In ancient Africa, weapons were used extensively in the many battles and wars that took place. These were commonplace as migrating tribes fought for land, power and prestige across the continent. These encounters were often due to climate change, or the invasion of other nations, like the Arabs and Europeans. As with most other forms of African craft and masonry, weapons were engineered using good quality materials and focussing on precision. It would take trained soldiers and blacksmiths days to make beautiful pieces as they were determined to maintain beauty and quality in their work. This was, ultimately, viewed by other tribes as an indication of the calibre of that culture, so it was vital to keep up such a reputation.
Weapons included spears, arrows, knives, daggers and axes, and were usually used in violent combat with men of rival tribes. Ancient Africans used whatever materials they could to make their weapons, including wood and stones and, later, copper and brass. However, when materials like iron and steel were discovered, these proved to be far more effective and resilient.
Blacksmiths would begin by melting iron in pits dug into the ground and covered with round lids. Layers of metal and charcoal were laid alternately in the pits and the fires were kept burning for several days at a time. Once melted, the blacksmiths would purify the iron from the rest of the burning mass. Once cool enough to form, the blacksmith would use a hammer and anvil to create the weapon needed.
The weapons would be decorated with intricate designs, usually for the higher officials and kings. The handles of daggers and axes, for example, were also made into an art form as soldiers took pride in the weaponry that would defend their land and people.
Many other elements around battle were highly decorated. The breastplates, shields and clothing of the soldiers frequently bore art forms or beading that identified them. Pre- and post-battle rituals saw the famous African masks being used in celebration or for their spiritual ‘powers’. It was in these ways that art permeated every aspect of the African people’s lives and customs.