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The Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian & Pre-Columbian Gold

Houston philanthropist Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., had a passion for collecting, a fascination with gold art objects, and a desire to share them with the world. Like the cultures that fashioned these treasures, he valued gold not for its intrinsic value but for its spiritual meaning. The extensive collections of African, Indonesian, and Pre-Columbian gold that he gave the MFAH are a remarkable legacy. Among the highlights are a golden staff created by the Akan peoples of Ghana, a rare burial mask from Java, and jewelry made by the Moché culture of Peru.

Soul Washer's Badge
Early 20th century

6 1/4 x 5 3/4 x 1 1/4 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, & the Americas

Arts of Africa
The Glassell Collections of African, Indonesian & Pre-Columbian Gold

Cast and hammered gold discs called akrafokonmu, meaning "soul discs" or "soul washers' badges," are worn by individuals who represent the chief's soul. These "soul washers" perform a number of duties, including carrying ceremonial swords and performing purification rites that may involve bathing the chief and important items of state regalia, especially stools. The round shape of the soul washer's badge has been associated with a pool of water and the designs compared to what happens when a pebble is thrown into the water.

In 1819, Thomas Bowdich, an Englishman who led an information-gathering mission to the kingdom of Asante, related this account:

"The Ocras (soul washers) are distinguishable by a large circle of gold suspended from the neck; many of them are favorite slaves, many, commoners, who have distinguished themselves, and who are glad to stake their lives on the King's, to be kept free from palavers and supported by his bounty, which they are entirely; some few are relatives and men of rank. All of the two former classes, excepting only the two or three individuals known to have been entrusted with the King's state secrets, are sacrificed at his tomb."

Today, of course, there are no funeral sacrifices, and these breast plates are also worn by chiefs, women of the royal line, and deities. They can be attached to stools, swords, crowns, and other regalia as protection against evil.