1884.32.3 Nuer headdress

Research note on a beaded headdress collected by John Petherick in the Southern Sudan

Nuer beaded headdress

Jeremy Coote and Alison Petch

In the early 1990s it was decided that part of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Upper Gallery should be redisplayed. The area had traditionally been used to display different types of weaponry and this overall theme was continued. However it was agreed that, in addition, there should be two displays which concentrated on objects from specific geographical areas. After some debate it was agreed that one of the displays should contain artefacts from Nagaland in north-eastern India (artefacts from this area are very strongly represented in the Museum’s collections) and Southern Sudan, specifically objects made by the Nuer and Dinka.

The decision to display objects from the Southern Sudan was taken because two of the most famous ‘Oxford anthropologists’, E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Godfrey Leinhardt, undertook important fieldwork among the Nuer and Dinka and the Museum has a collection made by Evans-Pritchard, including 437 artefacts and around 1,500 photographs. In addition, the Museum received, as part of the founding collection of Lt.-General A. H. L. F. Pitt Rivers, 142 objects collected by John Petherick in the Southern Sudan between 1853–1865. This meant that the display could show a historical range of objects and set them into context with photographs taken by Evans-Pritchard in the 1930s. Both of the authors of this research note worked on the redisplay. One of the authors, Jeremy Coote, had actually undertaken fieldwork in the area himself. He arranged that photographs should also be displayed so that the exhibit showed something of the material culture of the area over the last 150 years. This display was completed in 1994.

One of the objects which had to be displayed, because of its rarity and striking lack of resemblance to other material culture items from this geographical area, was a beaded headdress collected by John Petherick [1884.32.2, see Plate 1]. This had been part of Pitt Rivers’s own collection and had been displayed with other objects at Bethnal Green Museum, London (then part of the South Kensington Museum, which is now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum). Pitt Rivers published a catalogue raisonné for part of these displays including a description of the headdress:

Screen 4 North Arch ...Helmet of cylindrical white beads with neck-guard at back worn by Nouar [sic] on both sides of the Nile, from 8-10 ˚ N Latitude. Similar in form to the ancient Egyptian head-dress. Obtained by Mr Petherick (see Journal of the Royal United Services Journal vol iv no xiii).

Both writers classified the headdress as armour. For all objects which were donated as part of the founding collection there are a series of hard copy sources of information including the so-called Black book entry (written before the collection came to Oxford in 1884), the delivery catalogue (in which items which were transferred from London to Oxford in 1884 are listed), and the accession book entry (written in the 1920s by a member of the Museum’s staff). Here are these entries:

Black book entry - ‘78 Helmet cylindrical white beads. Worn by the Nouer [sic] on both sides of the Nile from 8˚ to 10˚ N latitude Similar in form to the Ancient Egyptian Obtained by Con'l Petherick 129’

Delivery Catalogue II entry [page 260] - ‘Hats and Helmets Helmet cylindrical beads with neck guard Nile 129’

Accession book IV page 83 - ‘Helmet of white cylindrical beads elaborately mounted on end on net-work with neck-guard Nuer C Africa.’

Relatively little is known about John Petherick (1813–82). He was a Welsh mining engineer, trader and explorer employed until 1848 in Ali Pasha’s service in the Sudan. From 1853 on he was in trade in the area of the Bahr-el-Jebel (White Nile) during which time he ‘explored’ the Rivers Jur and Yalo. In 1853-58 he was in Zande (Azande or Neam Nam) territory. In 1858 he was appointed British vice-consul in Khartoum. In 1862 he again visited the Southern Sudan, ascending the Bahr-el-Jebel. He left the Sudan in 1865.

