Shilluk fishing spear

Shilluk fishing spear
Other views of this artifact:

Accession Number:
1961.9.7 .1 .2
[Southern Sudan]
Cultural Group:
Date Made:
By 1961
Iron Metal , Wood Plant , Animal Leather Skin , ?Tin Metal
Forged (Metal) , Hammered , Socketed Decorated , Incised Carved , Stained Wound , Chequer Woven
Total L = 1160; spearhead L = 364, blade L = ca. 50, max W = 13.5, max th = 2.7, socket diam = 16.4 x 16; shaft L = 817, diam (mid body) = 25 x 19; W tin strips = 3 mm [RTS 1/8/2005].
276.1 g
Other Owners:
Mr & Mrs A.J. Forster
Field Collector:
?Mr & Mrs A.J. Forster
PRM Source:
Mr & Mrs A.J. Forster
Donated September 1961
Collected Date:
By 1961
Fishing spear, consisting of an iron spearhead [.1] with a short, leaf-shaped blade at the tip, then a rectangular shank, two sides of which have been chiselled to form a series of downwards pointing barbs on opposite edges. The shank then becomes oval in section, then is flattened to create a short rectangular segment that has been decorated with 2 vertical lines and crosshatching between, on both front and back. The corners have also been chiselled out at top and bottom to create slight barbs. The body then gradually expands below to form a cylindrical socket with a closed seam running up the front. This fits over the top of a short wooden shaft, round in section and cut flat at either end. Immediately below the base of the spear head is a short stop, made from a leather strip that has been wound several times around the shaft. This either sits about another strip, or else one end continues in a spiral around the wood, where it has been interwoven with thin rectangular vertical strips of a flexible white metal with a dull surface, most probably tin, creating a chequered effect. The base of this section may have been finished with a further section of leather binding, but this now sits loosely on the shaft and is currently positioned further down the body. The surface of the wood is exposed for most of the body below, and has been stained a dark reddish brown colour (Pantone 4695C). A series of 12 incised bands have been cut around the circumference, some as single bands of decoration, others as double bands, filled variously with hatched triangles, hatched checkerboard designs, oblique hatching and simple crosshatching. At the base of the shaft is a second area of woven metal and leather strips, similarly provided with leather binding at top and base, while the butt has been adorned with an iron strip, wound around the tip and extending below the base of the wood itself. The object is nearly complete; some of the barbs have broken off at their tips, and there is corrosion evident on the white metal and some of the surrounding materials, while the surface of the iron butt has rusted to a reddish brown colour. The spearhead itself is still in good condition, and currently a metallic gray colour (Pantone 422C). The object has a total weight of 276.1 grams, of which the spearhead weighs 154.9 grams. The spear has a total length of 1160 mm; the spearhead is 364 mm long, with a blade length of around 50 mm, width of 13.5 mm, thickness of 2.7 mm, and socket diameter of 16.4 by 16 mm; the shaft is 817 mm long, with a diameter at mid body of 25 by 19 mm, while the decorative tin strips have a width of 3 mm.

Collected by Mr and Mrs A.J. Forster, and donated to the museum in 1961.

John Petherick described Shilluk fishing in the mid 19th century as follows: 'The fish are speared... The spear consists of a square, sharp-pointed iron spike, the corners of which are thickly barbed, and it is stuck into a handle about ten feet in length; a stout cord connects the spear to the upper end of the handle; and when a large fish is struck, it withdraws the spear, which, attached to the cord, allows it to be played, until, exhausted, it is drawn to the shore by means of a landing-hook attached to a short wooden handle. The men wade after each other in rows of three or four, always moving against the current, and continually thrust their spears horizontally through the water, either to the right or left' (J. Petherick,
Egypt, The Sudan and Central Africa: with Explorations from Khartoum on the White Nile to the Regions of the Equator: Being Sketches from Sixteen Years’ Travel, 1861, pp 357-8). This particular type of spear is of a different design, as it has a much shorter shaft and lacks the detachable, harpoon style head that Petherick describes. However the barbing along the spearhead served a similar purpose, of preventing the spear being pulled free of the fish while lifting it out of the water.

For another Shilluk fishing spear with the same type of metallic weave handle grip, see 1961.9.8; this is combined with a different style of spearhead and is much heavier; see also 1942.8.61 and 1979.20.109 for fishing spearheads from the Dinka Tuich, and J. Ryle, 1982,
Warriors of the White Nile: The Dinka , pp 106-109 for photographs of the Dinka using this type of spear.

Rachael Sparks 2/8/2005.

Primary Documentation:
Accession Book Entry [p. 45] - Mr & Mrs A.J. FORSTER, St Mary's ... OXFORD. Mr. Forster was some time Bursar of MAGDALEN Coll., Oxford. [p. 46] 1961.9.7 - SUDAN, SHILLUK. Fish-spear, 3 ft 8 in. long. Iron point, 1 ft 2 in., socketed, barbs standing out below point; carved wooden shaft with checker-woven leather grip.

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

Pitt Rivers Museum label - 1961.9.7. SHILLUK. Fish Spear. d.d. Mr & Mrs A.J. FORSTER [circular metal-edged tag, tied to object].

Funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
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