This dolomite arm ring is from Hombori, Mali. The arm ring was likely made in the recent past, but the tradition of making stone arm rings dates to the Neolithic.
The arm ring in this model shows the typical black colour of the Dimamou dolomite, laced with white calcite crystal stringers. The ring is Type A, with a roughly triangular cross section. Indirect percussion tool-marks can be seen on the inside of the ring, but grinding has eliminated the marks from the surface.
Stone arm rings or bracelets emerged in the Neolithic in the Sahara and Sahel regions of West Africa, ca. 7000 BP, and the practiced diffused across the Mediterranean into Europe by ca. 6700 BP. They were common until about 2000 BP and persisted through the ensuing millennia. Stone arm rings were made in the 19th century to the present day, but it is unclear whether this is a continuous tradition back to the Neolithic, or was a recent re-invention modelled on the ancient examples. Tuareg craftsmen in the Aïr mountains of Niger were particularly renowned for making arm rings out of soapstone, and large numbers were also made from dolomitic limestone in the Hombori region on the Niger River in southern Mali.
An account from the Hombori region in 1905 noted that arm rings were made at the dolomite (marble) quarries at Dimamou and traded throughout the region. In 1907, it was observed that ‘everybody wears a bracelet made of Hombori marble above the elbow; this adornment, unknown among the Western people, was adopted by all the Northern populations, the Sorkos and Bosos, Gabibi, Markas, the people from Timbuktu and Djenné and even by the Tuareg and Moors’. Most of the rings from Dimamou were destined for the Mossi people in Burkina Faso, south of the Niger River. They were often traded directly by the people who made them, involving weeks of travel and loads of several hundred rings carried on foot or by donkeys.
The considerable demand for the arm rings (often called ‘bracelets’) was driven in part by the ceremonial practices of the Mossi, as related in this account from 2010: ‘After the harvest, once the stores were full, the Mossi organised huge ceremonies during which they “consumed” large quantities of bracelets. Men and women would pile up many bracelets on each arm to show off their social status and to take part in the ceremony. During the dances they would knock the bracelets together to make a noise and some of them would break. Then they would get new ones from the bracelet makers who were staying in the village. During one ceremony, a person might buy several dozen bracelets. There were also sellers in Ouagadougou who would buy huge quantities from the producers, up to a thousand pieces, and then sell them on. In times of need, the Mossi went directly to Hombori to buy bracelets.’ Tuareg people sometimes came directly to the craftsmen for custom-made arm rings carefully shaped to fit the individual’s arm. The success of the Dimamou stone arm rings stimulated imitation rings from the beginning of the 20th century made of wood or copper. Glass examples were made in Europe that mimicked the marbled white colours of Dimamou stone.
The arm rings were made by Songhai pastoralists, perhaps originally when they were vassals to the Tuareg and Fula peoples: the Songhai made the arm rings under instruction of Tuareg craftsmen to earn money when they were not needed for agricultural activities. The Songhai did not wear the rings themselves, but made them exclusively for trade. Arm rings were made by men with the skills passed from father to son, with two men aged over 75 years old still making the rings using traditional methods in 1993. By 2010 traditional stone ring manufacturing had declined dramatically, due partly to national borders disrupting the extensive trading networks of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and also due to the lack of monetary return relative to manufacturing time and effort. One of the elderly craftsmen opined in 1993 that ‘the lazy youths of these easy times have no patience to endure’ the abuse full-time stoneworking deals to the hands. Also, animistic beliefs about the power of the stone have declined with the spread of Islam. However, some rings continue to be made, sometimes for Tuareg, but also for Western tourists. Since the Western fashion is to wear rings as bracelets around the wrist, the diameter of the modern-made rings has decreased to around 65 mm. In recent times Homombri craftsmen also made limestone amulets, stone bowls, and mortars and pestles for grinding traditional medicines. The amulets take the form of small blunt-edged stone axes, measuring between about 38-52 mm long, with a small suspension hole in one end. These have supernatural value and undisclosed symbolism.
The stone quarries at Dimamou occur in thick layers of Precambrian dolomite, referred to locally as ‘marble’. The dolomite consists of calcite phenocrysts, coloured black or reddish-brown, with white calcite bands laced through it. The extensive quarry sites in the Dimamou area extend for hundreds of metres. Months were spent at the quarries extracting rock and making blanks for the rings. Each quarry was owned by a village chief, who was paid for the stone extracted. Up to 400 people were involved in mining the stone and making blanks during the heyday of the stone ring trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Stone was originally extracted from shafts up to 5 m deep to find the best-quality stone, but surface stone was used in more recent times. Quarry sites were sacred places, and chicken and sheep were ritually sacrificed to ensure that top-quality stone was extracted safely.
The stone was considered spiritually powerful and wearing an arm ring offered protection from misfortune and gave the wearer strength. Several styles of rings were produced in response to requests from trading partners, and craftsmen competed to produce the shiniest and most beautiful rings. Before ca. 1940, stone rings were traded for cloth, cowrie shells (a form of money), or agricultural products. One ring was worth about 15 cups of millet, 3 rings were worth one sheep, and 10 rings were worth one cow. Prior to the colonial period, stone rings may have been used as a means of storing wealth. Broken rings were repaired or recycled into pendants, as the power of the stone was undiminished when a ring broke. Men always wore one or more rings and women wore them as protection during their husband’s absence, and children were also allowed to wear them. They were usually worn as arm rings, at or above the elbow, and not as bracelets around the wrist.
The first step in manufacture, conducted at the quarry, involved hard-hammer bifacial percussion to create a disc about 150-200 mm in diameter. These discs were made in their hundreds for export to the workshops on the nearby Hombori tablelands or in the village of Belia. The discs were next perforated by indirect percussion using an iron punch struck with an iron hammer. The square-sectioned punches were made by the local blacksmith. The punches were shaped like a large nail or spike with a fine-pointed sharp tip on the end. Multiple punches were used, with tips of varying sizes and lengths. Stone was initially removed by a variant of indirect percussion hammer-dressing, with powder and small chips detached incrementally to begin the central hole. The stoneworker sat on the ground with the blank laying flat on the sides of the feet positioned sole-to-sole. Both sides of the blank were worked progressively until a hole was created. Once the hole was punched through, the same indirect percussion hammer-dressing was used to remove stone from around the internal edge of the hole, enlarging it. When the hole was near the desired diameter, the inside was smoothed and shaped by grinding using a cylindrical sandstone abraders. The later stages of grinding were done with a wetted sandstone abrader. For rings with a triangular section, a ridge was next ground-in using a flat piece of sandstone as an abrader.
After initial shaping with the with stone hand-held abraders, the ring was carried up the Hombori escarpment to grinding basins worn into sandstone boulders. The remaining flake scars were eliminated by abrading, and the edges rounded. The ring was then returned to the workshop for a final grind and polish using hand-held abraders, and washed. Once dry, sheep or cow grease was applied to bring out the natural lustre of the stone.
Three types of stone rings were made at Hombori in 1993. Type A rings were narrow and thick with a rounded to triangular cross section, and were preferred by the Mossi. Type B rings were wider and flatter, with a wedge-shaped cross section. These were preferred by Fula and Tuareg pastoralists. Type C rings were made with a prominent raised keel around the circumference. The keel was sharpened, and the rings were worn on the upper forearm for use as a weapon. They were primarily traded to the Fula and Tuareg.