A: Brass with a sand core, 11½" wide, 3½" high 
(28 cm resp 9 cm), 20.6 lbs (9.35 kg)
 B:   Solid brass; 8"  wide, 2" high 
(19 cm resp 5 cm), 4.2 lbs (1.9 kg)
 C:  Brass: 2" wide, ½" high (5 cm resp 1 cm)

Collected 1979 near Harper, Maryland County, Liberia.
(Private collection)













































Sculpture of Traditional African Metal Money 
The John B. Henry Collection 































Solid brass: 8½" wide, 
2½" high (21,5 cm resp 6 cm), 8.8 lbs (4 kg)
Collected 1975 near Tchien, Grand Gedeh County, Liberia.
(Private collection)

Ritual object or 'Kru money'? 

“The society that loses its symbols loses its identity and in the process loses touch with itself.”

In: 'Rock of the Ancestors: namôa koni'
     (William C. Siegmann, 1977)

The origin of these objects is not known with certainty, except for the fact that they were made and used among the Kru and the Grebo in southeastern Liberia. According to one source, the Kru and Grebo believe these objects to be living creatures that can be found in creeks, rivers and lagoons. They call them ‘tien’,‘nitien’ or ‘Dwin’ meaning water spirits or ‘Gods of water’. A variety of powers are attributed to them including the ability to stop wars, found villages, heal the sick and guarantee fertility. They are also capable to catch people crossing these streams. The Kru and Grebo believe that the ‘tien’ live in the water but can be caught and brought to town where they may be enjoined to serve as protector or guardians (Siegmann, 1977, p. 82).

click to supersize pictures

Water_Spirit_02.jpg (163766 bytes) 




Solid brass: 9" wide, 
½" high  
½ cm resp 6 cm),
8 lbs (3.6 kg)

Liberia. Exact area of origin unknown (Private collection)    

Added December 2010



click to supersize
Solid brass: 10" wide, 
2½" high (24 cm resp 6½ cm), 12 lbs (5.4 kg)
Collected 1969 near Gbatua, Grand Bassa County, Liberia
(Collection Niek van Wijk)

Click to supersize
Solid brass: 7½" wide, 
2" high (19 cm resp 5 cm), 4½ lbs (2 kg)
Collected 1979 near Harper, Maryland County, Liberia.
(Private collection)

It is seriously doubted whether any of these objects have been made in recent times. In any case, nowadays they are extremely rare. A nineteenth century source described objects that resembled the above shown objects (in particular object B). In 1845, Horatio Bridge, a US Navy officer who served on a cruiser sailing in the Gulf of Guinea, reported: "I have procured some of the country-money. It is more curious, than convenient."

And he continued that the ‘Manilly’, worth a dollar and a half, would be a fearful currency to make large payments in, being composed of old brass-kettles, melted up, and cast in a sand-mould, the weigh being from two to four pounds (Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed., 1845, p. 106). 

In 1853, Horatio Bridge reported that he had seen them being cast in sand-moulds on the beach near Sasstown in southeastern Liberia. He described how some were made by melting down old brass kettles, others were made using the so-called lost wax technique of casting. He must have seen more and bigger objects than in 1845 since he mentions that their size varied from less than two inches to more than ten inches in diameter whereas a big one could weigh as much as twenty-five pounds. Some objects were solid brass, while others had a sand core - like object A, above on the extreme left. Most objects consisted of an unbroken circle with four knobs, but a few were open on one side. Bridge reported that they were called ‘Kru money’. (Siegmann, 1977, p.82).

A ritual killing

Very interesting is the experience which an American Baptist missionary had in the interior of Liberia in the 1940's. Abe Guenter describes in his book ' Jungle Pilot in Liberia' where and how he found such a brass ring. He asked the villagers for an explanation and heard the following astonishing story of a human sacrifice and ritual killing.

