Parchment objects in traditional societies

When it comes to the usage of parchment and raw hide, there are many living examples in the Sahel in northern Nigeria and southern Mali. The Manding have a highly developed culture of parchment processing. They are known for their aprons which are embellished by an elaborate peel technique as well as applications of fine leather strips. In German museums there are examples of fans made of parchment which were collected in the 1920s. They have been used to protect for exessive heat as well as for flies. Well- known is the usage of drums which are covered with parchment.

Further north, in the western Sahel, many objects made of raw hide are still in use. The Tuareg produce vessels made of raw hide, which they stretch over a kernel of clay. They are called talbittant. They are in use to store small valuable objects and can be obtained until today in the souvenir shops of Agadez/ Niger and Djanet/ Algeria. The talbittant are used by the Kanuri as far as in northern Nigeria. Even in southern Africa we can find examples of vessels made of raw hide. The Tswana in Botswana used them to transport soured milk. Interestingly enought the Arussi in southern Ethiopia used a similar technique. Until the 1950s they used claypots to transport milk. The pot was tightened with a belt of parchment.

In most of the Sahel from Cameroon to Mali and from Mali, Niger, Chad to the Nilotic peoples of East Africa, parchment or raw hide was used to cover the wooden sheads of swords and big knifes. Early examples can be found with the Bali/ south Cameroon, and also from the parchment loving Manding in Mali. In the ethnographic collections there are examples from a sword from Nubia/ Sudan in 1924 and from Somalia (roughly the same time). Especially nomadic peoples with their focus on animal husbandry posessed enought skins to produce leather and parchment. So it comes to no surprise, that the Tuareg made from leather ropes, harnesses, saddles, whips, shields, sheads as well as different kinds of sandals.

The Hereros are known for their head cover made of leather, where ears of parchment are attached by sewing. The nilotic Maasai from Kenya and Tanzania used embellishments made of parchment to cover their knees. Monkey hair was attached to the lowe parts. Examples can be found from the 1950s.

Even with the coming of western modernity Leather and parchment did not disappear completely. There are many examples of this universally useable material was used for modern purposes. I could see examples where Jeep drivers protected their indispensable tea glasses, which they need for their daily tea ceremony. Small wooden cupholders were build, which were covered with beautifully embellished leather and parchment. There are examples in ethnographic collections from the capital of Burkina Faso, where bicycle baskets were made from a wooden frame and covered with parchments. This is a virtually natural continuation of similar frames, which have earlier been used with donkeys. 

leather clothes of Mursi women

Drum-making and the carving of masks in old African societies

In many regions of Africa parchment covered drums are widely used. These regions include the area stretching from the savannahs of East Africa to the eastern Sudan and continue to Cameroon. It also includes the forest areas and densely covered savannahs of Central Africa. Examples of this savannah belt can be found with divergent peoples as the Zaramo/ Tanzania  and from Kordofan/Sudan as well as northern Cameroon and north-east Nigera. Examples from the forest belt come from Uganda, northern Congo/Kinshasa /Azande), Mali and Togo. In the rain forest parchment covered drums are in use in Congo in the area of the lower Congo-River as well as from southern Cameroon (Fang). A wide variety of animals is used to produce the parchment. It includes goat as well as more exotic animals like leguans and warans (Uganda/ north Cameroon). The Arab world also produces it´s own drums. In a souvenir shop in Cairo/ Egypt the store keeper proudly presented me a drum whose cover was made of fish skin. The existence of frame-drums is well documented in ethnographic collections from at least the 1920s.

Some old-african and Arab peoples use harps and lutes with a parchment covered body. In Ethiopia a certain kind of lute called masinko is covered with cow parchment. Even in Boutilimit/Mauretania parchment covered calabashes are used to make beautiful harps.

A very special field of African art is the production and usage of masks. A center of African masks is the rainforest area of the cross-river delta in southern Nigeria. They are made by members of secret societies – like the Egbo secret society, which are a typical phenomenon for western Africa. They cover their masks and figurines with parchment. In ritual context mask whearing performers depict deceased members of these secret societies. The parchment is made of antelope skin. The socil anthropologue Victor Turner demonstrated convincingly the deeper menaings of every tiny detail in African rituals. The choice of antelope is probably linkt to the magic properties attributed to hunting. This kind of masks spread even to the Cameroon grassland until the coming of colonialism. Before their arrival headhunting was commonly practiced and the heads were prepared in a similar way: the skulls were covered with parchment made of the skins of the killed enemies. 

