Literature Review

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By Dr. Ekpo Eyo

All rights reserved 


The phrase “Niger River Coastal Delta” in this title is chosen to cover the area which begins from the point where the River Niger enters Nigeria to the point where it empties its water through its delta into the Bight of Biafra. It is meant to distinguish it from the “Inland Niger Delta area covered by the river in Mali. The “Niger River Coastal Delta” encompasses an extensive area, including the Nok sites, north of the confluence of the Rivers Niger and Benue, and spreading southward across the Benue into the eastern middle belt area; Ife, Owo and Benin on its south west flank; Igbo Ukwu, Bakor, and Qua Efut on the east. These cultures cover a period from the middle of the second millennium B.C to seventeenth century AD.



The earliest culture that historical archaeology has brought to light in the Niger River Coastal Delta is the Nok culture. This culture was based on agriculture and iron technology, although it is most famous for the hundreds of exquisite terracotta sculptures of humans and animals. Nok culture was, until recently, identified only in an area of about three hundred by one hundred miles north of the confluence of the Rivers Niger and Benue. The dates for the sculptures from this area range from 700 B.C (Vansina 1984) or 500 B.C to 200 A.D (Fagg 1977). Nonetheless, these sculptures represent an evolved art style, indicating that the beginning of Nok art might be further back in time. A date of 900 B.C was actually obtained from alluvial deposits in the Nok Valley but discarded as probably having been contaminated. (Fagg 1965).



As previously mentioned, one of the main components of the Nok culture was its ability to fashion objects out of clay. They made two types of pottery, the domestic pots and the ceremonial or ritual sculpture. Their domestic pottery consists of open shallow bowls with grooves at the rims, globular bowls with everted rims, and shallow dishes scored on the flat interior to produce a grinding surface. The decorative motifs include walking comb, rope and carved rouletting, channeling, cross-hatching, incision, and impressed circles.


By far, the high point of Nok Culture is the high-fired clay sculpture of human and animals, varying in size from approximately six inches to almost life-size. Molding in clay has been a human occupation from very early times, but the Nok Culture’s degree of success in firing such huge sculptures in the open fire is remarkable. These sculptures were first discovered as a result of the alluvial tin mining operations on the Jos plateau in central Nigeria around 1928. The early discoveries included a monkey’s head, a seated monkey, and a beaded human foot, which were kept in a small geological museum in Kaduna. In 1939, Bernard Fagg, a British archaeologist, was appointed the first government archaeologist to work on these discoveries. At Jos, where he was based, Fagg heard about a terracotta head that was being used as a scarecrow on a farm in Jemaa. Upon examining and comparing the head with the previously known sculpture, Fagg became convinced that all of them were made by a past culture. Consequently, he christened the culture “Nok” after the small village of Nok where the first terracotta specimen was found. (B. Fagg: 1945)

Head, Jemaa, Nok, 500BC -200AD Terrakotta

The Jemaa head is almost life-size, and originally was part of a full figure estimated to have stood about four feet six inches. The head possesses an open mouth and everted lips projecting out of the smooth temple and cheek bones. The pupils of the eyes are represented with pierced holes and enclosed within triangular or semi-circular sockets. Above the eyes are segmented eyebrows and, above these a globular open forehead adorned with a disc from which it appears something has broken off. The head wears an interesting cascaded hair style. The Jemaa head has survived for more than two thousand years in spite of being rolled around in alluvial deposits; its good state of preservation indicates the ingenious craftsmanship and mastery of the medium especially as it appears was fired in the open.

Head, Rafin Kura, Nok, 500BC -200AD Terrakotta

By 1943, through the efforts of the tin miners now conscious of the importance of this discovery, more than one hundred fifty sculptures were assembled in the Jos Museum. An important sculpture discovered in 1954 was again nearly life-size. It came from Rafin Kura in the Nok Valley. Unlike the Jemaa head with its rounded jaw bones, the Rafin Kura head has sharply defined cheek bones, a five “bun” hair style with holes in them, and a bandeau made of either woven fiber or iron chain jewelry across the forehead. Its arched eyebrows which seem to balance the curve of the lower eyelid also contrast with the segmented, almost horizontal, eyebrows of the Jemaa head. The two heads, however, share the same style of semi-naturalism and pierced holes for the pupils of the eyes, nostrils, ears and mouth.


The Nok people employed a great variety of styles in their art. Apart from the Jemaa and the Rafin Kura heads, which were executed in a semi-naturalistic style, there was a tendency toward greater naturalism in the sculpting of animals, such as the elephant head from Udegi, near Nassarawa which is provided with the same style of the eyes as human representations. Its trunk and the tusks, though broken, are naturalistically rendered as is the bony structure of the head. The axis of the head suggests that it was held upright, in which case the elephant may have been sitting on its haunches or that the head possessed a human body which was in a standing or sitting position. Even more realistically rendered were the snakes, some of which are coiled around columnar objects and others around themselves, For example, one snake representation from the Nok valley depicts three snakes coiled around a column at the top of which was a receptacle. Another, also from Nok, depicts three cobras coiled in the same way, but with its top receptacle broken off. The third snake from Chado which coils around itself with the head resting on the top coil, has very humanlike facial features. Bernard Fagg’s observation that the most commonly found animal in Nok art is the snake (B. Fagg 1977) is an interesting point in view of the fact that the snake is also very preponderant in the Djenne Terracottas of the Inland Niger Delta.


Seated Figure, Nok, 500BC -200AD Terrakotta

Other geometric forms, apart from the cylinder, are also represented in Nok art. The presence of two conical heads, one from Wamba, near Jemaa, and the other from the Nok Valley, is further evidence of the use of

geometric forms by the Nok artists. The Nok head discovered in 1944 was constructed on an inverted cone and wears a hair style of several conical and hemispherical buns over the head and extending down to the upper temples. Its flaring nostrils are similar to those of the Rafin Kura head. The Wamba head is characterizes by an elaborate hairstyle consisting of a plaited tuft of hair on the crown and cross-hatched sideburns which extend to join the beard. Its prominent forehead which looks diseased gives the impression of the image of an infant but the beard suggests a man of great age. This combination of youthful and aged traits not seen on other sculptures makes this head a unique piece.

The Nok style is relatively uniform in a general sense but, within this, there are regional differences. There are at least three sub-styles that have been recognised: the Nok-Jemaa sub- style, regarded as “classical” in representing human proportions in the most naturalistic ‘nay; the Shere-Koro sub-style in which the facial features are understated at the expense of the forehead and the crown of the head; and the Katsina Ala sub-style with its cylindrical form. A comprehensive study of these styles has yet to be undertaken, for within such a wide area and a long time range there certainly were changes which occurred from generation to generation and from one community to another.

It has been suggested (Shaw 1978) that the unifying factor in Nok art was due to the common practice of agriculture and devotion to a religious cult associated with it and that the terracotta figures were perhaps used in a fertility cult associated with the land. On the other hand, B. Fagg has suggested that at least some of the terracottas may have been regarded as gods or deified ancestors, as funeral furniture or personal offerings to the dead, or used in ancestor commemoration. (B. Fagg 1977). The fact that the animals were more realistically represented than humans has been linked with the common belief in Africa that molding human beings in true likeness may lead accusation of witchcraft (Willett, 1980). The representation of all kinds of human figures, however, including diseased ones, indicates that the Nok people paid attention not only to people with status, but also the unfortunate ones.

There is a feature in Nok art that must be mentioned because it is also found in cultures of many stratified societies. It is the lavish use of beads on some figures of both male and female. These beads, which were made of quartz, clay, seeds and metals, were recovered from the archaeological deposits. The Rafin Kura head wears numerous strings of beads around the neck; the small solid figure from Bwari wears two tiers of beads around the neck, the waist, arms, and ankles; the Katsina Ala individual sitting on a stool also wears numerous strings of bead on its wrists and ankles. It is interesting to note that approximately one thousand years later, certain terracotta and bronze heads from Ife, Owo and Benin were similarly adorned. In these later cultures, beads define the status of people who belong to the higher strata of the society. The attention given to the depiction of detailed hair styles, headgear, dress and excessive jewelry in Nok culture may be an indication of some form of societal stratification, although one not necessarily centralised.



