Nuer headrest

Nuer headrest
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Accession Number:
[Southern Sudan]
Cultural Group:
Date Made:
By 1917
Wood Plant
Carved , Polished , Decorated
Ht = 176; seat L = 337, W = 28, th = 30; leg diam = 16.6 to 24.2 mm [RTS 3/6/2005].
227.4 g
Local Name:
Other Owners:
This object was collected by Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, probably in the period immediately before World War I, sometime between 1909 and 1914 [RTS 1/6/2004].
Field Collector:
Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson
PRM Source:
Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson
Donated 1917
Collected Date:
By 1917
Headrest carved from a single piece of yellowish brown wood (Pantone 7509C). This is an example of 'found form', with a naturally grown branch specifically chosen because its shape, with subsidiary branches coming off the main stem to form the three feet, was suitable for making a headrest. It consists of a narrow seat that runs horizontally across the top and that is almost flat along its length, but very slightly convex across its width. This tapers to either end, with a single incised line cut around its circumference just before the back end, and 2 more deeply cut lines just before the front, which also has a projecting lug carved immediately below. The underside of the seat is curved, and has 3 branches extending down from it to form the legs, with a single leg at the front, almost in line with the seat itself, a second leg splaying out to one side halfway along the body, and a third leg angled out in the opposite direction just before the back. The central part f each leg has been carved with a series of parallel grooves, creating a jagged profile reminiscent of a series of stacked truncated cones. The legs have rounded undersides, worn flat in places through use. The headrest is complete, but the surface of the wood is cracking on the seat. It has a weight of 227.4 grams and is 176 mm high; the seat is 337 mm long, 28 mm wide and 30 mm thick, while the legs have a diameter of from 16.6 to 24.2 mm.

This object was collected by Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson, probably in the period immediately before World War I, sometime between 1909 and 1914. It was said to have come from the 'Sudan-Abyssinian border'. This suggests that it probably came from one of the eastern Nuer groups close to the Ethiopian border, such as the Eastern Jikany.

Similar leg ribbing is seen on 1917.25.40, and is a feature seen on some of the headrests found across the border in Ethiopia. This type of lightweight headrest, made from a tree branch, is produced by a number of Nilotic groups; for further Nuer examples, see 1917.25.39, 1931.66.17-18, 1932.30.1, 1936.10.56, 1937.34.49 and 1948.2.128; for Dinka examples, see 1934.8.17, and for examples from the Anuak, see 1936.10.55.

Objects like these were used by men to protect their elaborate hairstyles. Willis described the Nuer practice of covering their hair with a paste made of clay, cow dung and urine, and then shaping it into the desired style, such as a cock's comb, or a peak at front or back. This treatment gradually wears off, staining the hair a reddish colour, and then the hair needs to be redone. Domville-Fife describes a similar process for the Shilluk in some detail, although amongst that group hair is dressed by a specialist barber, and is a costly process (C.W. Domville Fife, 1927,
Savage Life in the Black Sudan, pp 71-76).

Rachael Sparks 22/08/2005.

Primary Documentation:
Accession Book Entry [VI, p. 54] - 1917 [pencil insert] 25 [end insert] MAJOR R.G. GAYER-ANDERSON , R.A.M.C. The Lodge, Old Marston, Oxon [pencil insert, p. 55] 38-41 [end insert] - [1 of] 4 wooden headrests, Nuer tribe, Sudan-Abyssinian frontier.
Additional Accession Book Entry
[page opposite 54] - A gift to the Pitt Rivers Museum in memory of Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson, Pasha, his twin brother Colonel J.G. Gayer-Anderson, C.M.G., D.S.O.

Card Catalogue Entry - There is no further information on the tribes catalogue card [RTS 23/7/2004].

Related Documents File - Two letters dated 30/03/1917 and 13/04/1917 from the donor to Henry Balfour regarding the donation of the collection to the museum [EB 12/11/2001]. These indicate that the material was collected by Robert Gayer-Anderson himself, chiefly from the areas of Nuba, Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal during 5 years he spent in the Sudan, and that they were given to the museum as an unconditional gift [RTS 5/12/2003]. The note in the accession book calling this gift 'in memory of' R.G. Gayer-Anderson is therefore somewhat enigmatic, as both Robert and his twin brother (Thomas G., not J.G.) were alive at the time of the transfer [RTS 5/12/2003].

Pitt Rivers Museum label - AFRICA, Sudan-Ethiopian frontier. Nuer tribe. Coll. R.G. Gayer-Anderson, don. 1917. 1917.25.40 [plastic coated label, tied to object; RTS 31/5/2005].

Written on object - NUER head-rest. SUDAN-ABYSSINIAN Frontier. Pres. by Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson, 1917 [RTS 31/5/2005].

Funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
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