Objects Research

Looking for Tiv “snuff rings” from Nigeria

Tiv snuff rings Nigeria Bruno Claessens

For my private collection, I’m looking for so-called “snuff rings” from the Tiv of Nigeria. If you come across one don’t hesitate to contact me.

The designation “ring” in fact is problematic since not all of them can actually be worn as a ring. Two of mine can be worn around a (thin) finger, so it’s obvious the others were held in another way. “Snuff-inhaler” or “snuff-taker” seem better names.

So far, I’ve come across two theories about their use: 1. they are made to hold a pinch of tobacco snuff to the nose for inhaling, or 2. the Tiv use them to close one nostril while sniffing powdered tobacco up the other nostril.

These were cast in brass in the “lost-wax” method. Fagg has stated in an old Christie’s catalogue that the Tiv used latex instead of wax. The “T”-shaped form, of which I have three examples, is the most common. The stem rises from the tubular base and ends in a circular platter embossed with concentric circles on both sides. All of them are decorated with fine banding motifs (always on the tube and often on the stem). In two cases we find 8 small balls on the tube: 2 x 2 at the outer edges and 4 around the stem at its connection with the tube. Clearly there must have been symbolism behind them; the four elements (earth, wind, fire, and water) have been suggested.

Tiv snuff ring Nigeria brass copper alloy Bruno Claessens

While I possess four simple examples, snuff-takers featuring anthropomorphic elements also exist; the British Museum even holds an example featuring a horse-and-rider (Af1954,23.1114). I could only find one reference to them in the literature. François Neyt discusses them in his 1985 book The Arts of Benue (p. 200, photo IV.45). According to him, they relate to the “identity of the chiefs” or are “instruments of witchcraft”. In secular practices, these rings (while supported by the right and left index fingers of both hands simultaneously) were used to “sniff snuff” as was witnessed by the public and colonial magistrates. For religious purposes, “hallucinogenics” where “sniffed” to transport the initiate to the spiritual realms.

I would love to find more about them, so please get in touch in case you would have more information about their use, function and symbolism; or know a reference to them in the literature.

Tiv tobacco snuff ring Bruno Claessens

As can be seen on the photo below, a curious detail is the difference in usage patina on the top of the platter: two of the four are so worn (by an unknown kind of use) the concentric decoration has totally disappeared.