Polishing the surface of the parchment with chalk

The organization of parchment- and leather makers in Africa and the Middle East

In many areas of the Sahel parchment and leather workers as well as other craftsmen like potter, weaver and blacksmiths are organized in endogamous casts. They are below the main body of the people, which are peasants or herdsmen. They nevertheless have indispenseble ritual duties and are ascribed overnatural forces and abilities. With the Tuareg for instance tanning is traditionally done by the women of the blacksmith cast. In Oromo and Somali societies there are endogamous casts of tanners. In areas with a high denisty of distinct peoples, crafts can be concentrated in the hands of specialized people. In the Omo river valley in southern Ethiopa the Aari as potters and smiths sell their products to the Zemay, Hamer and Mursi who will not forge and work with clay. Their attributed magical power shows in their ability to miraculois healing, the power to dissolve spells, in their relationship to powerful rulers as body guard, messenger, servant or musician. The smiths of the Tuaregs mediate between noble Tuareg. They also publicly pronounce the name of a newborn baby. Sometimes only a certain sex is allowed to work with leather. In Maasai (Tanzania) and Borana (Ethiopia) societies tanning is confined to women while in southern Africa only men work with leather.

Even in North Africa, where Islam in exercising a very equalizing influence of stratifications in society, one can find craft guilts organized by leather workers. These guilts developed a highly particular culture with their own rituals. In Morocco craft guilts are organized like military bodies. They whear leather shirts when they go to ritual hunting parties. They are said to have little formal education. After work apprentices and foremen sit together to smoke hashish. Some say to alleviate the unsupportable stench. Even in Morocco tanners are attributed supernatural forces. They are attributed power over afterlive, since they have the capacity to reanimate death skin in form of leather. When the skin is treated with pigeon dung it is given the earthly soul (nafs) which is inherited from the mother. When it is treated in the tanning bath the hevenly soul (rûh) is given to it. This soul is inherited from the father.

market day in North Africa

The crafts in Sahel Africa

Athough in Ethiopia parchment is mainly made by Christian monks and priests, in the Sahel zone the arts and crafts are usually made by small and marginalized groups within the wider society. These groups are often called casts although the notion of cast is very much linked to the Indian cast system. The Ethiopian society was a state society, where the aristocracy was on the top, followed by the clergy and the tenant peasants. Below the peasants were the unfree slaves as well as craft-working cast-like groups specialized on working with leather, clay, iron or cotton. In Gondar for instance proto-jewosh Falasha men were blacksmiths while their women worked as potters. Muslims were associated with weaving and leatherwork. In the western Sahara, for instance with the Tuaregs, the craftworking casts were all Muslims. The man of the smith cast had special customs and formed an endogamous group. They were smiths while their women worked with wood an leather. Similar examples could be added from areas as distant as Somalia, South-Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad to the Bambara in south Mali. The actual task of their members could differ. So among the early Bantu there was a caste of hunters, others where witches and so forth. Linked to the notion of casts were certain ritual particularities. So for instance Tuareg smiths have been considered as unclean, but they were much needed for certain rituals and tasks, which no one else could perform. Only Tuareg smiths could announce the name of a newborn Tuareg. Smiths were needed to mediate between aristocratic Tuaregs. They were feared for their power over iron. Since iron in the shape of weapons could kill, they were beliefed to have power over life and death. 

Arabian charm box

Technologies of parchment production in Africa

Obsidian: After pegging and fixing the skins they were scraped off using different materials. In those parts of Ethiopia which were settled by Christian, Muslim or pagan peoples, baldjut – blades made of obsidian – were used. Obsidian was the material of choice in pre iron time Africa. Even until very recently is was in use. Contemporary witnesses narrate stories of the procedure how childrens whose heads were regularily shaved had to prepare. In order to let the sweat soften the hair, children had to run for a certain time. Obsidian blades were a valuable trading good in African antiquity. They came from Ethiopia and northern Sudan and were brought to the Mediterranean societies. Back to the parchment! In pre-iron time areas without obsidian, other solutions were found to scrape off the skins. The Massai in Kenya and Zanzania used bladebones of oxen while the Zulu in South Africa used the sharp leafs of aloe plants.

Quick lime: During parchment production it is important to loosen the hairs of the skins. In Europe this is done by quick lime. Ist use in Africa is well documented and goes back until 1550, when the Ethiopian kings called for the Portugueses in their fight against Musim invaders. Portuguese ingeneers taught the Ethiopias to process lime in order to use it in the construction of forteresses. While in Europe lime is burned, in Ethiopia this happened during a fermentation process. Limestone was crushed, buried in big pits and then sprinkeled with water over a period of several years. I personally have seen the pits. The quick lime was then mixed with water and used. It took much more time to settle. But once setteled, it was much stronger than burned lime. While this technology entered African societies, it was not used to process parchment. In Europe quick lime binds skin fat, which is a carrier of unwanted smell. It also lightens up the skins. Only in North Africa like Fes/ Morocco, a mixture of quick lime and water was used to process skins.