Abe Guenter: "I kept kept visiting that church from time to time to encourage and strengthen the believers. On one visit I noticed a ten-pound brass ring, 7 inches across and 1.5 inches thick with four knobs attached to the side. It was half buried in mud, so I pulled it out, cleaned it off and carried it to the deacon next door. "Deacon Carr, please tell me what this is, " I requested. "Oh yes (....) I will tell you" he replied. "My grandfather was the big chief in this village. He was so afraid of spirits, sicknesses, war and other people's witchcraft that he went to the big, big witch doctor (....). With the help of the blacksmith, they poured this beautifully marked brass ring. (...) The witch doctor laid the ring down in the middle of the village (...). By then the sun was going down and the witch doctor had a meeting with just the elders of the village and my grandfather. He told them: "You asked for the most powerful witchcraft, and that always needs a human sacrifice. I want you to bring a young boy at midnight to the new god so we can make this sacrifice." An eight-year-old boy, with his mouth gagged, was brought that night. They cut his throat and spilled all his blood on the brass ring, and from that time on, all the activities of the village revolved around the 'brass god': sacrifices, worship and all. But when the gospel came, we threw the ring away and turned to the true and living God." (Guenter, 1992: p. 58/59).


An unanswered question

Hence, the question emerges: “Were these objects ritual objects or traditional money?” 

We may never know the answer. Searches on the internet for ‘Kru money’, for ‘Dwin’, ‘tien’, and ‘nitien’ only resulted in a few sites. Scott Shepperd's contribution to the
Tribal Art Forum is without any doubt the most important (2004). According to the author these Kru rings where made as sacred objects, not originally as currency. Also see the 2005 correspondance between Scott Shepperd and Brendan Sowerby on Liberian Brass Figures.

Another site found, “The Artistry of African Currency”, has in its heading an illustration of the brass object - however, without any reference. 

Liberian Studies Journal
1970-71 Vol. III, number 1

Another reference was found in the Liberian Studies Journal of 1970-71 that shows a Kru ring on its cover. The cover photograph is described as “Brass ring, use unknown. Called Dwin. Collected 1965 near Barclayville, Grand Cess Territory.
Svend E. Holsoe Collection.” (see picture). 

An endangered cultural heritage

Liberia’s numerous ethnic groups are characterized by an extremely rich cultural life. Today, many traditions still persist but an irrevocable process seems to be taking place. Gradually, tribal customs and beliefs as well as ritual ceremonies and symbols are losing their meaning. People have begun to forget the origin and purpose of traditional symbols. 

The civil war - fourteen years of looting, destruction and fighting - has cost the lives of an estimated quarter of a million people and has seriously damaged Liberia’s cultural heritage. It has added to the negative effects of a humid climate, carelessness and economic modernization. Today, tons of Liberian art have been lost. 

The Liberia Collections Project

Already in the early 1990s a project started at the
Indiana University, in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, to collect, archive, describe, analyse and preserve Liberian government documents, newspapers, photographs, art items, music recordings and other materials. A breakthrough came in 1997, after Svend Holsoe, a well-known anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, donated his vast collection. Another large collection, including arts-related materials, came later from Warren d’Azevedo at the University of Nevada. 
(see also: Guide to the Peace Corps Records of Warren d'Azevedo).

The correct answer to the question: “Were these objects ritual objects or Kru money?” may never be known. Projects like
the Liberia Collections Project may help to prevent that more of Liberia’s cultural heritage will be lost for ever.


  • Guenter, Abe, 'Jungle Pilot in Liberia' (Schaumburg, Illinois, 1992) 
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel (ed.), ‘Journal of an African cruiser’ by Horatio Bridge, US Navy officer (London, first edition, 1846; and 1853 edition). 
  • Holsoe, Svend E. (ed.): Davis, Ronald W., ‘Ethnohistorical studies on the Kru coast’, Liberian Studies Monograph Series Number 5 (Newark, Delaware, 1976). 
  • Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. III, number 1, 1970-1971 (Newark, Delaware, 1971).
  • Siegmann, William C., ‘Rock of the Ancestors: namôa koni’, Liberian Art and Culture from the Collections of the Africana Museum, Cuttington University College (Suakoko, Liberia, 1977).



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