Ife head

Contributed by British Museum

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This head probably depicts an Ooni, a ruler of the West African kingdom of Ife that flourished between AD 1100 and 1500. The portrait-like realism of Ife heads is unique in African art. This naturalism astonished art historians when the first Ife heads were brought to Europe in 1911. One German explorer even proposed they were made by Greek settlers in Africa - the origins of Plato's Atlantis myth. Eighteen heads have been found in total, and their stylistic similarities suggest that they were made by an individual artist or in a single workshop.

What was life like in medieval Africa?

The kingdom of Ife first emerged around AD 800. It was one of several competing West African kingdoms that developed during the medieval period. Ife's power and wealth was probably partly derived from its access to the lucrative Niger River trade routes, connecting it to the wider trade networks of West Africa and the Sahara. Today Ife is regarded as the spiritual heartland of the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria. Ife is celebrated as the place of origin of mankind, where the gods descended from heaven to populate the world.

Much of the gold used in medieval European and Islamic coins came from West Africa via the trans-Sahara trade routes

The Kingdom of Ife

This crowned head of a ruler is a remarkable piece of brass-casting which reflects important aspects of the landmark culture developed in Ife, on the lower Niger River, dating back around 2,000 years and blossoming in the twelfth-fifteenth centuries.

The time known in Europe as the medieval period was the golden age of West Africa. Powerful empires controlling vast territories flourished in the West African savannah, with a huge impact on the history and cultures of the whole subcontinent: the Ghana Empire (800s-1100s), the Mali Empire (1200s-late 1300s), and the Songhay Empire (1400s-late 1500s). To the East, in the Central African savannah, the Kanem-Bornu Empire expanded around Lake Chad.

Trade routes criss-crossed West Africa, linking the northern savannah cities such as Gao, Timbuktu, Djenne, and the southern forest centres such as Begho, Igbo-Ukwu, Ife and Oyo, to the Hausa states such as Kano and Zaria, and reaching Ngazargamo in Kanem-Bornu. That regional trade was in turn connected to the considerable trade across the Sahara desert to the north. These trans-Saharan exchanges linking Northern (together with Andalusia in Spain) and North-eastern Africa to trading cities in West Africa and on Lake Chad.

Diverse local and Mediterranean commodities were traded – woven and dyed cloths, kola nuts, gold, iron, slaves, beads, copper and copper alloys, ivory, embroidered cloths, imported luxury cloths.

West Africa was also a major supplier of gold to Europe. Big states and regional powers competed to control the trade which brought enormous wealth and power to them. This trade was a powerful channel for crafts, skills, new ideas and consumer goods, as well as for the spread of Islam. Major cities flourished as places of international trade attracting merchants, artisans, Muslim scholars and clerics from various horizons.

In this context Ife grew to become a flourishing cosmopolitan city-state, a commercial and trading centre regarded today as the legendary homeland of the Yoruba-speaking peoples. It established significant political and religious authority in the lower Niger region, in what is now modern Nigeria. Its rulers promoted crafts, particularly copper-alloy casting, weaving, and bead-making. Its legacy includes outstanding naturalistic works of art in stone, terracotta and metal.

The metal and abundance of beads represented in this beautiful work tell us about the vital connection of Ife to the regional trade network. These are signs of wealth and the highest authority, for brass and beads were power and luxury materials accessible only to entitled and wealthy dignitaries. From all that it can be concluded that the head was used to perform important and sophisticated ritual ceremonies most likely centred on a sacred ruler.

Claude Ardouin, curator, British Museum

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  • 1. At 10:06 on 30 June 2010, Robert Allen wrote:

    No mention has been made of the series of small holes round the mouth and neck of the Ife head, which look as if they originally held an attachment or armature of some kind. These are surely significant.

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  • 2. At 10:19 on 30 June 2010, Robert Allen wrote:

    I have found a reference to these by zooming in on the picture of the object.

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  • 3. At 11:03 on 30 June 2010

    Failed moderation

  • 4. At 15:29 on 30 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    This remarkable work reminds me of the Benin bronzes which come similarly from West Africa in the same time period and which were not chosen by Ian. Taken by the British in a punitive raid they have been likened to the Elgin marbles as cause celebres for repatriation. No wonder they weren?t chosen for this series. (And incedently, what is remarkable about some of them is the close resemblance in the head projections worn by some of their figures to The ?Golden Hats? found in bronze age Europe. A remarkable coincidence is it not which seems to have gone unnoticed and would have been a perfect conversation piece for this series. ??????