Along the River Niger in the area of the present day Kainji Dam the Department of Antiquities and the University of Ibadan carried out rescue excavations before flooding took place at Yelwa, Baha, and Kagoge. Nok-related figures of less refined manufacture and other materials were found and dated to the eighth century AD. (Priddy 1970, Hartle, 1970, Bretenitz, 1975). In the last decade, Nok-related sculptures have been found in the Sokoto region, northwest of the original Nok areas. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the art market is flooded with these sculptures, their scientific value has been lost, perhaps permanently. No archaeologist has ever excavated in this area; the sculptures have come to light through diamond prospecting and organised illegal excavations. These “new” sculptures were better preserved for many are unbroken and their surfaces un-abraded. Because the un-abraded surfaces are so good compared with pieces from the original area some archaeologists have expressed some doubt about their authenticity. Yet, if they were not authentic, why would so many cautious buyers, including respectable museums, be scrambling for them? If these “new” Nok sculptures are genuine, the reason they were so well preserved may be that they were found in situ unlike those in the Nok valley where they were usually washed out and rolled into the alluvial tin deposits.



Much work remains to be done before we can arrive at a fuller picture of the makers of the Nok terracottas. We know that they

were farmers for the evidence for this activity is provided by the recovery of some carbonised seeds (atili) from the bottom of a Nok pot. Evidence for agriculture is also inferred from a terracotta fragment of a man with a hafted ax over his left shoulder which implies tilling the soil, from fragments of terracotta sculpture which may represent fluted pumpkin (Tefairea occidedentali) and from some worn out stone querns which were used in grinding grains. (B.Fagg 1977). The knowledge of farming and iron manufacture must have led the Nok people to a sedentary life-style resulting in the building of permanent homes. Clay lumps found in Nok deposits appear to have been used as daub in a daub and wattle structures (B. Fagg 1959).




The spread of the Nok culture must have been made possible by the adoption of iron technology enabling tools and weapons to be forged. The discovery and use of iron was a milestone in the history of human development. It was first discovered by the Armenian people in the Hittite empire around the second millenium B.C., the knowledge spread into Europe and other parts of Asia. In western Africa, its introduction is a subject of great debate among archaeologists. Some archaeologists believe that iron was independently discovered (Davies 1966, 471; 1973), while others believe that the knowledge diffused from north Africa either along a western route through Mauritania (Lambert 1971, 1973) or from Egypt via the all black-kingdom of Nubia through its famous iron smelting center at Meroe. (Shaw, 1978:86).

Whether iron developed independently or diffused from elsewhere, iron technology was established in West Africa sometime in the second half of the first millenuim B.C. iron ore was smelted in shaft furnaces with vertical clay walls and the bloom was separated from the slag by hammering, which was also used in forging it into tools and weapons. The excavation of two Nok settlement sites of Taruga and Samun Dukiya have provided reliable radio carbon and thermoluminescence dates which confirmed dates previously obtained from the Nok Valley. it is now certain that the Nok Culture flourished between the fifth century BC and the third century A.D (A.Fagg, 1972; Tylecote, 1975).



Roped Pot, Igbo Ukwu, 9th – 10th Century, Bronze

Progressing in a chronological order, our next consideration is the bronzes of Igbo Ukwu in eastern Nigeria. Igbo Ukwu is a village about 40 kilometers east of Onitsha on the River Niger. While the Nok Culture is generally associated with its characteristic terracotta sculpture, Igbo Ukwu is identified by its unique and intricately cast bronzes. These bronzes were excavated from three contiguous compounds of three brothers: Isaiah, Richard and Jonah Anozie. Like the discovery of Nok terracottas, the discovery of Igbo Ukwu bronzes was accidental. In 1938, Isaiah Anozie, the eldest of the three brothers, accidentally uncovered some bronzes while digging a cistern in his compound for the storage of rain water. These were objects which he had never seen before and therefore regarded with awe, believing them to be imbued with supernatural power. He therefore piled them against the walls of his house to protect it. When the British District Officer in the area, Mr. J. O. Field, was informed of the discovery he immediately recognised the importance of these finds which he removed to London and subsequently published. (Field, 1940). In 1959, Professor Thurstan Shaw from Cambridge University, England, was invited by the Nigerian Department of Antiquities to investigate the compound of Isaiah Anozie where the finds were made. Shaw discovered further bronzes and pottery not only in Isaiah’s compound, but also in the compounds of his brothers, Richard and Jonah. Shaw then used the names of these three brothers to designate the three sites, namely, “Igbo Isaiah,” “Igbo Richard,” and “Igbo Jonah.” The three sites are collectively known as Igbo Ukwu (Shaw, 1970).




Coiled manilla, Igbo-Isaiah, 9th – 10th century- bronze

The excavation at Igbo Isaiah, the site that yielded the 1938 bronzes, revealed more bronzes in an undisturbed deposit. The inventory of objects from this excavation and the previous finds include a richly decorated water pot encased in a bronze rope work of reef knots and set on the top of a pot stand. This roped pot was cast in five separate parts and joined together by burning in more metals at the joints. Another find is a bowl resting on an openwork stand which was cast in two sections and joined together also by burning in strips decorated with insects and openwork spiral forms. There is also an openwork stand with a male and a female figure on opposite sides which are separated by openwork motifs of intertwined snakes with eggs in their mouths. Still another is an annular pot-stand with a textured surface of triangles connected by dots. There are also six large single-handed bronze bowls in the form of a calabash fruit cut diametrically in two and elaborately decorated on the outer surface with zones of raised loops, quatrefoils, lozenges, conical bosses, and bands of tiny spirals and dots. Also, there are: smaller sickle-shaped bowls; modelled shells with incised and raised patterns, spirals with dots in the center, crickets, flies, frogs and snakes; textured staff heads and mid-sections and ends decorated with insects, frogs, snakes and multi-colored beads; a scabbard in the form of a double-headed snake, each head holding a frog and a pangolin in its mouth; various ornate pendants in the form of a ram head and an elephant head; and a medallion decorated with four intertwined snakes with eggs in their mouths. There are also pots decorated with channel pattern and projecting bosses. This was an enviable cache of treasures!

Igbo Isaiah is believed by Shaw to have been a shrine in which the bronzes described above were used for ceremonial or ritual purposes. Some of the items part of the regalia of the priest-king who took charge of the shrine. The objects would have been carefully placed on a rectangular level under a roof of impermanent material. The site may have been abandoned during an emergency. (Shaw 1970).



Skull of a Leopard, Igbo-Richard, 9th – 10th century- bronze


The excavation of the compound of Richard Anozie, on the other hand, revealed a different scenario. It revealed a burial chamber about three and one half meters below the ground surface. The inventory of the chamber included: a decayed human skull and long bones; enamel from the decayed teeth of five individuals; copper wristlets, one of which showed traces of decayed human bones; a bronze skull of a leopard mounted on an iron rod; a pectoral plate; a coronet; a fan holder; a bronze hilt; two mounted brackets; a stylised equestrian figure wearing Igbo facial scarifications and believed to be a fly whisk handle; over one hundred thousand multi-colored beads; and three ivory tusks. Judging by the rich content of the chamber, the excavator, Shaw, concluded that this was a burial chamber of a person of high status, perhaps an Ozo title holder which is the highest title in Igboland. The corpse was buried sitting on a stool studded with brass bosses in a wooden panelled chamber while his hands were propped up by two copper brackets. He wore a coronet and a breast plate; a fly whisk and a fan holder were inserted into each hand. After this arrangement was complete, the chamber was covered over with wooden panels and the corpses of five individuals meant to accompany him were placed above the roof of the chamber and then covered up.




Vessel, Igbo Ukwu, 9th – 10th Century, Bronze

When the compound of Jonah Anozie was excavated in 1964, a pit, two meters in diameter and three meters deep, was found. Its contents included copper wire links, wristlets of different patterns, bells, staff ornaments, and iron blades. It also included many fragments of pottery and whole pots, the most remarkable of which is forty centimeters high and forty-five centimeters in diameter. It is decorated with deep channeling patterns and projecting bosses. Its five handles are separated by relief models of a ram head, a coiled snake, a chameleon, and a humped object. Remains of both human and antelope bones were found inside one of the pots Shaw believes that this pit was dug purposely for placing a collection of ritual and ceremonial objects, possibly after a shrine was burnt down and not for the disposal of household refuse.(Shaw, 1978:118).



