The Gold Weights of the Akan ethnic groups of Ghana

Gold Weights of the Akan

Before coinage and bills, gold dust was a principal currency among the Akan ethnic groups of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The use of gold weights was the primary method used to measure and value gold dust. Known as Mrammuo among the Asante, the name for gold weights varied between the different subgroups. For instance the Baule say Dja-yobwe among other terms, according to the weight’s determined function.

Mrammuo were not typically made of gold, but also of copper, brass and other available alloys, using the traditional Lost Wax method (molten metal is poured into a mould created using a wax model, the heat melts the wax and pushes it out of a hole). The Asantehene (Paramount Chief) and other chiefs had weights cast in gold, while the Ohem maa (Queen Mother) occasionally had sets made of silver.

Gold weights had two main forms: geometric and anthropomorphic (figurative). The geometric styled weights provided an identifiably consistent weight system suitable for commerce and are believed to predate the figurative form. Anthropomorphic weights, however, portrayed moral values, and are also referred to as Proverb Weights. By symbolizing Akan traditional proverbs and tales, Mrammuo tied the gold industry – and merchants in general – to well-known Akan ethical principles.

With the introduction of coinage and paper as currency, gold dust weights lost their relevance. Over time, Mrammuo production and quality have declined, as has common knowledge of their meanings. Although today’s mass production methods provide a thriving tourist market with weights as souvenirs and collectables, they lack the refinement of earlier specimens. Authentic Mrammuo are now found mostly in museums and in private collections.

Gold Weights in the Akan Tradition

In West Africa gold weights supported many routine transactions. Merchants were usually so familiar with their weights that they could easily recognise their values on sight. Weight-values may have differed among the Akan, but these were regulated by the state through the authority of the Ohene (an Akan chief) whose weights were meticulously fashioned. Mrammuo were status symbols often gifted to men of office, such as priests, soldiers and diplomats, as well as to newly married men. A wealthy man may have owned a collection of more than a hundred weights.

Ananseasem (Folk Stories) and Proverb Weights portrayed values of justice and fairness; values that remain important in Akan culture. Adinkra symbols were typically used in both geometric and in later figurative weights. Among proverb weights, animated human and non-domesticated animal figurines were commonly made. Plants including edible crops and seeds were depicted, as were everyday military implements.
The Akan weight system incorporated Arabic and European standards according to successive colonial influences. Evidence of these assimilations has put into question the assumed Arabic origin of the Akan system. This assumption has now been reevaluated on recognition of the use of seed weights that remained in use even when gold dust was common currency. Seeds represented the smallest units of Akan weights and measures and included such seeds as the taku, powa and kokwa among others. Furthermore, the elaborate styles, excessive quantity, proverbs and philosophical systems encoded in their gold weights are found exclusively among the Akan.

Prepared by:
Abebe Payne
Curatorial Assistant, National Museum Division

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