Friday - 29 August 2014

A warrior’s £19,500 battle cry

04 January 2010Written by ATG Reporter

FOUR centuries of contact with the North American continent – exploration, trade, settlement, war and missionary activity – mean that, just occasionally, spectacular Native American art objects are found in the United Kingdom.

And one emerged at Warwickshire auctioneers Bigwood of Tiddington, near Stratford upon Avon on November 27.

With the cataloguing falling rather short - it was initially thought to be Polynesian or Irish and estimated at just £50-60 - this added a frisson of excitement to those who had identified Lot 361 as an 18th century Ojibwa ball-headed war club.

The elderly owner, who had been led to believe it was Irish, was given it as a gift by a neighbour in 1961.

The Ojibwa, a hunter-gatherer tribe centred around the Great Lakes region, are known for their wigwams, birch bark canoes, sacred pictorial bark scrolls and the use of cowrie shells in their art.

In colonial times, clubs of this general type, with a tapering shaft and a globular head carved from a single piece of close-grained hardwood, were common from the Atlantic coast to the Missouri river.

Even after the introduction of metal tomahawks and firearms (common trade items by the last quarter of the 17th century) clubs remained important weapons - although the lightweight versions made in the second half of the 19th century survived primarily as ornamental dance accessories.

The size of this maple example - it measures just shy of 2ft (60cm) long - immediately suggests it was used in anger. But more macabre proof comes in the remarkable iconography seen to the shaft. These clearly carved 'stick men' signify the number of kills made by the owner of the weapon.

Figures depicted with heads were taken prisoner, those without were scalped. Parallel lines are used to depict different battles and skirmishes or the number of times the owner of this club had been on the warpath.

Michigan-based Scott Meachum, a specialist in Eastern war clubs, describes the pictorial language as a "personal battle record" and the "visual proof of the owner's prowess as a warrior".

Although they were often beautifully fashioned from select pieces of timber (the best clubs were made from saplings found growing on a hillside), it was not unusual for them to be discarded by a body on the battlefield as a calling card to the enemy.

The 11 figures cut into the shaft of this Warwickshire club (ten scalped, one prisoner) suggests it was the weapon of a proven warrior.

Given its probable late 18th century date, it is quite possible the club was brought to these shores by a British soldier active in the western theatre of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).

Ojibwa warriors fought with the French against the British in the French and Indian War (1756-1763) but - fearing that a victorious American army would continue to move onto Indian land - allied themselves with the British during the American Revolution.

Similar clubs can be found in a number of UK collections. There are two fine examples in the British Museum, while the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Downing College, Cambridge has a comparable example (without the inscribed 'war record') that is reputed to have been acquired from an Indian chief during the War of Independence by one Captain Goddard of the 41st Foot Regiment.

But precious few Ojibwa clubs of this date and quality have been seen at auction in recent times. Following its positive identification, bidding for this club at The Old School, Tiddington came from specialists, runners or representatives from almost every continent.

The successful telephone buyer at £19,500 (plus 15 per cent buyer's premium) was William Jamieson of Jamieson Tribal Art in Toronto, Ontario.

Mr Jamieson - the man who in 1999 famously acquired the collection of the Niagara Falls Museum, including the mummy of Rameses I - told ATG there is a strong chance this "magnificent" club will end up in a Canadian museum.

By Roland Arkell

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