The casting of these ornate bronzes was a great achievement by the Igbo smiths considering they used the simple cire perdue or lost wax technique in creating them. When it was desired to cast an object, a day core in the rough shape of the object was made and over the clay core was placed a detailed wax model of the object to be cast. Both the inner clay core and the wax model were secured together with pins or armatures. Extra ribbons of wax were then attached to appropriate places on the wax model which, when melted out, provided openings tor the melted wax to escape. Then, a very fine clay was applied over the surface of the modelled wax to take the impression of the detailed features of the wax model. A final covering with coarser clay was applied to form the outer core. The investment was then baked in the open fire causing the wax model and the applied strips to melt. The melted wax is poured out through the holes or runners left by the wax strips leaving a space between the outer and the inner clay cores. An alloy of copper and tin or copper and zinc was melted in a crucible and then poured into the mold to replace the lost wax. When the investment had cooled down it was then broken up to expose the metal casting inside which would be an exact copy of the wax model.


For a time, it was thought that the copper used in the Igbo Ukwu castings came from across the Sahara desert or from the Katanga region of the Congo, but now it is believed that it was obtained locally (Chikwendu et all 1989). The result of the alloying of copper with tin is technically known as bronze, while the alloy of copper with zinc is known as brass. The lgbo Ukwu bronzes also contained lead so that they are referred to as leaded bronzes. Alloying copper with other metals is necessary because producing good cast in pure copper is extremely difficult although, it was done in Ife as will be discussed below. The word “bronze” is used in this paper in an art historical sense to refer to all castings made using copper alloys and not in the technical sense.



Igbo Ukwu bronzes have been dated by five radiocarbon dates, four of which place them between the ninth and the tenth centuries, while one date places them between the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries.

Some scholars have expressed doubt about the early dates, arguing that the textile material found in Igbo Ukwu excavations could not have been so well preserved if they were that old (Lawal, 1972a, 1972b, 1973) but Shaw believes, however, that the textile looked so fresh because it lay close to copper objects which helped to preserve them, (Shaw 1976).

The existence of such a rich and unique culture in southeastern Nigeria at such an early time is still imperfectly understood. First, the style in which the bronzes were cast is unparallelled elsewhere in Nigeria or West Africa. Second, the iconography of insects and other animals on the bronzes is still not properly explained, though they may be related to the present-day Igbo symbolism (Phillipson 1993: 179). What is certain is that Igbo Ukwu’s wealth indicates that the society had become relatively affluent, perhaps as a result of external and internal trade in ivory, slaves and other items.

Igbo Ukwu is not the only place in this area where cast bronzes have been found. A few miles east of Igbo Ukwu, at Ezira, a similar, but less rich, burial was found containing bronze bells, iron gongs, a bell, and several ceremonial objects with Igbo Ukwu decorative patterns all placed at the feet of the occupant of the grave.(Hartle 1967, 1968). It is possible that many other sites are awaiting to be discovered and, when this happens, we will have a fuller idea of the makers of these wonderful bronzes.



Bust of an Ooni, Ife, 12th – 15th Century, Bronze

The city of Ile-Ife lies on the southwestern stretch of the River Niger Valley. It is regarded by the Yoruba people as the cradle of all humankind. It was here, their legend says, that the Supreme Being, Olodumare, sent Oduduwa with a sacred bowl of sand and a five toed chicken to create solid land out of the primordial ocean that covered the earth. It was also from here that other Yoruba kingdoms were founded as one after the other of the sons of Oduduwa migrated to found other kingdoms.

Archaeological evidence has established that Jfe was first settled by 800 A.D. At this time it was inhabited by a people known as the Igbo, whose king was Obatala. This earlier settlement was displaced by the Yoruba people under Oduduwa who migrated into the area. Around the eleventh century, Ife had developed into a city- state with a semi-divine king, and a hierarchy of priests and officials. Some of the important houses and public places built with sun-dried mud had open courtyards, some of the important ones of which were paved with pebbles and pottery fragments set on edge.



Ife is justly famous for its works of art in terracotta, bronzes and stone. Early in the nineteenth century, the city’s fame had reached Europe and a fragment of an Ife terracotta head, now in the Brooklyn Museum in New York, had reached Europe. In 1910, the German ethnologist, Leo Frobenius, who had heard about the famous bronze head of the god of the sea, Olokun, visited the city and demanded to see it. The head was dug up from where it was buried in the Olokun grove along with seven terracotta heads and shown to attachment of human hair or a beaded veil to cover the lower face to give them a realistic look when in use. (Fagg & WiIlett 1962). Most of the heads have rings considered to be beauty marks on the neck. All heads have four holes drilled into the neck indicating that they were nailed onto a wooden pole and, as suggested by Willett, borne in a ceremony, probably the second funeral rites. (Willett 1976).

Two other remarkable bronzes were excavated from Ita Yemoo along with the full figure of an Ooni mentioned above. One is the intertwined figure of an Ooni and his Queen with their hands and feet interlocked in a ritual gesture. The other is a ceremonial vessel wrapped around by the figure of a queen holding a royal sceptre in her right hand. The vessel is set on a stool with a looped handle on which the queen’s left hand rests. The looped handle of the stool rests on a four-legged foot stool.



Face Mask (Obalufon), Ife, 12th – 15th Century- Copper

Ife smiths performed a technical feat in casting five of the Wunmonije Compound heads: a face mask named after Ooni Obalufon, said to have introduced bronze casting into Ife; the seated figure found on the island of Tada on the River Niger 200 kilometers north of Ife; and five of the free-standing heads. The Obalufon mask is somewhat rough on the inside and would have been uncomfortable to wear, but the slits under the eyes that enabled a wearer to see and suggest that it might have been used for that purpose. The seated Tada figure, probably the most important Ife work, displays such a striking sitting posture and inner composure that its sense of timelessness surpasses anything that was created in Ife.

The successful casting of all these pieces in pure copper is indicative of the mastery of the art of metallurgy by ancient Ife smiths. As explained earlier, copper is usually mixed with tin or zinc to produce “bronze” or “brass” casting. The reason for this is to enable the molten metal to flow from the crucible into the mold without being oxidised. If copper alone is melted and used in casting, during its passage from the crucible to the mold it becomes exposed to air and quickly picks up oxygen which causes it to be lumpy, thus producing imperfect casts. We are uncertain how the Ife smiths overcame this problem when they cast the works mentioned above, but it has been suggested that they probably had to place the mold over the crucible, instead of the other way round, and then overturn the whole thing so that the metal flowed into the mold without coming in contact with air. (Willett 1967)



Crowned Head, Ife, (Probably of a Queen) 12th – 15th Century, TerraCotta

Although bronzes dominate the visual scene of Ife art, the terracotta sculpture are by far the more numerous. Many of these represent human heads, some of which are tree-standing and others broken off from full figures The most prominent of the free-standing heads is the life-sized Lajuwa head which is said to have been always been kept, like the copper mask, in the aafin and it resembles some of the bronze heads from Wunmonije Compound. Its frizzy hair and simple beaded cap, un-scarified face and ringed neck combine to give this head an air of nobility such that, although lie oral tradition refers to it as the head of a usurper named Lajuwa, it might as well have represented an Ooni for the hole on the forehead may once have carried a royal emblem. Three other terracotta heads were also free-standing although these represent females. Two are from Inwinrin grove, one with a ridged hairstyle and the other with a bandeau over her cap. The third from Odo Ogbe Street wears a cap which is similar to those from the Inwinrin grove but without the bandeau.

