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Carved Steatite Nomoli Figure

Sierra Leone
15th century or earlier

height: 17.3cm, weight: 1,362g



private collection, London.

This steatite stone figure was made by the West African people whom early Portuguese sailors referred to as the Sapi.

Stone sculpture is rare in West Africa but small clusters of hundreds of such figures have been unearthed in Sierra Leone and in nearby territories. They were largely unearthed by a later people, the Mende and Kissi, who often uncovered them whilst working the land. The name ‘nomoli’ is a Mende term. It is likely that they were carved by the Sapi to represent ancestors – possibly they served as a memorial image for each individual who had died – and when found by the Mende, they were used again as ritual objects. The form of the figures has little or no relationship to anything produced by the later occupiers of the lands: the Mende, Kissi and related groups.

The figure here kneels on a base with bent knees leading to rounded hips, the abdomen leading to rounded shoulders. Muscular arms rest on the knees and a thick cylindrical neck supports an over-sized head with exaggerated facial features including pronounced lips and bulging eyes. A hole has been drilled to the top of the head, possibly for the insertion of some ritual material.

Related examples are illustrated in Cattaneo et al (2009. p. 144-45), Poynor (1995, p. 195), and Phillips (2004, p. 470-71).

The figure and a fine, weathered patina, and a smoothness from handling. It is largely intact. There is a small, old chip to the base, as might be expected. The figure is free-standing – no stand or support is required for display.


Cattaneo, A., et al, Portugal and the World: In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, 2009.

Lamp, F.J., ‘House of stones: Memorial art of fifteenth century Sierra Leone’, in The Art Bulletin, June 1983.

Phillips, T., Africa: The Art of a Continent, Prestel, 2004.

Poynor, R., Spirit Eyes, Human Hands: African Art at the Harm Museum, University Press of Florida, 1995.

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