    If no one else can think who might have had a positive influence on the artistic and technological development of the peoples of West Africa including Nigeria I can. What about the ancient Egyptians for a start. Was not the Egyptian prefix and suffix ?jer meant to indicate colony i.e. Jerusalem, Jericho, and hence the word ?journey?. Perhaps there is an etymological -Jer in Nigeria that can be traced to an early Egyptian influence? Perhaps there was a colony called Jeri(f)a ? Since West African gold and ivory was almost certainly a source for ancient Egypt it follows that quite a number of other cultures would inevitably have also benefited themselves in its trade both during and after the Kemetyan period (Egyptian). Who better to point the finger at than The Phoenicians, sea traders extraordinaire. They also traded ivory and gold through relatively nearby Carthage and from there mounted expeditions both across the Sahara and around the African coast. Where did Hannibal get his elephants? So I ask, Given the contemptible avarice and barbarisms of Rome how impossible is it to imagine that a great many privileged and clever Carthaginians might actually have escaped the sword or worse, slavery, by crossing the desert to their old friends in West Africa when Carthage was des(troy)ed taking their knowledge with them?

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  • 5. At 18:14 on 30 June 2010, J D Hill wrote:

    Dear Miles

    A History of the World in 100 Objects will include a programme about one the Benin plaques later in the series. This programme will be broadcast in the third part of the series that is due to begin in September.

    JD Hill The British Museum

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  • 6. At 20:08 on 30 June 2010, jaydyer wrote:

    Just a little query. Is the object brass (copper and zinc) or bronze (copper and tin)? It was referred to as both during the broadcast.

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  • 7. At 05:40 on 2 July 2010, matteela wrote:

    Frustrating. Most of this episode's duration was taken up by how the Western world changed its view of Africa after the discovery of these heads. The little remaining time was about how Africa is now proud of its past. Where is the history of the world ? Where is the research into materials, techniques and why is this object so important so as to be part of just 100 objects through which to define our collective history ? Enough of the 'serene' look in the eyes already. We need real history.
    Who were the craftspeople ? Do they still have the technique in Nigeria ? Where did the bronze come from ? What does this tell us about the social conditions ?
    Keep the Western world changing its views for another series please.

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  • 8. At 11:01 on 2 July 2010, jan goodey wrote:

    I share the previous commentators' frustration. It would be really fascinating to have the technical details relevant to the making of these objects explained; the materials, their origins, tools used, and any information about the craftsmen making it - even though the majority were anonymous. Information like this should form part of any good deconstruction of an object, alongside contexts and significance. My frustration comes from being intrigued and wanting more depth of information.
    That being said, this series is excellent and I am really enjoying learning about so many new aspects of history through objects, the idea of grouping them together in themes works very well. Thank-you Radio 4

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  • 9. At 12:42 on 8 November 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    Thanks for some interesting queries - I put them to the British Museum curators of African objects:

    @Jaydyer - The head is made of heavily leaded zinc-brass (copper about 70%, zinc about 16.5% and lead about 11.3%).

    @Matteela - We don?t have sufficient archaeological and historical evidence to know exactly who the craftspeople were. We do know ? from the evidence of their work in Ife ? that they had developed a high level of skill in casting both brass and pure copper using the hollow lost wax casting technique. The origins of the technique in West Africa remain unknown but it was almost certainly an indigenous technique developed independently in the region.

    At the time of the encounter with Europe the tradition of brass-casting using the lost wax technique no longer existed in Ife itself, although it was widely practised elsewhere by the Yoruba-speaking people. However, lost wax brass and bronze casting continues to flourish among the Yoruba-speaking people in other parts of Nigeria, in Benin-City, as well as on the lower Benue River.

    Where did the bronze come from?

    We are not absolutely certain where the Ife casters derived their sources of metal. There were different sources of the copper traded in West Africa in medieval times. Metal was certainly imported via the trans-Saharan routes (a caravan of 2000 brass rods was found in Mauretania dating from 11th-13th centuries). Copper may also have come from north-eastern Africa and even from Romania. It is therefore probable that imported brass and copper traded to West Africa was mixed with locally smelted lead and that this was used in Ife.

    What does this tell us about social conditions?

    The use of imported ?luxury? materials such as brass and copper tell us that Ife was wealthy and enjoyed high status and local authority at the height of its influence (probably between 12th-15th centuries). The Ife head featured here wears a complex crown with plume and significant amounts of beaded jewellery and undoubtedly represents a ruler of Ife.

    @jan goodey - Ife metal sculptures were made using a process known as ?hollow lost-wax? casting. Copper is extremely difficult to cast and the addition of small amounts of other metals makes the process easier. Tin (to make bronze) or zinc (to make brass) lowers its melting point, while lead improves its fluidity. A few castings were made in almost pure copper attesting to the outstanding skills of these artists.

    David Prudames, British Museum

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Ife, Nigeria


12th-14th century AD


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