Ol alem (sword)


The Maasai people, whose territory lies in Kenya and Tanzania, live chiefly by herding livestock. Since the area's lions naturally prey on Maasai herds, the Maasai carry weapons when they are watching over their animals.

Maasai men belong to age groups that determine their status, each age group being set apart by a distinctive style of weapons. At the age of about 15 to 21, Maasai youths (called layok) are initiated into the status of young manhood (called moran), at which point they are first allowed to wear swords.


Iron elongated leaf-shaped double edge blade broadening to heavy point. Of "Z"-shaped section with distinct off-set medial ridge extending full length to point. Grip is cylindrical & without guard. Wooden core wrapped in brown leather.

Curator's Comments

Iron weapons were highly valued throughout pre-colonial Africa. Except in those regions influenced by Islam, swords were relatively rare, most cultures relying on spears that required less iron to manufacture. The Maasai are one of the African peoples who make use of swords, although subordinate to the spear. On Maasai swords, see Spring 1993: 96g, 107, 113 ff. By Maasai tradition, young men must kill a lion to become a full adult man, but today, as lions become increasingly scarce, the Maasai are looking for alternative ways to fulfil this tradition.

Questions & Answers

when was this artifact found and when was this used
Asked by soccerpi on March 3, 2015
John Woodman Higgins bought it for the museum in London in 1931. It was almost certainly brought back by a British visitor to the area in the days when Kenya was part of the British Empire. So it may have been made around 1900 or so. It has the look and feel of a genuine object (as opposed to something made specifically for tourists), so I don't doubt that it was a prized possession for a Maasai man at about that time.


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