Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Precious Mats Showing off Visual and Craft Skills

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.

Rectangular beaded mat with purple tassles at one end.  Design is made up of triangles in light and dark blue, white, red, yellow and green beads.
Beadwork from Somalia

This group of decorative beadwork mats were collected in the coastal
port city of Zeila (known as Saylac in Somalia) on the coast of the Gulf of Aden.

Circular beadwork mat in green, yellow, white, red and blue.  THe design is split into five horizontal sections and includes circles and chevrons.
Beadwork from Somalia

We don’t know when they date from, or who collected them.
However, as they belonged to the Commonwealth Institute, it is likely that they were collected by a British civil servant (government worker) working in Somalia for the Colonial Service.

Rectangular beadwork in grey, light blue, dark blue, red and yellow design.  The at has tassles at one end.
Beadwork from Somalia

Many of the people who live in Somalia are Muslim, and a lot of people work in agriculture, either as farmers or nomadic herders who are constantly on the move. Both groups have few possessions. Mats such as these were often used as fly and dust covers for water and food containers. However, the decorative tassles on these mats may suggest that they were made as ceremonial or show pieces, to show the skills of local artisans (craftspeople).

Circular beadwork mat in mostly white, with dark blue, red , yellow and green.  The design comprises mostly of different sized squares.
Beadwork from Somalia

Discussion Ideas

  • Who do you think made these beadworks mats? 
  • What are the beads made from?
  • Look at the link at the bottom of the page about beadwork from the Maasai tribe in Kenya - what similarities can you see?
  • What do you know about Somalia today?


Activity Ideas

  • Design your own beadwork mat: These beadwork designs are all 'geometric'. Make two designs in colour yourself on small squared paper, where each square represents a bead.  Design a  circular one and a square or rectangular one.
    - How are they different?
    - What did you have to consider when creating your design?
    - Why do you think just the beadwork rectangles have tassles?
    - What do they add to the design? Would they look as good on the round ones?

    Look at each design above on 'full screen' by clicking on them, then look at them through half-closed eyes. Can you see one bit of them more than others, or do you more or less see all of the design? If you see the design as one it means that the 'tones' of colours are similar, that means they stand out equally. 

    Now look at your designs in the same way with half closed eyes. Do some colours stand out more than others? If they do, try doing another design so that the colours stand out equally. You don't always have to be using bright colours for this to work. 

    Look at this other resource on My Learning about a beadwork gourd. Does it have the same visual effect? What is it about all the beadwork designs that make them appear balanced?
  • Research Somalian culture: When these beadwork mats were collected, Somalia was a very different country. How has it changed? What is Somalia like today? Use the links at the bottom of the page to help you.
  • Geography: Use the Google Map below to find the city of Saylac and to see the countries that surround Somalia.