by Sarah Corbett
The great kingdom of Ashanti was built upon the golden riches which lay beneath it’s soil. The Ashanti Kingdoms began to develop in the mid 16th century, and by the 17th century Ashanti was becoming established as an expanding power and by the middle of the 19th century Ashanti controlled most of the area which forms present day Ghana. By the end of the 19th century the Ashanti Kingdom was incorporated into the British Colonial system.
The Ashanti used gold dust as currency, until as recently as 100 years ago. They also used gold dust to gild the bodies of dignitaries for burial.
The goldsmiths of the Ashanti and the Gold Coast for centuries produced gold pieces of an exceptionally high standard.
The gold working and in particular gold casting of the Akan forest zone was already established by the 14th century, and Portuguese sailors reaching the region in 1482 described with awe the appearance of the first local ruler they met, “His arms and neck and legs were covered in chains and trinkets of gold in many shapes, and many bells and large beads of gold were hanging from the hair of his beard and his head”.
Europeans continued to return from the Gold Coast with accounts of the quantities and of the beauty of the gold adornments they had witnessed.
The skills of the goldsmiths of the Gold Coast display the highest levels of artistry, the utilised skills acquired over the centuries, techniques which remained unchanged over the centuries, maybe the skills remained unchanged, because they were perfectly suited tot heir purpose!
The ultimate gold creation is the Golden stool of Ashanti. Sika ‘dwa Kofi ( the golden stool created on a Friday). Legend says that the great priest Anokye brought the stool down from heaven, and it settled upon the knees of King Asantehene Osei Tutu. The golden stool is believed to hold the soul of the nation and is prized above all other items of Regalia.
Ashanti goldsmiths are the supreme masters of the lost wax casting techniques, and this technique is the one used to create many of the opulent gold jewels of the country. The goldsmiths ar also experts in the ancient techniques of cold working gold. This technique shapes gold by hammering, bending, cutting,punching and incising. This creates a raised form of decoration known as repousse.
Objects of note include swords with handles of gold formed from two globes joined by a cylinder of gold. These state swords would be used ceremonially when chiefs swore allegiance to Ashanti, rather than as weapons also vast umbrellas used in parades with gold foil covered carved finials and handles.
Gold was also formed into a wide range of forms to adorn the high ranking people in society. These adornments included bracelets, armlets, anklets, rings, beads, pectoral discs, sandal decorations, bells, headdresses, pipes, helmets and ceremonial weapons and objects.
A particularly specialist form of Ashanti casting involved gently casing a small object in clay to create a mould from it, this delicate process known as lost beetle casting technique, and produced fine moulds of flowers, beetles and fruits.
The Ashanti had vast quantities of gold, however they developed advanced techniques to use it sparingly including the use of gold foil, and the casting of hollow items.
Kra discs were worn as pectoral decorations. These are especially fine examples of workmanship , worn by young men, servants of the ruler.
Today at Ashanti funerals the gold jewellery can be seen worn by female dancers. Their attire is Kente cloth, beneath which numerous strands of gold and glass beads encircle their waist. Further strands of gold and glass bead encircle their ankles and wrists, around their necks swathes of gold chains and pendants along with beautiful Venetian glass beads which are threaded between golden ball pendants. Large heavy gold bracelets called ‘Benkum Benfra’. A band of fabric with woven gold threads is worn around the head and a bra like pectoral adornment of vast breast shaped discs is worn over the stunning kente cloth. A display of beauty, grace and of course opulence!