The remaining terracotta heads were broken off from full figures. Two heads from Ita Yemoo represent queens, one with a five-tiered beaded crown and the other with a panelled crown one panel of which projects down her back; both heads have lost their royal emblems. The other terracotta heads are smaller than the Ita Yemoo queen heads. A female head, which was unearthed by Frobenius in 191.0 from Olokun grove, wears a hair style done in curls; her eyebrows are of raised dots over a sensuous mouth. Another, also excavated by Frobenius in Olokun grove, has raised weals on the face instead of scarifications and curled hair drawn into a crest at the crown of the head. A male head from Ita Yemoo which was stolen from the Jos Museum in Nigeria in 1987 has wooly hair, a full face, globular eyes, and a thick fleshy nose and mouth.



The highest point of Ife art is its naturalism. The naturalism consists of representing human images as portraiture and as idealised forms. Naturalism in the art of the western world was associated with tastefulness and elegance. It is because Ife terracottas and bronzes satisfy this Western taste that Frobenius thought Ife was an abandoned Greek colony. Ife artists were also interested in the dark side of life, which is why they depicted people who suffered from such diseases as elephantiasis of the scrotum, anacephaly, and rickets.

Ife artists were also adept at producing abstract art. They sculpted human figures in geometric forms, such as the cylinder and the triangle. For example, the head from Abiri, near Ife, which has two holes for the eyes, a slit for the mouth and knobs for the head and hair, was constructed entirely on a cylinder. Two heads, one from Oronmiyan Memorial College and the other from the grove of Osangongon Obamakin, were in the form of a triangle. Abstract art was unknown in the West before the present century, but as we have seen was practised by the Nok people two thousand years earlier. Ife abstract form should therefore be seen as a continuation of a long tradition.




Apart from working in bronze and terracotta, Ife artists also sculpted in stone, such as quartz and granite. When a remarkable Ife quartz stool with a looped handle first arrived in the British Museum, London, in 1920 it was promptly assigned to the Egyptian exhibition room because it was considered impossible to be the work of a black African, quartz being an intractable raw material. Ife sculptors also worked in granite, producing a four-legged foot stool, several human figures, such as the granite statue of Idena, the dwarf figure of Ore, the Eshure figure which is one hundred and fifty kilometers east of Ifc, and the famous eighteen-foot monolith with studded iron nails known as Opa Oranyan.


We noted that by A.D 800 Ife was settled. The many radiocarbon dates obtained by various excavators in Ife indicate that the art in its naturalistic style flourished between from the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries. Because the terracotta sculptures found in association with pottery pavements at Ita Yemoo, Lafogido, Obalara’s Land and Woye Asiri provide evidence of primary context, The writer had suggested that Ife naturalistic style was practised during the pavement time. He also suggested that the art of Ife should broadly be divided into: 1) the Pre-Pavement Period, 2) the Pavement Period associated with the naturalistic sculptures and 3) the Post-Pavement Period when the naturalistic sculptures ceased to be made and upon being dug up was re-used in secondary contexts. (Eyo 1974). The Pavement Period during which these sculptures were made is dated to between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries. The recent elaboration of this broad division into the Archaic Era, the Pry-Pavement Era, the Earls’ Pavement Era, the Late Pavement Era, the Post Pavement Era, and the Stylised Humanism Era (Drewal 1989) without providing the basis for the division seems to be an effort at attempting precision, hut achieving chaos.



Bust of a Male, Owo, 15th Century – Terracotta

The City of Owo lies about 80 kilometers east of lie-lie and about the same distance west of Benin City. According to tradition, Owo people migrated from Ife to Owo during (he twelfth century. During the fifteenth century, much of caster.. Yorubaland, including Owo, came under the influence of the Benin empire which was expanding in all directions. This influence resulted in the overlay of Benin cultural traits on the indigenous Yoruba cultural stratum to the extent of eclipsing the later. Because of this situation, some Owo works were erroneously attributed to Benin.


In 1951, William Fagg made a study of certain wood and ivory carvings during which he isolated certain peculiarities that were characteristic of Owo (W.Fagg 1951). It was not until 1971 that archaeological excavations at the site of Igbo ‘Laja near Okitisegbo in Owo revealed evidence that supports the story of migration from Ife and the overlay of Benin influence on Owo. (Eyo, 1972, 1974, 1976).


Bust of a Male, Owo, 15th Century- Terracotta

Igbo ‘Laja finds consisted of numerous fragments of terracotta sculpture scattered over the site in a manner that suggested that they suffered a violent end. The sculpture pieces were all on one level spreading outward from the foot of a tree. A hole was dug into the middle of this concentration and marked with a charred piece of wood stuck upright in the middle. When excavated, only two broken pieces of sculpture were found inside. The radiocarbon dates obtained were from the fifteenth century for the main concentration and from the seventeenth /eighteenth century for the pit. This means that the pit was dug at a later date into an earlier concentration, and at a time when the making of terracotta sculpture in this style had ceased and therefore the two pieces of sculpture found in the pit were re-used in a secondary context.

The sculptures that were found included human heads that were rendered in a naturalistic style in the same manner as of Ife heads. They bear similar facial scarifications, eyes similarly formed with the upper lid overlapping the lower at the corners, and the portraying of the mouth with dimples at the corners of the mouth. There are, however, a few differences. No free-standing heads have yet been found in Owo, although this does not necessarily imply that none will ever be found. The clay with which the Owo sculptures were made is different from that with which Ife sculptures were made. The Owo facial scarifications were bolder and more widely spread. No Owo head with a crown has yet been found; again, this is not to imply that none ever existed. Also, although some Owo heads display the Ife characteristic of being serene and static, others are more expressive and show a sense of movement. In addition, the graphic way in which statements are made with Owo sculpture and the large scale display of grotesque themes are unparalleled in Ife or Benin.

A small, Ife-style figure of a man with a hunched back, prominent gazing eyes, and an upturned head displaying an unusual sense of movement, was found in this concentration. The striations on his face are bolder and more widely spaced than those found on Ife works Another head which was very naturalistically modelled with high cheek bones and had been eroded out by rain and kept by the Alaja, (the priest of igogo Festival discussed below) is highly abraded but retains vestiges of its fine striations. The Alaja had drilled a hole on its forehead for use as a pendant. This head together with another head, also washed out by rain water and similarly treated, provide further examples of the re-use of objects in secondary contexts.

The most expressive of the works discovered at Owo is a small piece which was broken off from a tableau. It wears a wavy frowning expression on its face similar to that of a head with a simian skull neck pendant from Obalara’s Land in Ife. (Garlake 1974). In addition, its engaging eyes, flaring nostrils, energetic mouth, cross-hatched sideburn, moustache, and beard of this Owo piece combine to give it a very strong personality Furthermore, the head and torso of a man wearing a simple undecorated hat, un-scarified face, flaring nostrils, a neck cape of globular beads and tassels, and a string of beads around his waist, all of which combine to give the work an expression of vitality noted above on the frowning head.

The Igbo ‘Laja finds contained sculptures that depict the theme of sacrifice. Fh sculptures of votive offerings are highly graphic and grotesque. For example, fragments of heavily- beaded bands are depicted holding animals in an offering postures One beaded pair of hands presents an elephant or ram bead and a single-beaded hand presents a rodent in his

palm. The heavily beaded hands suggest that the individuals making the presentation were royalty. Other examples of votive offerings are seen in a woman holding a trussed up chicken under her arm as well as a trussed up chicken rendered in the round. Grotesque scenes include gagged human heads and a basket of severed heads with the carotene veins showing. Who then were these offerings meant for?



Among those Owo terracotta heads with the closest affinity to Ife is the head of a young woman which was broken off from a full figure. It is believed to represent Queen Oronsen the legendary wife of Olowo Reregenjen (fourteenth century). Oronsen was half—human and half-divine; therefore, certain taboos had to be observed in her presence. Because she was the newest, the most beautiful, and the best loved of the OIowo’s wives, however, these taboos were promptly broken during the Olowo’s absence by her co-wives due to spite. As a result, Queen Oronsen fled into the bush, but before disappearing, demanded enormous annual sacrifices to be made to her by the Own people in exchange for peace and prosperity in the town. The ritual known as the Igogo Festival, which is still being held in Owo today, is meant to be in her honor. Its main content is the offering of two hundred units of every item ranging from humans, animals and vegetables. The legend refers to the Queen as wearing a head tie at the time of her flight which may explain why this terracotta head was not provided with a crown like those of 1k queens. The priest of the Igogo Festival, the Alaja, told the writer that Igbo ‘Laja site was an ancient grove in which these sacrifices were performed in honor of Oronsen This legend explains, also, why the heavily-headed hands of royalty mentioned above were making offerings, probably to Queen Oronsen.



