The Collections Care and Conservation Department recently x-rayed an Nkisi figure donated to the Museum in 1935.
Often human or animal in form, these figures were used by people such as the Songye of southeastern Congo to protect villages, families or individuals from illness and witchcraft and to resolve disputes. Each figure acted as a vessel for ancestral or natural spiritual forces and their use was closely associated with the belief that the dead could influence the fortunes of the living.
Magical substances called ‘medicines’ were stored within the figures. These included clay, charcoal, seeds, animal matter, human hair and nails. Figures could also be adorned with beads, feathers, animal skins or metal nails which further enhanced their powers. The use of nails, often of European manufacture, has been linked to Christian concepts of sacrifice and martyrdom introduced by Portuguese missionaries who arrived in central Africa from the late fifteenth century onwards.
The use of x-ray techniques are important for conservators and curators as they can reveal features beneath the surface of an object that would otherwise remain concealed.
The x-ray of the Nkisi figure clearly shows the internal structure and reveals that in addition to a main stomach cavity, the figure has a secondary cavity (highlighted in the x-ray below) in the lower abdomen which is not externally visible. Both contain bundles of loose organic material. Further analysis is necessary to determine what this material is, but importantly the scan confirms that the figure was produced for ritual use rather than for sale / export – as became the case with many Nkisi figures produced in the 20th century.
For more information on x-raying objects, the Collections Care and Conservation Department are running behind the scenes tours on Saturday 28 September. Further details can be found here: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=2878
Curator of World Cultures