Shilluk fishing spear

Shilluk fishing spear
Other views of this artifact:

Accession Number:
[Southern Sudan]
Cultural Group:
Date Made:
By 1961
Iron Metal , Wood Plant , Animal Leather Skin , ?Tin Metal
Forged (Metal) , Hammered Socketed , Carved Polished , Stained Wound , Chequer Woven , Incised Decorated
Total L = 995 mm; Spearhead L = 483, socket W = 22.7, socket th = 21.3 mm, body W = 12.5, body th = 9.4 mm; shaft W = 18, th = 17 mm; butt W = 25.3, th = 25 mm; w strips = 3 mm [RTS 20/9/2004].
555.0 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 with round sectioned point, on a narrow rectangular body, the sides of which have been chiselled to form 32 sharp parallel downwards pointing barbs that run down the left edge of the upper surface and the right edge of the underside. Below this is a decorative section where 4 oblique chisel blows have been struck in a cross-shaped pattern to create 4 barbs on both faces, then the body opens out into a cylindrical socket. The iron is currently a metallic gray colour (Pantone 420C). This spearhead has been fitted onto the top of a wooden shaft with slightly irregular, knotted surface and rounded butt. The wood has been a stained yellowish brown colour (Pantone 730C) and polished. The upper part of the shaft has been wound round with a narrow leather strip, then covered with a binding made of a dark brown leather strip (Pantone black 7C), interwoven with thin strips of a flexible white metal (Pantone 414C), probably tin, woven in at right angles, creating a checkerwork pattern. There is an additional strip of leather wound round to make a thicker band at the base of this. These bands are in poor condition and have begun to deteriorate. The shaft below has been decorated with an incised motif consisting of three horizontal lines around the body, filled with two rows of horizontally hatched triangles. There is then a further section of woven leather and tin strips just above the handle butt, where it may act as a hand grip; this also has thicker wound leather bands at its top and base, both quite loose. The end of the shaft has been reinforced with a thick iron strip that wraps in a spiral around the butt; this is rectangular in section and tapers to a point at either end. The spear is complete; however there is a large crack down one side of the wooden shaft, while the leather binding is beginning to perish and two small fragments have become detached. It has a weight of 555 grams. The object has a total length of 995 mm; the iron spearhead is 483 mm long, 22.7 mm wide and 21.3 mm thick at its base, and 12.5 mm wide and 9.4 mm thick at its barbed upper body. The shaft is 18 mm wide and 17 mm thick, while the iron wrapped handle butt is 25.3 mm wide and 25 mm thick. The strips used to create the handle grip are 3 mm wide.

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 1961.9.7; this is combined with a different style of spearhead and is much lighter. For similar spearheads see 1942.8.61 and 1979.20.109 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] 1961.9.8 - SUDAN, SHILLUK. Fish-spear, 3 ft. 1 in. long. Iron point, socketed, 1 ft .7 1/2 in. long. Slightly cut-in barbs. Leather checker-work grip near centre & at base of iron shaft.

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

Old Pitt Rivers Museum label - [front] 1961.9.8 Fish spear d.d. Mr & Mrs A.J. Forster [back] SHILLUK [circular, metal-edged label, with circular red sticker on back indicating it has been photographed; label not kept with object, RTS 13/1/2004].

Funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council
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