He described the collection he had made in the Southern Sudan, including the ‘helmet’ to the Royal United Services Institution evening meeting on 7 May 1860. The journal reference is as follows:

The Nouaer [sic] on both sides of the Nile, from 8 to 10 degrees north latitude, wear a helmet made of cylindrical white beads (fig 22). [see Plate 2]

It is not known exactly how the collection came to be owned by Pitt Rivers but it was certainly publicly displayed by him in 1874, as the mention of several items from Petherick in Pitt Rivers’s catalogue raisonné shows. Petherick himself describes a similar type of headdress in Egypt, The Soudan and Central Africa:

... Anoin and his brothers wore caps resembling sailor’s souwesters, composed of white tubular beads sewn in close contact on to a piece of soft hide the thread is of cotton and in it manufacture a thorn proved a good substitute for a needle.’

Although the reference to hide is confusing, as none of the specimens which have been found to date have the beads sewn on to skin.

Another early reference to the headdress is made by the Revd. J. G. Wood, another ethnographic collector:

A headdress of remarkable beauty was brought from this tribe by Mr Petherick, and is now in the collection of Col. Lane Fox. It is white, in imitation of the white clay with which the head is usually decorated and is made of cylindrical beads shaped as if they were pieces of tobacco pipe. These beads or bugles, as they ought perhaps to be called, are threaded on string and fastened together in a very ingenious manner. The singular point of this headdress is the exact resemblance to the soldier’s casque of ancient Europe, and to the helmets now in use in India and other parts of the world.

The following description of the headdress as it is today concentrates on the two main components of its structure; the string network which forms the structure of the headdress and the beads. The beads are individually knotted onto a string network. The string-network is made of horizontal lines of string with regular vertical lines attached, towards the edges the numbers of vertical strings increase. The beads are then threaded (?with a double thickness of string - or [less likely] threaded twice), tied to the network and then to through the bead to the outside where they are individually knotted. The end line of beads also has a further line of string between the knots and the beads, presumably as further protection. It is fairly obvious that the network was made first and the beads added because in some places the beads have fallen off leaving the remnants of the network, and also because of the way the beads have been knotted onto the network. The beads ‘radiate out’ from a central point at the top of the head either in a coil or in concentric circles.

It has been suggested that the net-work could have started from the upper fringe part and then worked down the neck end. The strengthening side parts run up into the head section but do not go round the edge. They are made by laying a piece of string over the verticals and then tying bead to both bits of string to link string network and the bead together. As the headdress reaches the top there are less beads strung between each vertical thread (it varies from 2 to [more usual] 3 at bottom and one at the top. The ‘fringe’ is made in a semi-circle but appears not to be sewn to back piece but actually worked into it. The whole thing could have been made like a basket, by twining from the top and then lengthening for the neck section on one side. It is possible that the strings to which beads attached are weft and the ‘vertical’ threads are the warp.

Some of the beads have now become detached from the string network. The beads are definitely made of glass, with some variation in colour but basically white. There is a very close match to one of the beads in the A. J. Arkell collection. These beads are described as 2 opaque white glass cylinder beads, possibly from Sokoto, obtained from El Fasher in the Northern Darfur, Sudan. A. J. Arkell was an archaeologist and anthropologist who spent most of his working life in Sudan. He became Head of the Antiquities Service and founded Khartoum Museum. In 1950s and early 60s he was curator of the Flinders Petrie Museum (part of Dept of Egyptology, University College, London). Although Arkell suggested that the beads may have come from Sokoto they are placed among other European glass beads in the Arkell collection.

A review of the bead sample cards in the Museum’s collections suggested that the headdress beads most resemble Czech beads from Gablonz, in colour and general appearance although none of them is the exact size as they are either much smaller or much larger. The two most similar beads are on a specimen card of glass trade beads obtained from George Shashat (Syrian merchant) at El Fasher, supplied by George Djerdjran of Khartoum, 1927. Details on back of card suggest that these beads were not popular in Darfur area. On the sample card itself it says ?Gablonz, suggesting that this was the place of manufacture. Further similarities can be found on the sample card manufactured by Polenz at Hensel, Gablonz, Bohemia. The Bohemian glass bead industry was originally established by the Venetians, and specialized in imitating beads and bead materials used in other areas of the world.

