This knife blade was excavated at the medieval trading center of Tadmekka, Mali. A comparable blade was found at Gao Ancien (see the case at the center of the gallery). The blades are similar in shape and size to those of arm knives made across the region to this day.

Sheathed knives are also depicted worn strapped to the upper left arms of medieval terracotta figures. The figures are portrayed wearing bangles, hair ornaments, and pendants that reflect the wealth of the region, which was heavily involved in trans-Saharan exchange. Horsemen—a common theme—point to the importance of cavalry for expansion and security. A breed of small horses was indigenous to the region, and larger Arabian horses were also imported across the Sahara.

The majority of medieval West African terracottas have been removed from sites without the systematic recording of archaeological data that would help us understand them. Nonetheless, research in the region provides information that allows us to speculate on their meanings and functions. This group of figures relates stylistically to others that were excavated from mounds near Bamako, Mali’s capital, where they had been intentionally buried. In the Inland Niger Delta region, terracotta figures were found deposited in house foundations in the city of Jenne, while at nearby Natamatao, a large group of figures representing humans and horses were found buried together alongside horse skeletons.

Case Studies:

Gold Molds  •   Copper Alloy and Fittings  •  Remains of Porcelain and Silk