Nuer fishing spear

Nuer fishing spear
Other views of this artifact:

Accession Number:
[Southern Sudan] Wahda near Lake No
Cultural Group:
Date Made:
By November 1923
Iron Metal , Wood Plant
Forged (Metal) , Hammered , Socketed , Decorated Incised , Bent Bound , Carved Stained Polished
Total L = 1608; spearhead L = 401, max W = 22.4, th = 6.7, socket diam = 18.8 x 18.5; shaft diam = 15 x 13.5, iron ring L = 21.8, W = 19, th = 3; iron strips L = 63, W = 11 mm [RTS 13/7/2005].
447.2 g
Other Owners:
Collected by W. Sherlock Lennon on 17th February 1923 [misread as 17th November 1923 when making the accession book entry], donated to the PRM by his sisters Kathleen Constance Averina Knowles and Mrs Cameron in August 1946 [RTS 26/8/2005].
Field Collector:
W. Sherlock Lennon
PRM Source:
Kathleen Constance Averina Knowles & Mrs Cameron
Donated August 1946
Collected Date:
17 February 1923
Spear consisting of an iron spear-head with a round sectioned point, tapering out to a narrow body with rectangular section with a series of 15 downwards pointing barbs chiselled out from opposite edges and faces. This widens at its base, where 4 thicker barbs have been pulled out from the corners to point upwards and inwards, with each pair meeting at its tips. The base has been hammered flat and bent into a cylindrical socket with a closed seam running up the front. An iron rod has been fitted over the top of this socket, and bent into a loop with overlapping ends. The rectangular body has been covered with incised decoration on both faces, consisting of pairs of oblique parallel lines running in a zigzag pattern down the surface, with the lower third being divided up by 3 pairs of horizontal line, creating 2 panels. The first of these has a vertical line down the centre, with crosshatching filling the space on one side of this and the other half left blank, while the second has been filled with a column of stacked, v-shaped chevrons. The spear-head has been fitted over the top of a wooden shaft, carved from a tree branch and with some surface irregularities down its length. This has been stained a reddish brown colour (Pantone 477C) and then polished. 2 thick iron strips with tapering ends have been wound spirally round the end of the shaft, creating a protective sheath over the butt. The spear is complete, although there is surface rust over the iron elements, which are otherwise a metallic gray colour (Pantone 877C). There are also some grooves along the shaft, which may represent old splits. It has a weight of 447.2 grams and a total length of 1608 mm. The spearhead is 401 mm long, with a maximum body width of 22.4 mm and thickness of 6.7 mm, while the socket has a base diameter of 18.8 by 18.5 mm. The shaft has a diameter of 15 by 13.5 mm, the iron ring is 21.8 mm long, 19 mm wide and 3 mm thick, and the iron strips cover an area that is 63 mm long, with the strips having a maximum width of 11 mm.

Collected by W. Sherlock Lennon near Lake No on 17th February 1923, and donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum by his sisters Kathleen Constance Averina Knowles and Mrs Cameron in August 1946.

Lennon did not record how this object was used, or its Nuer name, but this particular type of spearhead, with long narrow barbed blade, is often associated with fishing; see also 1936.10.6-7 (Nuer), 1961.9.8 (Shilluk) and 1979.20.109 (Dinka Tuich).

Evans-Pritchard describes the Nuer use of fish to supplement to their diet, including various methods of catching them (E.E. Evans-Pritchard, 1940,
The Nuer, pp 70-72, pls IX-X, and XXIIa-b). Another source from the same period gives the Lak Nuer term for a fishing spear as bith, which is the same term as that used by the Dinka (Nebel 1979, Dinka-English Dictionary, p. 16); these are said to have been of universally high value amongst different Nuer groups, who always made the points out of iron, as other materials were difficult to haft successfully on an object that would frequently get wet (P.P. Howell, 1947, "On the Value of Iron Among the Nuer", Man 47, p. 133). For photographs of the Dinka using this type of spear, see J. Ryle, 1982, Warriors of the White Nile: The Dinka , pp 106-109.

Iron was originally scarce among the Nuer, and objects made from it were therefore highly prized. Iron spears (known as
mur ) were often kept as heirlooms, with the majority of spears having points made out of materials such as antelope, ebony or giraffe bone ( giit) . By the 1920's, when this object was collected, this was changing as trade contacts increased. Iron spears become more common, with the introduction of large quantities of ready-made examples accelerating the process. Evans-Pritchard later noted that the older type of spear was still being used in dances (E.E. Evans-Pritchard, 1940, The Nuer, p. 86; P.P. Howell, 1947, "On the Value of Iron Among the Nuer", Man 47, p. 132).

Rachael Sparks 29/8/2005.

Primary Documentation:
Accession Book Entry [p. 143]- LADY KNOWLES, 3 BRADMORE ROAD, OXFORD & MRS. CAMERON. Specimens collected by their brother, CAPT MAJOR W.S. LENNON, from the NUER TRIBE, SUDAN, 1923. Labelled by G. R. CARLINE. Coll. 17 Nov. 1923. 1946.8.90 - WHITE NILE, NEAR LAKE NO. Spear, narrow multi-barbed iron blade decorated with incised lines and chevrons. Heavy iron bands at butt. Wooden shaft. Total length 5' 3 1/2", blade, (with socket) 1' 4".
Additional Accession Book Entry [page facing 143] - Major W. S. Lennon was District Commissioner in the Sudan.

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

Pitt Rivers Museum label - AFRICA, Sudan, near Lake No. NUER tribe. Spear with barbed iron spearhead. Coll. W.S. Lennon, 1946.8.90 [plastic coated label, tied to object; RTS 13/7/2005].

Written on object - NUER, near L[ake] No., WHITE NILE. Coll. by Major W.S. Lennon, 17 Feb 1924. d.d. Lady Knowles & Mrs Cameron. 1946.8.90 [RTS 13/7/2005].

Funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
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