Loosening of the hair: In some areas of Africa, the fresh or dried skin was put into a lye which was based on ashes. Examples can be found with the Borana/Kenya as well as in Morocco. Here, some alkaline clay was added. In other regions of the continent, the hair was loosened by „sweating“ – a natural process of beginning decomposition. The skins were buried in the ground for some days. Examples can be found with the Bushmen/Namibia and the Mursi in South Ethiopia. The sweating process is somehow tricky. It is important to find the right time to unearth the skins. When the skins are buried more than five days in summer, the skin itself is decomposing and huge holes will appear. When the skin is taken too early, the hairs are still tight and the blade used for removing the hair will quickly become blunt. Some peoples add plants for this process. The Tuaregs in Niger and Mali use a plant (Pergularia tomentosa) belonging to the dogbane family.


Meqad and Bilawa knifes of Ethiopian Parchmenters

Parchment art in Ethiopia

When it comes to the ritual purity of parchment, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church stands between the positions staked out by the Jewish and the European tradition. In Tewahedo creed horse meet was forbidden being consumed by the mosaic tradition, which is also binding to Ethiopian orthodoxy. Therefore most monks and priests, enthrusted with the production of parchment in Ethiopia also beliefed, that parchment made from horse skin should not be used to make holy scriptures. Nevertheless, some notable examples can be found in church libraries of Debre Libanos and Lalibela.

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Gospel book from Ethiopia

The curriculum in Ethiopian church schools

For European visitors, a journey to an Ethiopian monastic school is like traveling to mediaeval times. Clearly visible is a small hamlet of straw thatched houses in the voncinity of a stone wall which surrounds the compound. One example here is the Kusquam monastery in Gondar/Amhara. There some thirty tiny huts are huddled in the smallest possible place. Most amazing is how little they are comparing to the already very little houses of the Ethiopian hinghland peasants of the surrounding countryside. And amazingly, the huts have two floors.

In Ethiopia pupils „belong“ to a teacher; they are bound to a certain monastery for some time. So they are not predominantly pupils of a certain subject or a certain school. Rather it is personal loyality which binds pupils to teachers. They follow their masters, should they decide to tgo to another monastery. When a new pupil asks for permission being accepted in a class, the teacher inquires about the knowledge of the boy. Then, together they speak a certain prayer of Mary, and the adept is assigned to an experienced pupil, whose responsibility is to introduce the new one to the monsastic regulations. He first learns how to hold reed pens. After seeing, how to cut them properly, he is allowed to cut ist own pen. At the beginning, the pupil writes on rip bones, which can be washed after usage. Later on, he is allowed to use parchment scraps, which after usage will be washed. After oe or two month he is allowed to smoothen parchment with a stone or stick – rough parchment would absorp too much ink.

He is obliged to follow the example of the teacher and should not follow his comrades in order not to copy their mistakes. If there are too many pupils, they are formed to groups, whick would carefully follow every movement of the teacher. The teacher writes on parchment, which he will directly put on his lap – without any further support. All this is remarkable, since neighboring Muslim cultures have been using writing boards for centuries.

Goat skins left for drying

The role of subcutane fat (sebum) in parchment making

The mediaeval parchmenters knew about the problem posed by fat stored in the subcutane tissues which required special care and cautious treatment. This kind of fat in sheep skins weakened the skin and made it brittle. Unexperienced parchmenters could easily tear the skin which then in turn had to be sewed. Also goat skin can be weakened by fatty skin, although to a lesser degree. This kind of skin can only be prepared in moderate temperatures. In Africa, were it is generally hotter, these skins could only be prepared in the morning time and then only in the shadow. Adittionally to the strenght of the skin texture, another problem occures. If the fat melts, it enters into the skin. The opaque and whitish parchment turns transparent and shiny which decreases ist value for writing. This often occurs in the areas, were generally fat is stored – often in the neck regions. Fat entered the inner skin layers cannot be removed by simple degreasing ist surface. Those skins have repeatedly to be washed and scraped of. In Ethiopia a special plant belonging to the solanum family is used for this purpose. The traditionally as soap serving fruits of the indod-plant is rich in washing agents. The crushed fruits are also used in traditional medicine for abortion.

