Brass mermaid dish, Nigeria

Plain brass pans, known as Neptunes, were traded from Europe to West Africa. Most of them were made in Birmingham. From the 1880s, Efik women in Akwa Akpa (Old Calabar) began the practice of decorating them with face-hammered relief work. They used a steel rod hit with a hammer to create floral and figurative designs of punched dots.

The dish is decorated with the figure of a mermaid and symbols from an ideographic script known as Nsibidi, associated with mask-using secret societies. The mermaid is depicted with an English-style crown and is surrounded by other water-spirit motifs. Materials analysis has revealed that the dish is made from a recycled sheet of alpha-beta brass manufactured in the 1860s or 1870s. Sometimes called ‘Muntz metal’, this type of brass has added zinc for extra strength, and was often used to sheath ships’ hulls. Thus, it is possible that this dish was fashioned from metal recovered from a shipwreck, which may have given it extra significance. It had been collected by 1919 and was donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1942.

Accession number: 1942.13.1089