The influences which Benin City exercised on Owo were noted by W. Fagg in 1951. They include the dress style, the fluted walls of royal buildings and the adoption of Benin titles and rituals. The Igbo ‘Laja excavations provided more examples of these influences. Two terracotta fragments of heads were found in the same Concentration that contained lie-like sculpture. They have four short marks over the eyes in the same fashion as Benin memorial heads in terracotta and bronze. Their presence in this Concentration indicates the influence of Benin on Owo art. Benin influence is further seen in the depiction of leopards in Owo. In other parts of Yorubaland, leopards are usually depicted in relief, and less in the round. Fragments of sculpture found at Igbo ‘Laja represent at least three leopards, of which one is sitting on its haunches and chewing a human foot, and another performing the impossible feat of piercing through the shell of a tortoise with its claws. These leopards were depicted in action to show the superiority of the Olowo, represented by the leopard, over men and animals, even the cleverest of them, the tortoise. This is quite unlike in Benin, where the king (oba) is similarly represented; the leopards were carved or cast in a frozen stance.

Although only a few excavations have been carried out at Owo, two main points have already emerged. First, the Owe excavations provide an example of how archaeology, oral tradition and history can complement one another. In this case, we have seen how the story of Owo migration from Ife is confirmed by archaeological testimony and also how archaeology has provided evidence on the spread of Benin influence during the fifteenth century which was its greatest period of expansion. It is to be noted, however, that, in spite of these influences, Owo artists produced works of art which bore characteristic Owo traits, namely, a dynamism not shared by either lie or Benin.



Leopard, Benin, 15th -19th Century- Bronze

The best known artistic works from Nigeria are the Benin bronzes, yet only a few of them were actually excavated from the earth. The famous bronzes were looted from the Benin palace by the British Marines following a punitive expedition to that City in 1897.

The people of Benin call themselves Edo and there are two versions of the origin of Benin City. One claims a migration from the east that is Nubia or Egypt, while the other claims descent from the sky, and their kings were known as Ogiso. The kings ruled Benin until the twelfth century when internal squabbles within the dynasty created a state of anarchy, with the result that help had to lie sought from outside. Consequently, then the Edo people sent to ife for a prince to rule over them, Oronmiyan was dispatched to them. After restoring order, and having stayed in Benin long enough to raise a son by an Edo princess, Oronmiyon returned to Ife leaving his son, Eweka, as king of the Edo. That Yoruba dynasty has continued through to the present day with Oba Erediauwa.

During the Ogiso period, Benin art was created using clay, wood, and ivory, though few specimens from that period have survived. Surprisingly, howevcr, only a few archaeological excavations have been conducted in this city of bronzes. The first excavations there took place in 1957, near the Old Palace, when a brass snake’s head, an iron dagger with a brass handle, anti a fragment of a plaque were found (Goodwin 1963). In 1963, other excavations were undertaken in the area of the Old Palace and the Old Museum site in the King’s Square. Here, Graham Connah found some ancient potsherd pavements which antedate the development of Benin as a city state (Connah 1963, 468-9). They also revealed that by the thirteenth century, Benin craftsmen were making bracelets of beaten copper decorated with incised patterns (Connah 1975).

Head of an Oba, Benin, 15th -19th Century- Bronze

By the end of the fourteenth century, the technique of casting brass using the lost-wax technique was established in the city but there are conflicting claims regarding the introduction of this technology to Benin. According to Jacob Egharevba, the Benin historian, at the early period of this He dynasty in Benin, the head of a deceased Oba of Benin was sent to Ife for burial and, in return, a bronze head cast in He was sent back to Benin to be placed on the tomb and altar of the deceased king. This practice continued until the reign of Oba Oguola, the sixth king of Benin, when a craftsman named Igueghae was sent to Ife to learn bronze- casting and he introduced bronze-casting into Benin on his return. In recent times, the Benin people have disputed this story, claiming that the name Igeughae is a Benin name, and that he went to Ife to introduce bronze-casting there.

Although this issue is yet to be resolved it is known that the bronzes of Ife antedate those of Benin. Whatever the case may be, there were exchanges of bronze works between the two cities. A bronze figure of’ an Ooni of Ife in ceremonial regalia in Ife style was found in Benin, and a bronze pendant cast in Benin and portraying the Oba of Benin flanked by attendants was found in lyekere street in Ife in the 1940s (Willett 1976). Furthermore, three bronze aegides excavated from Benin palace grounds in 1948 (Mcycrowitz 1943) appear to represent Ife kings. Thus, these bronzes establish a clear link between the two art centers.

Osamasimi, (Ram Head) Benin, 15th -19th Century

Benin bronzes have been divided broadly into three main periods: the Early, Middle, and Late Periods (W.Fagg 1963). During the Early Period castings consisted of memorial heads which were thin and relatively naturalistic, with collar beads confined to the neck. During the Middle Period, the memorial heads became heavier and the beaded collars earlier confined to the neck now covered the chin as well. The Middle Period was also the time when all the plaques were cast. The plaques, which depict court activities and personalities, ?fl mounted on the walls and pillars of the palace. During the Late Period, the memorial heads became much heavier and flamboyant and flanged at the base. The Oba was also depicted wearing a winged crown. The heads of the Middle and the Late Periods were substantial, heavy enough to permit carved ivory tusks to be mounted on them.

Trophy Head, Benin, 15th-19th Century- Bronze

Although much art historical evidence can be gleaned from the study of the Benin bronzes which belonged to royalty we still need to acquire more information about the ordinary people of I3enin. The bronzes have deservedly attracted considerable attention but they provide only a partial history of a people. Therefore, what is needed in Benin, as elsewhere is for more archaeological work to be done to supplement the information which is available today.


A number of intriguing bronzes, ten in all, found scattered on the islands of Jebba and Tada on the River Niger, are usually referred to as Lower Niger Bronzes or Tsoede bronzes.


Standing Figure, Tada, 18Century – Leaded Bronze, Cloth

According to oral tradition, they were left on these islands by the legendary founder of the Nupe kingdom, Tsoede, who sailed up the Niger from Idah in a bronze canoe on his way to establishing the Nupe kingdom in the sixteenth century.

The ten bronzes represent at least three different artistic traditions. The seated figure from Tada has already been discussed above under the section on lfe where it is believed to have been made. Three other bronzes, the male Gara warrior from Tada, the figure of a bowman warrior from Jebba, and a female figure from Jebba (now missing) are the tallest bronzes yet found in Africa south of the Sahara. The Gara figure, which is dated to between the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries is dressed in a garment of cowrie shells and wears a leopard teeth necklace, a badge with a ram head surrounded by bird motif, a medallion with a horned face with snakes issuing from the nostrils, and a gathering of birds atop the head, and he has two long plaits of hair flowing downward from both sides of the back of the head. The Jebba bowman depicts a warrior clad in armor with a quiver of arrows on his back. The bowman, with a scarified face, also wears a medallion with a snake-winged motif on his face and a spiky war cap on its head. The female counterpart of the Jebba bowman, on the other hand, wears a conical headdress and carries a staff in her hand. There seems to be no doubt that these three figures were all cast by the same hand or in the same workshop. The city of Owo has been suggested as their possible place of origin (Fraser 1975).

Seated Figure, Tada, 18Century – Leaded Bronze

Two smaller of the bronze figures, one is holding a staff and the other wearing a pig-tail and with one hand holding the thumb of his other hand, have big bulging eyes and are considered to be related to modern Yoruba art (Willett,1980:152). Of the remaining bronzes, the figure of a drummer was stolen, while the figures of an elephant and an ostrich created in a style quite different from the others styles, arc less-publicized.

Many theories have been propounded to explain the assembling of these bronzes on these remote islands. Apart from the oral tradition that links them to Tsoede, it has been suggested that they were made in Owo (Fraser 1975) and that they may have been taken up the river as trade goods (Shaw 1973). There exists an urgent need for archaeological and related investigations to be made which focus on the origin and context of these monumental bronzes.