The beads could be drawn rather than wound, however it is not be possible to test whether the beads are drawn as it is not possible see down into the holes because of the string network. Wound glass is made by winding molten glass around metallic rod or wire so there is no need to drill central hole. Drawn-glass beads are made from drawn canes (made by lump of melted glass being blown until a hole is formed, it is then pulled until it becomes a tube) from which large numbers of identical beads can be cut at great speed. Wound beads were individually made and therefore expensive, drawn beads were mass-produced and therefore cheaper.Wound glass beads can be recognized by swirl marks and tiny air bubbles encircling the hole. Early beads have sharp edges and are irregular in length and angle of cut. The final method is moulding or pressing (which was a later technique), where the powdered glass was pressed into moulds with a stick in the middle to provide for a hole, the mould was then fired, the glass when cooled became a compact mass and the stick was burnt leaving the beads perforated.

The History of Beads shows two main indigenous glass-bead trade routes into Southern Sudan, one from west (centred on Bida, Nigeria) and other south from Egypt. European (Venetian, Bohemian and Dutch) glass beads were brought into West Africa in great quantities and traded from there south and east. Bida is just south of Sokoto in the State of Nigeria.It is a twentieth century centre of bead production. None of the African glass-beads in the Arkell collection resemble the headdress beads whereas several of the beads in the European part of his collection do.

We were interested in obtaining as much information as possible about this headdress particularly because it seemed so much at variance with other material culture from this area. John Mack of the British Museum has stated that

... [it is] unlikely to be a defensive helmet ... [it is] much more likely to be the ceremonial wear of a priest or healer ... where there is no single or uniform style.

Original sources were researched in order that contemporaneous descriptions of similar headdresses could be obtained. One such sources was G. Schweinfürth’s Heart of Africa published in .... :

... Since the Dinka cannot do much with his miserable crop of hair, he turns his attention to caps and perukes in a way not infrequent amongst Africans. Whilst I was with Kudy* I often saw these strange specimens of head-gear which, in the shape of a Circassian European chain-helmet, are formed exclusively of large white bugle beads, which in Khartoum are called “muria”. This decoration is especially common amongst the Nueir [sic].

Kudy is the name of a man, possibly from Khartoum, with whom Schweinfurth stayed in the district of Reck (Rek) ‘.. a locality which formerly made a hitch in the traffic with the natives, before Petherick broke a way to the South through the Dyoor and Bongo, and opened a trade with the Niam-niam [Zande]’. Schweinfurth states that he mainly met Western Dinka during his expeditions of 1863–1865/6 and 1868–1871 when he travelled through Dinka territory.

Margret Carey provided another clue to the headdress. She found that there were two similar headdresses in Museum für Völkerkunde (Abteilung Afrika) in Berlin, Germany. One collected by G. Schweinfurth in 1872 (which seems to be a year later than the expedition dates and may simply be the date of donation), which measured c. 500 mm in length and another given to the museum in 1906 by widow of Johannes Duemichen, the former Professor of Egyptology at the University of Strassburg. This headdress was collected during Duemichen’s expedition to Egypt, Nubia and Sudan in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Unfortunately the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde had no further information about the objects either from the donors or from other sources [Plate 3, if we have copies of their photos I dont think we do].

A further clue was obtained when a reference was found in an Oxford B. Litt thesis by A. A. Blackman written in 1956, The material culture of the Nilotic Tribes of East Africa :

Some of the more conspicuous articles of Nilotic wear are observable today only as Museum specimens. Of prime interest are the bead headdresses of the Nuer and Dinka, of the type on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum, in the Binder collection (from the Gok Dinka) and mentioned in Schweinfurth’s writing. Among the Dinka the king’s headgear was said to have consisted of a cap of white glass beads with a tuft of white ostrich feathers and Titherington records conical hats of grass, leather and ostrich feathers. Helmets are said to be worn during the bioork, the clashes between the sub-sets of Dinka age-sets...