Monks stretching the skins

The tools of Ethiopian parchment makers

When it comes to the tools of the mediaeval parchmenters, then Europe used the lunellum – a crescent-shaped knife. In Ethiopia, a sickle-shaped knife called meqad (መቃድ) was used for the same purpose. Although from name and shape it signified sickle, but the blade was on the outside of the tool. It also had no sharpened point, which made it different to the usual Ethiopian knifes. The meqad was predominantly used to separate the fatty tissues from the flesh side. It is hold in an 30 degree angle.

The second most important tool is the mefaqiya (መፋኪያ) or parchmenter axe. A similar tool is used in South Ethiopia in agriculture to work the ground. It has the shape of a European carpenter´s axe. It serves to remove the hairs from the outside of the skin. It is used in an 90 degree angle.

In Ethiopia two kinds of stones are used during the production process. One belongs to the familiy of pumice and is called aynama dingay (literally eye stone) አይናማ ድንጋይ). Volcanically foamed rocks  found in many places of this vulcanic country, but ancient Ethiopian parchmenters only knew two places in the province Godjam in a village called Gunja as well as in Wollo province in a place named mechet were suitable pumice was found. Further ground limestone or marble were used as cleaning agents. They were necessary to treat thick skin and fatty spots. 

Metrebiyas of different sizes

Skin damages affecting the quality of the parchment

The mountains of Northern Ethiopia belong to the most underdeveloped regions of the country, which itself was counted until very recently to the poorest countries in the world. Here, not only the medical treatment of humans, but also the veterinarally treatment of lifestock and sheeps & goats according to modern standards is rare. Also the way of interaction between beasts and humans follows traditional patterns. Such traditions are clearely visible when it cones to the production of parchment.

When looking at the treated skins, dark, brownish-blackish spots are visible. These are bruises on the skins and arelinked to the traditional handling of the animals. At sunrise the lifestock is led to pasture by small groups of children. Mostly between four to seven kids; sometimes girls and boys, but mostly boys. They are of different age between sechs and fourteen years and tend herads between 20 and 40 animals. Since sheepdogs are unknown, the animals are herded together using stones, which are in this stone rich area thrown at the animals. The bruises remain after slaughtering of the animals.

In a surrounding, where even livestock is rarely treated according to veterinary standards, ticks and vermins, which lifes in the skin are not removed. For the parchment makers, the choice of skins is difficult. Tick bites arecalled in Ethiopian language ainebar. The skin of ainebars is thinner than ist surrounding and brittle. When the skin is stretched, those ainebars can break and the parchment has to be sewn at these spots.

The Ethiopian parchmenters are sometimes confronted with another problem. So the parchment has sometimes a blackish shadow. This comes from poor storage conditions. In some occations, skins are not immediately sold on the marked, but stored in the roof area of thatched huts. It is therefore for some times exposed to smoke of the hearth, which is also inside the hut. The black shadow comes from the sooth and cannot be removed.

When an animal dies from accident or disease, then the blood collects in the lower parts of the dead animal. It clots in the veinlets of the skin and are clearly visible as net pattern. Those skins are called yemote be-feqad in Amharic. The meat of these animals, however must not be sold, since it is ritually impure. It´s skin can be sold. The whitish sebum is brounish coloured. The soaked skin will not loose hairs and the skin is somewhat brittle. Parchmenters however look for these skins.

Dried skins to be carried to the market

Preparation works of the parchment makers

The African parchment makers knew that the basis of good parchment was laid during the lifetime of the animal. They knew that good parchment could only be obtained, when the animal was not beaten before slaughtering. What seems to be obvious for Europeans is not so logical in societies who knew famine and slavery until very recently. In their perspective the following question is only too logical: „Why should animals be well treated, when humans suffer?“ Coming back to the animals: Cleanliness is important while pulling off the skin. Small cuts should be avoided, which later would widen to large holes. The skin should be processed immediate after slaughtering. The lossening of the hairs is acheaved by putting the fresh skins for three to five days into sacks. It should never be kept for longer than seven days, since the skin structure would be destroied and big holes would develop. Mould stains were avoided by adding grinded salt.

After the Christian celebrations Eastern and timkat (Epiphany), the Ethiopian parchmenters could obtain bigger quantities of inexpensive skins. They bought 20-30 skins, put them on frames, removed the left-over meat and dried them. The dried and wrapped skins were kept under the roofs of the thatched huts until being further processed. Here, they were reasonably safe from dirt and vermins. Fresh skins, which waited immediate processing, could be kept for up to three days. They were put on floor mats made of dried cow skins and covered with leaves.