Another enigma in the history of Nigerian archaeology and art is a group of more than eight hundred soapstone figures found in Esie, a village just outside Ilorin and ninety kilometers north of Ife. They have been dated using the thermo-luminescence method from a fragment of terracotta found among the images to the twelfth century (Fleming 1975).

Seated Figure, Esie, , 19th-20th Century -Soap Stone

An investigation and documentation of the stones conducted by Philip Stevens for the Nigerian Department of Antiquities revealed no archaeological deposit at the site. It is, therefore, uncertain whether the stones were caned in situ or whether they were brought in from elsewhere. Both Old Oyo (Stevens 1978) and Oba State have been suggested as the possible original home of these figures (Obayemi 1976: 232) but, so far, nothing definite has been determined.

The figures represent male and female human beings with elaborate hair styles or conical caps. Mostly represented as sitting on stools, which suggests high status, they carry weapons or play musical instruments. Although there is a variation of styles within the group and some of their features can be found both at Ife and at Igbo Ukwu, all conform to a single recognizable Esie style.



Another group of enigmatic stone works consist of more than three hundred carved stone monoliths ranging in height from two to six feet and found in an area of about three hundred and fifty square miles along the middle of the Cross River. They were first reported by Charles Partridge in 1905 (Partridge: 1905) and later surveyed by Philip Allison for the Nigerian Department of Antiquities (Allison 1968).  They are located within the Bakor clan which is made up of five sub-clans of a varying number of villages: Nnam, Nta, Nselle, Abanyom and Akajuk. The carved monoliths were arranged in perfect or broken circles. Within the stones circles, there were other stones that were not carved, but which had more sacred functions than the carved ones. Other monoliths that were not part of the circles were either clustered around the base of a tree or stand singly or severally in selected places within the village. The majority of the monoliths represent male figures, but there were also a few female figures, and, at the village of Ekpatana in Nselle sub-clan, a fish was also carved

Monolith, Akwanshi (Atal) Cross River 200AD

In past research, these monoliths were usually referred to as akwanshi, meaning dead persons in the ground” (Allison 1968), but recent research in the area has shown this word was used incorrectly. The word akwanshi is used only by the Nta sub-clan and refers to smaller un-carved stones three to six inches in length. These were usually placed in a pile within the home of a family or lineage head or within the circle of the larger carved stone monoliths of the village. The smaller stones are known by different names in the other sub- clans. For example, among the Nnam sub-clan, they are known as akuku. The larger carved monoliths with which we are concerned are known also by different names in the sub-clans, but each name contains the stem, -tal-, meaning stone. Among the Nta sub-clan the large carved monoliths are known as netal, among the Nselle as alapatal and, among the Nnam as atal. The present writer therefore has proposed that the word akwanshi which refers to a different kind of stone be replaced by atal as used by the Nnam because it contains a syllable common to all the sub-clans (Eyo 1996).

From his study of the carved monoliths among the Nta sub-clan, Allison gathered that the carved stones represent ancestors whom he mistook to mean lineal ancestors. That is to say, that when the head of the lineage or village died, he was memorialised by the carving and installation of a monolith. Using the number of carved stones of the Nta, Allison calculated that the carvings were done in the sixteenth century by assigning a number of years to each reign. In Christa Clarke’s study of the Nnam monoliths, it became clear that although thc monoliths represented dead persons, they were not necessarily lineal ancestors, but ancestors which included legendary and historical persons, such as famous warriors or beautiful women.(Clarke, 1991). Archaeological excavations carried out at Alok, Emangabe and Old Nkrigom in the Nnam sub-clan area have provided dates, however, which range from two hundred A.D to five hundred A.D. (Eyo, 1996)



Vessel, Calabar, 445AD – 15th Century – Terracotta,

The Qua and the Efut peoples are located in Calabar, capital of the Cross River State of Nigeria. Calabar itself lies at the estuary of the Cross River which rises in the Cameroon Mountains to the cast. The Qua people speak a dialect of the Ejagham language (Ekoi in old literature) and the Ejagham people live on both sides of the river in eastern Nigeria and western Cameroons. The Ejagham language is classified as Ekoi-Bantu or semi-Bantu (Crabb 1965). The Ejagham people live in an area which linguists consider to be part of the nuclear Bantu territory. It was from here that the Bantu peoples moved first into Zaire (Greenberg 1963) and subsequently into the rest of central and eastern Africa. The Qua people in Calabar claim that they migrated by Land from Mbakang in the southwest province of the Republic of Cameroons and settled in the land behind the coastal strip. The Efut also claim to have migrated by water from the Batanga division of Balondo province in southern Cameroons and, after stopping at Usak Edet and Esighi, arrived at Esuk Atu near Calabar. Although today the Efut have lost their original language, which was originally Ejagham due to their proximity to the Efik people on the coast, the Qua still retain their Ejagham dialect.

For nearly two decades now, a series of line decorated pottery bowls and other pottery vessels have been uncovered in the Qua and Efut areas of Calabar as a result of urban development into the areas which were previously bush and reserved for burials and sacred activities (Ekpo 1984). The pottery vessels, which were decorated with channeling, cord and carved rouletting, incision, and walking comb, were usually placed upside down to expose their decorated parts. They came to light in ritual contexts like offerings or burials. These finds also included ornate pots decorated with symbolic reliefs; anthropomorphic figures with elaborate hairstyles, and pottery forms shaped like headrests. Associated with the pottery were many iron blades and swords.

A few rescue excavations were carried out in Calabar at the University of Calabar Site and at the site of the New Calabar Library by Violetta Ekpo who came to the conclusion that these sites were used for burials and rituals in which pot offerings were made. In 1995, the present writer carried out an emergency excavation at Ndidem Usang Iso Street in the Qua ward and discovered many decorated bowls piled upside down and one on top of the other at an angle, a “head rest,” a few iron blades and bells. A carbon- 14 date for this site is ninth century. More dates have been obtained using the thermoluminescence method for four anthropomorphic pottery, which are availabale in the United States and they range from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries.

Head Rest, Calabar, 445AD, Terracotta

The most rewarding site so far was excavated in the summer of 1996 by the present writer together with four graduate students (Pawel Koszielski, Lidia Domachewski, Chris Slogar and Erika Green) from the University of Maryland at College Park. The site is located at Abasi Edem Street in the Efut quarters. It produced the same category of pottery:

decorated bowls piled upside down, sparsely decorated larger pots, a “head rest,” a figurine of a male, iron swords, iron blades, quartz beads, blue and yellow trade beads still attached to a decayed long bone, a copper disc and a manjlla. Several iron swords were placed in positions that made a rough rectangle around the location of the decayed long bones, while the copper materials were found together at one end. The arrangement of the pots in a long, slightly curved line is similar to the arrangement associated with the Kisalian graves at Sanga in Zaire and credited to the Bantu people (Davidson 1993:228).

About three feet from the pottery arrangement, there was a shaft from which contained a considerable amount burnt soil and charcoal, a few fragments of pottery, and half a dozen pebbles. It is not yet possible to say whether this shaft was used as a furnace. The relationship between this pit and the pottery arrangement has not yet been determined. If the pit was a furnace, it would be tempting to regard this complex as the burial place of a rich iron worker, considering the wealth of richly decorated pottery, and the iron swords and blades and copper objects found there. However, the present writer believes, however, that we are dealing here with a Bantu burial; after all we have the traditions of the Efut and the Qua migration to this location from an established Bantu area, the Cameroons. If so, it is now possible for us to discuss for the first time a probable northwestern migration of the Bantu people.



The eastern region of Nigeria, which includes the Cross River basin, is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse areas found on the African continent. The long history of human migrations and trade in the area has resulted in a rich and varied artistic legacy, with wood as the preferred material for sculpture, although there is also an enigmatic group of cast metal pieces, known as the Cross River bronzes.

