Nuer cattle bells

Nuer cattle bells
Other views of this artifact:

Accession Number:
[Southern Sudan]
Cultural Group:
Date Made:
By 1936?
Palm Nut Plant , Wood Plant , Grass Fibre Plant
Perforated , Carved , Twisted , Tied , Knotted , Burnt
Extended L as strung = 460, diam cord circle = 130, cord diam = 4, smaller cord diam = 1.5; bell body L = 74, W = 86, depth = 52, diam holes = 7, W square hole = 8 mm [RTS 9/12/2004].
384.4 g
Other Owners:
Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard
Field Collector:
Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard
PRM Source:
Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard
Found unentered Donated 1948
Collected Date:
1930 - 1931 or 1935 - 1936
String of bells used to decorate the necks of cattle. This consists of a thick yellow cord made of 3 strands of twisted plant fibre combined, bent into a loop with the ends knotted together (Pantone 7507C). 8 bells have been attached to this directly; there is an additional length of slightly paler cream 2 ply cord tied on, with 3 further bells attached, 1 using twisted grass fibre, as seen on the rest of the string; 1 using this cream cord (Pantone 7506C), and the third bell using a piece of European white cotton twisted yarn (Pantone 7401C). This last bell is missing its clapper. The majority of bells are fixed to the string with a small loop of twisted 2 ply light brown grass fibre cord (Pantone 7508C); a larger loop of the same material hangs down from this, and passes through 2 holes cut into the top of a large Dom nut seed shell, where it is tied and then passed through the top of a wooden clapper, pierced for the purpose. Each clapper has been carved from a yellowish brown twig (Pantone 7507C), in many cases with some of the darker brown bark left on the surface; the sides have been shaved and the ends cut roughly flat. In one instance, there are burning marks over the surface. Each clapper hangs down well below the mouth of the nut body. This is largely unmodified, following the natural form of the nut which has a cleft running across the centre of its top and convex sides that turn in just above the bell mouth, which is pinched in slightly on either long side where the nut is ridged on its interior surface. These nuts are hollow and roughly oval in plan view, and the exterior dark greyish brown surface is slightly furry in some cases (Pantone Warm Grey 9C). The holes that have been made through the tops of each nut and clapper have been burnt through using a heated tool; at least 2 types of tool were used, one with a round section, which is the more usual shape found, and one with a square section, seen on only one of the bells. The object is nearly complete; there is a large hole in the side of the body of one bell, one clapper is missing, and another has possible damage along one face. It has a weight of 384.4 grams, and an extended length of 460 mm, as strung, producing a circle with a diameter of around 130 mm. The main cord has a diameter of 4 mm; the smaller string used to attach most bells to this is 1.5 mm in diameter. A typical bell has a length of 74 mm, width of 86 mm and depth of 52 mm, with top holes 7 mm in diameter and a clapper width of 10 mm. The square-shaped holes are 8 mm wide.

This object was probably collected when Evans-Pritchard did his fieldwork amongst the Nuer, with expeditions taking place in 1930, 1931, 1935 and 1936 (see E.E. Evans-Pritchard, 1940, The Nuer; a map showing the areas visited is published in D.H. Johnson, "Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service", African Affairs 81 no. 323, p. 233).

This is very similar to the 'calf's bell-necklace of palm nuts' illustrated by Evans-Pritchard and which is now in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (E.E. Evans-Pritchard, 1940,
The Nuer, p. 187, fig. 13; see also Blackman in his B. Litt. Thesis (A.A. Blackman, 1956, The Material Culture of the Nilotic Tribes of East Africa , p. 27). Evans-Pritchard tells us that these kinds of necklaces were placed around the necks of oxen and "Even the bull calves are adorned by their boy-owners with wooden beads and bells" (Evans-Pritchard 1940, p. 37).

Amongst the Zande, strings of similar bells, made from the doleib palm (
Borassus flabellifer) are worn by witch-doctors around their waists during dances (see E. E. Evans-Pritchard, 1937, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, p. 157 and pl. XIV). Similar bells shaped from the seed shells of the borassus palm are found amongst the Amba and Konjo of Uganda; these have a double clapper (M. Trowell & K.P. Wachsmann, 1953, Tribal Crafts of Uganda, pl. 77A-B).

This object is currently on display in the Upper Gallery, case 26A.

Rachael Sparks 25/9/2005.

Primary Documentation:
Accession Book Entry [p. 264] - E. E. EVANS-PRITCHARD, INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY, OXFORD. Found unentered; collected by donor. [p. 268] 1948.2.165 - NUER. String of large hollow nut-shells, with wooden clappers, worn as bells by cattle .

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

Funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
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