is very consistent. This changes as e.g. Luba and Tetela variants come in. I'm originally trained as a biologist and this reminds me of the question of speciation - when do we say its species A or B or a sub-species. For these weapons there is so much influence of inter-tribal dynamics and cross-over between types (let alone the scarcity of data on collection), that it seems hard to attribute a rigid classification.

Being a blacksmith I bet means you can make your own stands. I think that adds a nice dimension to be able to create your own display.
Hi Chris
Yes, i'm the one with the kaskara and its alwaya a pleasure to meet a fellow African arms collector. The little ax in front is a tetela with a copper blade.
The variety of blades, handles and engravings among neighbors and even at greater distances is sometimes overwelming and not easy to classify as to what tribe it is. But that is also part of the fun.
I do make my own stands and indeed it gives a great freedom for the presantation of my objects. Looking forward to see your pictures.
Regards
Marc
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