Dried skins were watered for half a day. Then they were stored in a clay vessel for up to five days. They were weighted on with a stone in order to prevent mice, cats and dogs to eat or remove the skins. When the water started to stink, it had to be changed. Because of the bad smell, skins sometimes were watered in brooks. Here, the skins had to be protected from hyenas. They were put in the deepest spot and again weighted on with a heavy stone. One had also to consider certain fishes and crayfishes, which sometimes ate on the skins. Sometimes the skins were washed away by heavy rain…

Cutting holes to stretch the skins

The inks and colours of Arfican scribes

Colorful inks and colours: The traditional scribes produce until today waterproof inks and colours from different pigments which originates from minerals or plants. According to one in church circles well known recipe, black pigments were produced by carbonizing cereal husks. Additionally, red ink is in much demand. While the profane text of holy scriptures is written with black ink, the sacred names are written by using red ink. It is mostly the name of God, Jesus, Mary as well as those of the Archangels. Even the introductory formula „in the name of the Father…“ is written in red. This way of highlightening the holy names is not pecular to Christian culture. It can only be seen in Korans, written in the Horn of Africa. Later, the written manuscript is richly ornamented by colourful illuminations. The pigments are produced using finely grinded minerals, which are bound by rubber containing substances.

Red ink: Traditional church scribes know at least four recipes to produce red ink. The pigments are either of mineral or vegetable origin. Red pigments are found in an unidentified Ethiopian grass, which are called by children idj admeq (what makes hands shiny). Where it grows, children use it to rub their hands in orer to make their hands bright red. In other places, a plant called djib shinkurt (hyena onion). The sap from the shiny red flowers us the origin of a very bright pigment. As in the whole Middle East, madder (rubia) is the base of many recipes. From this family of about 60 species, in Ethiopia there is incheber ((እንጭብር, rubia discolor). According to one of the four recipes. The root is ground. Flour made of rose flowers is added and the substances boiled with some salt water. After four weeks of fermentation, a very durable pigment is obtained. A substance called muja (ሙጫ) is used as binder. This word serves to designate all kind of glues. It is probably gum arabic, a natural gum obtained of some acacia trees (acacia seyal). Garlic water is used as solvent. The pigment is stored in hollow corns of domestic goats or gazelles, which are closed using some leather or raw skin. 

Gold colour: In mediaeval times, scribes also posessed recipes to produce gold colour. Contemporary traditional scribes knew about this, but they do not have any recipes. Oral traditions mention melted gold, some kind of white stone and some liquid – nothing more. This is quite astonishing, since in Europe, gold pigment was a by-product of gold leaf production. The gold dust was just bound by some binding agent – like arabic gum. In mediaeval Ethiopian church literature, there are many examples of the use of gold ink. We find for example in the monastery library of Gishen Mariam – about 50km north of Dessie (Wollo/Amhara) the 14th century book Te´amer Mariam (miracles of St. Mary). It was produced for emperor Aze Dawid (1382-1414). In this book, the name of mary is generally written with gold ink.


Book of Gospel from Ethiopia/1750

The inkwells of Ethiopian parchment makers

We have even information about the inkwells of African scribes in ancient times. Until the Africal mediaeval period, parchment writers used hollows in stone and rock. In some old monastries these kind of rock is found. The disadvantage lies in the evaporation of the ink. Even the transport of these kind of „inkwells“ must have been difficult. So it comes to no surprise, that very early transportable inkwells were used. In the search of convenient natural materials, animal horns from gazelles, antelopes or domestic goats proofed to be practical. The heads of freshly slaughtered animals were put under a cover from cotton or leather to sweat. Then the skull bone could be removed from the horn. The horn then was put into boiling water to soften the material. It was then dried under pressure to straighten out the carved horn. The outer side was scraped off, while the inner part was left. If the inner sind would have been scraped off, then the surface would be roughened and would absorb ink. A piece of parchment or leather served as seal. The tips of horns of goats and some antelopes are not hollow. In order to mark these areas, a metal ring was put around the horn und planted into the earth. So the writer would be able to measure the amount of ink in the inkwell. Sometimes, the horn became porous, so the writer had to seal it up with an ointment made from sebum (skin fat). Then the writer had to act cautiously. When cleaning the inkwell, the sebum must not mix with the ink. In order to prevent this, the mediaeval scribes used thaditional soaps made from plant ashes or the fruits of the indod-plant (Phytolacca dodecandra).

Monk with flyswadder