Nuer spear

Nuer spear
Other views of this artifact:

Accession Number:
[Southern Sudan]
Cultural Group:
Date Made:
By 1931
Ebony Wood Plant? , Animal Hide Skin , Animal Tail , Animal Hair
Carved , Polished , Covered , Tooled , Socketed
Total L = 2193, W shaft = 23, th shaft = 21; sheath L = 198, diam = 34.2; point L = 526, diam = 30.5 mm [RTS 3/1/2005]
766.4 g
Other Owners:
Collected by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard either in the early part of 1930 (probably February to April), or between February and June of 1931 [CM; RTS 9/7/2004].
Field Collector:
Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard
PRM Source:
Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard
Donated December 1931
Collected Date:
1930 - 1931
Spear consisting of a point made from a hard, dark reddish brown coloured wood, possibly ebony (Pantone 440C), tapering out to a narrow body with round section. The base of this rests against the top of a long narrow shaft, made from a lighter reddish brown wood (Pantone 724C), slightly oval in section and with a distinctive grain. This tapers slightly to a rounded butt at the base. The surfaces of both point and shaft have been polished. The junction between these two elements has been covered with a cylindrical sheath cut from a section of animal's tail with the hair removed; this was shrunken in place over the base of the point and top of the shaft to hold the two parts firm, and is a yellowish brown colour (Pantone 7509C). Impression marks over the surface show that the sheath was lightly tooled. There are also some narrow facets running down the length of the point where the surface was shaved down to shape. Towards the lower end of the shaft, a narrow line has been lightly incised or burnt into the surface around part of the circumference, and just below this, 2 cut sections of animal tail have been fitted over the body as decorative tassel elements. The upper element has long dark brown hair in place (Pantone black 7C), while the lower one is a lighter brown (Pantone 462C). The spear is complete, except for some of the tassel hairs which have broken off at their bases; there are some paint specks on the point which are probably modern. It has a weight of 766.4 grams, and a total length of 2193 mm, of which the point measures 526 mm to the top of the sheath, and the sheath itself is 198 mm long. The point has a maximum diameter of 30.5 mm, the sheath a maximum diameter of 34.2 mm, and the shaft a width of 23 mm and a thickness of 21 mm.

This object was collected by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard during his first or second seasons of fieldwork amongst the Nuer, e.g.: in February to April 1930 or between February and June of 1931, in 'the dry season'. In the former, he spent around three and a half months in Leek territory at Yahnyang and Pakur on the Bahr el Ghazal, in Lou territory at Muot Dit, and at Adok, amongst the Dok Nuer. In the latter, he spent five and a half months at Nasir, on the Nyanding River, and at Yakwat on the Sobat River (see E.E. Evans-Pritchard, 1940,
The Nuer , and the map of Evans-Pritchard's fieldwork in D.H. Johnson, "Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service", African Affairs 81 no. 323, p. 233) (pers. comm. Chris Morton 2004).

Evans-Pritchard, writing in 1940, said of the Nuer: 'Till recently they possessed very few iron spears, cherished as heirlooms, but used instead the straightened horns of antelope and buck, ebony wood, and the rib-bones of giraffe, all of which are still used to-day, though almost entirely in dances ...’ (E.E. Evans-Pritchard, 1940,
The Nuer, p. 86). Howell gives the Nuer term for these spears as giit, while the iron headed spears were known as mur. He states that the giit were regarded 'with considerable amusement' by younger Nuer, but that a few were retained as they were 'considered particularly effective in war, and the Nuer hope they may one day be able to use them ... although it required greater skill and strength to inflict a wound with a giit, the wounds once inflicted are more severe'. He goes on to describe the method of hafting them: 'The giit ... is fixed at the joint with an unsewn leather collar made from the tail skin of an ox. This is soaked and stretched round the haft, where it shrinks as it dries'. (P.P. Howell, 1947, "On the Value of Iron Among the Nuer", Man 47, p. 132-3).

Note that 1931.66.6-9 and 1936.10.2 are all made in a very similar fashion, with shafts carved from the same type of wood, which has a very distinctive grain to it. 4 of these spears have hard wood heads, probably ebony, and 1 has a head of straightened antelope horn.

Currently on display in the Upper Gallery, case 26A.

Rachael Sparks 18/9/2005.

Primary Documentation:
Accession Book Entry [IX, p. 16] 1931 [insert, in pencil] 66 [end insert] E. EVANS-PRITCHARD , Esq. Dec. Specimens collected by himself in the EASTERN SUDAN, viz. [insert, in pencil] 6-9 [end insert] - [1 of] 4 spears with tapering wooden shafts, three have long pointed hardwood heads & the other a similar head of antelope’s horn. The heads are fastened with a collar of hide cut from an animals tail. Obtained from the NUER tribe, but the type is probably derived from the SHILLUK of the WHITE NILE.
Additional Accession Book Entry [p. 15] - L[ENGTH]S = 2360, 2200 + 2300 mm (in no. order). 1931.66.6 + 7 No given AP These have hair decorations at the butt end.

Card Catalogue Entry [tribes] - information as in the accession book entry, with annotation: 2 with hair dec. & 1 with metal rings on staff end at base of head [RTS 23/7/2004].

Old Pitt Rivers Museum label - 91/92 [obverse] C [reverse; jewellers tag, in pencil; RTS 3/1/2004]

Written on object - Wood-pointed spear. Coll. From the NUER tribe, E. SUDAN, by E. Evans-Pritchard, & pres. by him, 1931 [RTS 3/1/2005].

Funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
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