Ekpo Mask, Ibibio, 19th – 20th Century- Wood and Raffia

Art of the Eastern region serves many different functions, from proclaiming identity and reinforcing community values, to honoring the spirits, to celebrating not only new initiates but also, during the course of commemorative funerals, lives lived well, as loved ones take their place among the ancestors. The Mbembe people live along the banks of the middle Cross River and Awayong Creek in Cross River State. They believe in the supreme being, Ibinokpabi, but they also venerate their ancestors, without whom the blessings of Ibinokpabi cannot reach them. The ancestors are represented by large-scale naturalistic wooden figures. These grand images are unusual in that they were carved against the grain of the wooden log, which as the carving aged, created a striking surface effect that contributes to their gravitas.

A number of small bronze works have been found in the Cross River region that are something of a mystery because their makers are unknown, but the different styles to be found among them may indicate different places of manufacture. These small bronzes, which include finely rendered and cast bells and images of animals, humans, and anthropomorphic beings, probably served as shrine furnishings. The Ejagham (and their Bokyi neighbors) live in the upper Cross River region. They have excelled in a unique mode of art production: the covering of wooden images with animal skin. Most are headdresses that depict highly naturalistic male or female heads, but some take the form of animal heads. This technique is achieved by stretching and attaching the skin to the carving while it is still fresh. As it dries, the skin shrinks to conform perfectly to the carved surface. The skin is then oiled and polished to create a glowing surface. The heightened naturalism that results can be stunning to behold. The headdresses are owned by various associations or age sets, such as Nkang (the men’s warrior group) or Egbebe (the women’s fatting-house guild). Some with multiple faces represent male/female duality, with the female images in a light colorand the male ones darker. Skin-covered headdresses perform in ceremonies related to initiations or funerals of association members.


The Ejagham also produce a unique type of mixed media sculpture that is hung in the meeting houses of the men’s association called Ngbe, or leopard society. The assemblage combines natural and artificial objects that have deep symbolic meaning, such as the drum, or “voice” of Ngbe. Therefore, the emblem may be considered a sort of charter for the group. Oron, in Akwa Ibom State, is one of the principal towns dotting the Cross River estuary. Formerly, the Oron people commemorated their male ancestors with carved wooden images called Ekpu, which were kept in ancestral shrines. Their dignified style is unique and because they were made from very hard wood, some may be over two hundred years

Old—which places them among the oldest woodcarvings in sub-Saharan Africa. Several hundred were collected for display in the Oron Museum before the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1966. Unfortunately, many were stolen or destroyed at that time. Consequently, many Ekpu figures may now be found in art collections outside of Nigeria. The Ibibio people of Akwa Ibom State in the lower Cross River region practice a ritual called Ekpo, a reference to the ancestors.

Hence, Ekpo masquerades represent ancestors revisiting the living. The two kinds of   Ekpo masks may be characterized as beauty and the beast. The beautiful, refined masks represent elegant female spirits—though they are performed exclusively by men—and are worn mainly for entertainment. The beastly, grotesque masks—also danced by men—represent dangerous male spirits and are imbued with authority and enough immunity to hurt anyone. From large venerable ancestors carved in hardwoods intended to last for generations, to smaller figurines cast of bronze in whimsical human and animal forms, to hauntingly naturalistic animal-skin headdresses, juxtaposing distinctly male and female visages, the artists of Nigeria’s Cross River region have created endlessly inspired sculptural forms.

Ekpu Figure, Oron, 20th Century- Wood

The Igbo people occupy much of the southern part of the eastern region between the Niger River and the Cross River. Like the Yoruba of the southwestern region, the Igbo are acclaimed for the quality of their art in every medium, but especially for their masquerades. For these special events, Igbo artists create wooden masks and headdresses in a great variety of styles and forms that range from highly naturalistic to very abstract. The masked dancers, who represent ancestors and nature spirits, perform during harvest and dry season festivals and funerals. Like the Ekpo masks made by the Ibibio people, many Igbo masks may also be considered within the beauty and the beast model. Beautiful masks, always light in color (and always danced by men), include the finely carved helmet mask known as agboho mmuo, which depicts a virtuous maiden spirit. Such masks are characterized by the crisp carving of the attenuated face and an intricately modeled coiffure. Another mask of the refined type is known as isi ekpe, which is a more abstract rendition of the idea of ideal female beauty, with its convex heart-shaped face and teeth rendered with a simple linear design. The beast type, also performed by men, is illustrated by fierce-looking dark masks such mmanwu ogbuka, which portrays the analogy between the physical perfection of wild animals and the strength and vitality of young men. Its emphasis on the massive horns and aggressively exposed teeth leave no doubt that mmanwu ogbuka is a force to be reckoned with. Similarly, the ogbodo enyi mask juxtaposes animalistic

forms (such as elephant tusks) with the image of a man’s head, as a means to highlight masculine power. Igbo artists are also known for their figural shrine sculptures representing ancestors and various other spirits, such as the large-scale image called ugonachomma. They may be painted, dressed, and decorated with motifs related to status and wealth, and are periodically displayed to the community.  A more personal type of shrine figure is ikenga. This is dedicated to a man’s right hand—his source of power and success. Titled men may  own the most elaborate versions, which depict a male seated on a stool and holding the emblems of office. Animal imagery, such as horns, contributes to his power. Ceramics are a specialty of Igbo women, who make the pots used in daily life as well as the more elaborate figural works created specifically for ritual contexts. The shrine piece depicting a prosperous figural group was made for Ifejiokwu, the divinity responsible for yam fertility. The people are modeled in such a carefully naturalistic way that they seem to breathe with life. In contrast to such carefully observed reality, there are also a number of remarkable ceramic vessels that take the shape of a human head with the mouth open wide. This style, which is much more boldly simplified, illustrates again the variety and innovation to be found in Igbo art.


Just as water dominates the topography of the Niger Delta, it runs strongly as a theme throughout the region’s art and culture. Beautiful water spirits, thought to live in fantastic underwater cities, are a source of fertility, wealth, and good fortune. Both the spiritual and visible denizens of the rivers and sea are common subjects in Delta art, and many festivals take place aboard boats on the water. For untold generations, the coastal waters have been plied not only for food, but also to facilitate trade. Such cultural exchanges are clearly evident, for example, in the similarities between the water spirit masks of the Ijo and the Ijebu Yoruba to the

west. Inland, in drier areas, bush spirits are often represented with carved images that protect communities from harm. In the Niger Delta, where the environment can never be taken for granted, art helps to maintain the balance of life, both spiritually and physically.

Headdress of an Hippotamuss, Otobo, Ijo, 20th Century- Wood, Pigment

The Ogoni people live east of Port Harcourt in Rivers State. They have distinctive horned animal masks, takpo takporo and saimon, which are used on the occasion of the crop fertility play known as Karikpo, which honors a founding ancestor.  Takpo takporo represents the agile antelope, while saimon is a composite entity combining human and animal qualities. The masquerades perform acrobatic  dances for the community in front of the sacred village drum and are hailed as heroes. The Ijo occupy the coastal regions of Delta, Bayelsa, and Rivers states. They venerate spirits of the water and the bush as well as deceased ancestors and village heroes. Their sculptures are used mainly to capture these spirits so that they can be harnessed for the benefit of the community.  Water spirits, who control the fertility and well-being of the land and the people, are recognized and honored with the performance of masks known collectively as owu or water spirit. Individual masks represent named divinities, such as sa pele, a western Ijo water spirit, or the Kalabari’s  otobo, or hippopotamus. Such masks have great visual appeal because of their bold cubist forms. A subtler, more naturalistic approach is evident   from the creation of the mask called Ohworhu, an Urhobo water spirit. The Abua are known for their spectacular water spirit headdresses in the form of sea creatures, such as crabs, sharks and swordfish. These masquerades perform annually, prior to the community festival, to cleanse the village of evil things and to ensure a bountiful supply of fish to eat in the new year. asterpieces of nigerian art Prominent heads of Kalabari families may be commemorated with the wooden assemblage called duen fobara, a screen to which is attached a carved image symbolic of the man along with his emblems of office and other trappings representative of his life and accomplishments.

