Asante Traditional Buildings: UNESCO Heritage Site

  • To the north-east of Kumasi, these are the last material remains of the great Asante civilization, which reached its high point in the 18th century. Since the dwellings are made of earth, wood and straw, they are vulnerable to the onslaught of time and weather.

    Outstanding Universal Value

    Brief synthesis

    Near Kumasi, a group of traditional buildings are the last remaining testimony of the great Asante civilization, which reached its peak in the 18th century. The buildings include ten shrines/fetish houses (Abirim, Asawase, Asenemaso, Bodwease, Ejisu Besease, Adarko Jachie, Edwenase, Kentinkrono, Patakro and Saaman). Most are to the north-east of Kumasi, and Patakro, to the south.

    Arranged around courtyards, the buildings are constructed of timber, bamboo and mud plaster and originally had thatched roofs. The unique decorative bas-reliefs that adorn the walls are bold and depict a wide variety of motifs. Common forms include spiral and arabesque details with representations of animals, birds and plants, linked to traditional “Adinkra” symbols. As with other traditional art forms of the Asante, these designs are not merely ornamental, they also have symbolic meanings, associated with the ideas and beliefs of the Asante people, and have been handed down from generation to generation.

    The buildings, their rich colour, and the skill and diversity of their decorations are the last surviving examples of a significant traditional style of architecture that epitomized the influential, powerful and wealthy Asante Kingdom of the late 18th to late 19th centuries. Asante Traditional Buildings reflect and reinforce a complex and intricate technical, religious and spiritual heritage.

    The traditional religion, still practiced in the Asante shrines, takes the form of consulting with the deities to seek advice on specific situations, or before an important initiative. That is why the shrines have been maintained complete with all their symbolic features.

    Criterion (v): The Asante Traditional Buildings are the last remaining testimony of the unique architectural style of the great Asante Kingdom. The traditional motifs of its rich bas-relief decoration are imbued with symbolic meaning.

    Integrity

    The group of buildings is the only surviving example of the Asante traditional architecture. Very few of the buildings are complete. In most cases parts of the original structures are missing. The integrity is threatened by deterioration of the fabric due to the warm humid tropical climate that is destructive of traditional earth and wattle-and-daub buildings. Heavy rainfall and high humidity encourage rapid mould formation on wall surfaces, and the activities of termites, and other prolifically breeding destructive insects. The intensification of agricultural developments makes the traditional building materials of thatch, bamboo, and specific timber species less easy to obtain.

    Authenticity

    The present appearance of the buildings and their architectural form is largely authentic in terms of reflecting their traditional form and materials, although many have been largely reconstructed.  In 12 out of the 13 buildings the original steeply pitched palm-frond thatched roof has been replaced by lighter, shallower-pitched, corrugated iron roofs, and in all the buildings there has been the insertion of more durable paved flooring than the traditional rammed earth.

    Protection and management requirements

    Between 1960 and 1970 the buildings were acquired by the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB) and scheduled as a National Monument under the Law of Ghana NLC Decree 387 of 1969. There is also involvement by the Chief and his Elders.

    Therefore, the instruments for the protection of the Asante Traditional Buildings operate on two levels. The first is a prescription of customary regulations, prohibitions and penalties that have been handed down through generations from the past. The second is the modern statutory regulations enacted by Government. The two sets of laws complement each other, and are a generally effective means of protection although the modes of enforcement are different. The former is built into the belief system and worldview of the communities where the sites are located, while the latter prescribes the role of the GMMB.

    Part III of Executive Instrument (EI) 29 of National Museums Regulations, 1973, provides legal protection for the properties as National Monument.

    The GMMB is responsible for all conservation activities on the properties. Routine inspections are carried out by staff of GMMB and there are Caretakers at all the sites who report to the Regional Office of the GMMB.

    Planning and implementation of intervention measures are carried out with the involvement of the Traditional Authorities, Local Council, the Community members and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).

    A strategic and management planning framework “Local Tourism Promotional Strategy and Management Planning framework for Sustainable Development of Asante Traditional Buildings” has been put in place to ensure a sustainable development of the Asante Traditional Buildings.

    The long-term challenges for the management of the Asante Traditional Buildings are to ensure regular maintenance in order to mitigate the impacts of the warm humid climate and to put in place a long-term strategy to secure a sufficient supply of organic materials for their repair.

    Long Description

    To the north-east of Kumasi are to be found the last material remains of the great Asante civilization, which reached its high point in the 18th century. As the dwellings are made from earth, wood and straw, they are vulnerable to the onslaught of time and weather. These buildings are the last remaining material testament of the great Asante civilization, of which they are a perfect illustration.

    The traditional Asante (Ashanti) buildings are spread throughout the north and north-east of Kumasi. The majority of the Asante villages were destroyed during the 19th century in the wars undertaken by this people against English domination between 1806 and 1901. It was during this period that the royal mausoleum (Barem) was burned by Baden-Powell in 1895. There exists today only a small number of the traditional structures, habitats of men and gods, of which the majority are less than 100 years old.

    The disposition of these structures is well known through eyewitness reports by early European travellers as well as contemporary studies. A series of poles and wooden imposts linked by bamboo slats form the framework which supports the thatched roof. The floor is of puddled clay. A rich decor of earth-facing over a core of wood reigns over the principal facade; this is comprised of a balustrade, imposts, and sometimes windows whose decorative openwork may be likened to that of the transenna (a heavy grill-work used for closing off the tombs of Christian martyrs). The decoration consists of geometric, floral, animal, or anthropomorphic motives.

    The preservation of these structures built from heterogeneous material poses a difficult, if not insoluble, problem. The thatched roofs are made from obviously fragile material. At the time of the publication of Michael Swithenbank’s basic book, Ashanti Fetish Houses, the majority of the houses had been given a roofing of corrugated iron. Since then, maintenance efforts have been agreed to by the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board.

    The wood of the framework of the roof, essentially derived from two tropical species (Hippocrates africana andHippocrates rowlandii), is known for its resistance against termites. However, it does not appear to be very durable, owing to the process of biological deterioration at this latitude. The existence of the clay facings covering the wood core can likewise not be guaranteed over the coming decades.

    Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

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    Source: whc.unesco.org .