This reference, and the bibliography, enabled us to identify Franz Binder and track him down to Hermannsburg (now Sibiu in Romania). He was an Austrian trader said to have been of Transylvanian origin (Sibiu is in the area known as Transylvania). He traded on the Upper White Nile and had a station at Shamba having bought Rumbok station after the death of A. de Malzac in 1860. He was acting Sardinian vice-Consul in Khartoum in 1859. In 1864, visiting from Cairo, he was in the Sudan where he had transferred his business. We wrote to the Muzeul Civilizatiei Populare Traditionale Astra in Sibiu, Romania to ascertain whether they had the Binder collection of Southern Sudan material and whether they had a similar headdress. They replied that they did indeed have a similar headdress collected by Franz Binder [Plate 4] and enclosing an extract from Verhandlungen und Mitteilungen des Siebenbürg. Vereins für naturwissenschaften zu Hermannstadt.:

Of the greatest interest from a cultural historical point of view are the unusual glass bead head covers, which have already been noted by Schweinfürth, and which he described in the following words:

‘At Kudj one often saw those strange caps, which had the shape of Circassian chain helmets, and were sewn together entirely from those white cylindrical beads that are called muria in Khartoum. This ornament is especially common amond the Nuer.’

One is inclined to be reminded by these strange caps of the prototype of helmets worked as chain armour. Not insignificant is also that the famous padded armour coats of the western Sudan, tournaments and certain sword versions etc all remind one of Byzantine prototypes, which could also have had an effect on our glass bead caps. It does not strike me as implausible that these caps may be recreations of Byzantine chain head covers, possibly brought to the Upper Nile by Arabs. It goes without saying that these head covers, which are actually very impracticable in this hot country, are only worn by people of high status. This interesting question will be addressed again in the discussion of cultural history.


It seems that four travellers in the Southern Sudan in the 1860s managed to obtain very similar beaded headdresses. All the published accounts by these travellers suggests that they associated these headdresses with high status. All the headdresses are similar in construction, structure and in colour, s ize and shape of bead (except on the Berlin headdresses is said to have a single row of turqoise beads. It is strange however that after this date there seems to be little record of any such headgear. Evans-Pritchard who lived in the area some 70 years after makes no mention in his published work of such headdresses being worn or referred to by the Nuer. Although the travellers published accounts seem to suggest that the headdresses are associated with high status and even ceremonial use it is strange that no mention can be found to date referring to such headgear after that date.

It seems to us quite likely that there are other examples of this type of headdress still extant (there might for example be further ones in Eastern Europe, collected by other traders and travellers). We would welcome any further information that readers of this article might have.


Arkell, A.J. 1936. ‘Cambay and the Bead Trade’ Antiquity 10 (1936) pp 292-305

Carey, M. 1986.Beads and Beadwork of East and South Africa Shire Ethnography

Dubin, L.S. 1987. The History of Beads from 30,000 BC to the Present London

Gray R. and Birmingham D. (?poss B. David ref v. unclear!). 1970. Pre-colonial African Trade: Essays on Trade in Central and Eastern Africa before 1900 Oxford OUP

Harding, J.R. 1962. ‘Nineteenth century Trade Beads in Tanganyika’ Man 177 (1962) pp 104-6

Karklins, K. 1985. ‘Early Amsterdam Trade Beads’ Ornament 9 no 2 (1985) pp 36-41

Liu, R. K. 1974. ‘Amira Francoise: Living with beads in the Sudan’ Ornament 5 no 2 (1974) pp 8-14

Mack, J. ( ed.) Culture History in the Southern Sudan

Petherick, J. 1860. ‘On the arms of the Arabs and Negro Tribes of Central Africa, bordering on the White Nile’, Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, 4 (1860), pp. 171-177.

Petherick, John 1861. Egypt, The Soudan and Central Africawith explorations from Khartoum on the White Nile, to the regions of the equator ; being sketches from sixteen years' travel, Edinburgh: William Blackwood and sons.

Petherick, John and Mrs. 1869. Travels in Central Africa and explorations of the western Nile tributaries, London.

Schweinfurth, G. Heart of Africa

Paper prepared by AP and Jeremy Coote in mid 1990s, and not updated for this project

See also http://southernsudan.prm.ox.ac.uk/details/1884.32.3/

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