Okega, Igala, 20th Century, Wood

In a tradition similar to the Igbo usage of the ikenga personal shrine, Ijo men may utilize carved figures called ivri to positively affect their destiny by controlling overly aggressive forces that otherwise could do them harm. Often abstract and bristling with fearsome teeth and horns, ivri figures boldly resonate with artistic vitality. A related tradition exists among the Isoko. Among the Urhobo, spiritual beings called Edjo are represented with large-scale wooden figures, which are finely carved and painted. The image of the seated mother and child is responsible for female power and procreation, while her counterpart, a seated male figure holding a sword and staff, is the mythological founding warrior of the community. Borrowing from the Ijo tradition of masking devoted to evoking the

many water spirits (owu) that populate the delta area, the Ijebu Yoruba also create dramatic horizontal masks for their Agbo masquerades that display many Ijo characteristics: long, paddle-like forms that support angular faces with tubular eyes, and bristle with a variety of decorative projections. Danced horizontally,  these masks suggest all manner of floating forms – canoes, fish, water birds,  snake—that are representative of the wealth and commerce provided by the “children of the water” for the Ijebu. Dynamic and imaginative, the masks and figures of the Niger Delta vividly mirror the people, animals and spirits that inhabit this densely populated and ethnically diverse coastal region.


Epa Mask, Igbomina, 20th Century- Wood and Pigments

The Yoruba people have continued to enrich longstanding artistic traditions that first flowered at Ile-Ife over one thousand years ago. The predominant material used in modern Yoruba sculpture has been wood, and in this medium, the Yoruba have produced some of the most widely recognized works of African art. The creations of such great carvers as Olowe of Ise and Areogun of Osi-Ilorin, for example, are praised around the world. Yoruba artists have sculpted large numbers of carved headdresses, figures, containers, and other objects to honor gods, kings, ancestors, and the holders of revered social positions. Yoruba sculpture, therefore, works in a fundamental way to help maintain relationships amongst the Yoruba people, their leaders, and their traditional gods. As at Ife, royalty remains an important subject of Yoruba art, as well as images representative of gods and, more often, their devotees presenting offerings, which are meant for shrines. Particular role models, such as leaders, warriors, and mothers of twins, are honored by the Epa masquerade with its spectacular oversized headdresses. Elder women, powerful through experience, are entertained and placated through the performance of Gelede; the inventive images atop Gelede headdresses slyly comment on current affairs and traditional themes as well. Ancestors are commemorated with the Egungun festival. Another important source of sculptural inspiration relates to the practice of Ifa divination, which includes elaborately designed boards, tappers, and containers that illustrate the variety and potential of humanity and the wider natural world aided by spiritual forces that are properly recognized.



Ere Ibeji (Twin figure), Saki, 20th Century – Wood, Cowrie

Agere Ifa, Yoruba, 20th Century, Wood


While there may be as many local styles of Yoruba figural carving as there are Yoruba towns, the images generally appear ideally youthful, representing the subject at the prime of life regardless of physical age. For example, the sculptures created to memorialize deceased twins (ere ibeji) are invariably depicted as adults, even though the individual may have passed on during early childhood. In other contexts, the simple addition of a beard to an otherwise youthful-looking figure identifies the subject as an elder.

Standing Figure, Mumuye, 20th century, Wood

The northern region of Nigeria includes many distinct ethnic groups whose diverse artistic traditions developed to help them proclaim their identity and negotiate the path of life. Wooden sculptures from the northern region tend to be more abstract than works from the south; human figures with long, slender bodies and simplified facial features are characteristic.

Helmet Mask, Oji-Egu, Igala, 20th C, Wood, Cloth, Seeds, Pigments

The Igala occupy the eastern part of Kogi State, below the Niger-Benue confluence. Their principal cult, Egu (spirit of the dead) is connected with the ancestors who are remembered at the time of the yam harvest. Egu may be represented with the mask called ojuego. The dignified ojuego mask used in the royal ancestor cult is empowered by the red seeds placed over the head.

Bassange Mask, Kogi, 20th Century- Wood

The Bassa-Nge also live near the Niger-Benue confluence. Among their carvings are masks used in connection with the ritual of Ekuecici, which represents the servants of the dead. Such rituals are performed during postburial rites and also for entertainment. The richly adorned masks combine an elongated human face with geometric designs and serpent motifs. At the southern edge of the Jos Plateau, the Mama people are known for their unique sculptural style that has developed into the most abstract sculptures of animal forms in Nigeria. These helmet masks mainly represent bush cows; one type, called zumu, was carved for the mangam dance.

Maternity figure, Afo People, 19th cent, wood

Living in the foothills of the Nasarawa and Loko mountains of Nasarawa State, the Afo make black and white masks whose wearers perform on stilts during harvests and festivals. They also use headdresses depicting animals such as chameleons and cockerels. But their most important sculptures are figures of women, sometimes depicted with their children. These figures are sacred; once a year they are brought out to the village square where sacrifices and prayers are offered, and blessings in the form of abundant crops and healthy children are asked for in return. Such works may be decorated with geometric and zoomorphic designs modeled after Afo ethnic marks. The Mambila occupy the hilly country on the plateau bearing that name. They are known for their fierce-looking animal headdresses called svah buah, which feature large eyes, open mouths, and long horns that create an image of aggressive power. Svah buah performs with other masks during an elaborate ceremonial that involves animal sacrifices and other offerings. Like the Yoruba, the Chamba of central Taraba State, consider the birth

of twins to be a true blessing, and these children are revered. To protect them, Chamba artists create double figures in an elegantly slender and simplified style.

Living primarily in northern Taraba State, the Mumuye people venerate their ancestors by depicting them as elongated pole sculptures with very abstract features. These sculptures are usually hidden in the house and offerings are made to them regularly. Their duties are to protect the household against enemies and diseases, to detect guilty persons, and to punish thieves. However, as  representatives of the family, they are also sometimes brought out into the open to welcome important guests. The Jukun people live in central Taraba State, in the Benue basin. They believe in a supreme being, Chido, who is approachable through intermediary deities, among whom are the royal ancestors. In order to achieve a good living, offerings are made at ancestral shrines where the ancestors

are tangibly represented by carved wooden figures. Some Jukun figures are also used in rituals related to fertility. The carvings are boldly designed, with abstract facial features. They may display elaborate coiffures and jewelry befitting their royal status. masterpieces of nigerian art 195 Like the Yoruba, the Chamba of central Taraba State, consider the birth of twins to be a true blessing, and these children are revered. To protect them, Chamba artists create double figures in an elegantly slender and simplified style. Living primarily in northern Taraba State, the Mumuye people venerate their ancestors by depicting them as elongated pole sculptures with very abstract features. These sculptures are usually hidden in the house and offerings are made to them regularly. Their duties are to protect the

household against enemies and diseases, to detect guilty persons, and to punish thieves. However, as representatives of the family, they are also sometimes brought out into the open to welcome important guests. The Jukun people live in central Taraba State, in the Benue basin. They believe in a supreme being, Chido, who is approachable through intermediary deities, among whom are the royal ancestors. In order to achieve a good living, offerings are made at ancestral  shrines where the ancestors are tangibly represented by carved wooden figures. Some Jukun figures are also used in rituals related to fertility. The carvings are boldly designed, with abstract facial features. They may display elaborate coiffures and jewelry befitting their royal status.


Female figure, Chamba, 20th Century- Wood


The Tiv occupy both banks of the Benue River in Benue State. They are known for their excellent work in brass and terracotta but they also made figurative sculpture in hardwood until the early 20th century. Some of these carvings depict standing male figures that served as houseposts. The Idoma-speaking peoples reside south of the Benue River in Kogi and Benue states. Their sculptures are associated with men’s societies, divination and entertainment. The Idoma also utilize light-colored masks representing beautiful female spirits and elaborate headdresses with multiple faces, which appear at important social events, such as the funerals of important persons and harvest festivals. Whether evoking the wild spirits of the forests or the more serene wisdom of the ancestors, the artists of Nigeria’s northern regions have produced masterfully abstracted forms of powerful presence.


Archaeology in Africa, except in Egypt, has received comparatively minor attention. Yet, everyday, much that could have been saved to shed light on the African past is being destroyed by human and natural agencies. Faced with chronic economic problems, African governments are handicapped in sponsoring excavations, a situation that has been aggravated by the de-personalised education which they had in the colonial days. Yet, African heritage is part of the human heritage, and its destruction must be of concern to the world at large.





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