22 March 2012


Terence Walz

Terence Walz
Washington, DC

Watermarks in West African Archival Collections and their Significance

Too little attention has been paid to watermarks in Arabic or Islamic manuscripts until very recently, and even now there is a lack of standardization in the approach to their study. Moreover, few collections of watermarks for the nineteenth century period exist to consult; the great encyclopaedias treating watermarks concern the 15-18th centuries. Scholars looking at later-period paper, such as are most of the manuscripts in West African collections until a decade ago, have few guides available to consult. However, work now being done on manuscripts in other parts of the Islamic world is extremely helpful in setting the new standard for describing watermarks, and using them for dating purposes.
My own remarks in this presentation must be based on a relatively narrow focus of research - the manuscripts in several collections of documents in Nigeria. Since my work was completed several decades ago, large new collections have been found, especially in Mali but also in Morocco and Mauritania. Additionally a great deal of new expertise has been brought to bear on Saharan and trans-Saharan contacts and exchange. During the 1980s and 1990s, giant steps were taken to catalogue and conserve these collections. As an historian of modern Egypt, I became familiar with watermarks in Cairo archives and believed they provide a worthwhile chronology of watermarks that may be useful in dating undated manuscripts elsewhere in North Africa and in Sudanic countries that received paper imports from them.
Most of the paper used in West African manuscripts was foreign made, and during the nineteenth century it was imported via caravan from North African ports, especially Libya and Tunisia but also Egypt. The paper was largely Italian made and bore the well-known tre lune (three moon) watermark that became the most accepted genre of paper used in the Islamic world. This watermark as a matter of fact was heavily borrowed, and its "icon" of three moons is not by itself much use in dating manuscripts. The countermark of the manufacturer's initials are important, as especially is a date if available, although often it is not. More recently, watermark specialists have been using the patterns of laid lines in determining the age of documents, a science that was not explored by myself. Watermark scholars are also now examining the records of European paper making firms to determine when special initials and variations in chains and laid lines were introduced into the paper product as a means of dating paper more specifically.