Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros19A Copper Alloy Head Count: Contex...

A Copper Alloy Head Count: Contextualising and Accounting for the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound Discoveries of Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria

Un décompte des têtes en alliage de cuivre : contextualiser et expliquer les découvertes du site de Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound à Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria
Tomos Llywelyn Evans
p. 67-100
Traduction(s) :
Un décompte des têtes en alliage de cuivre : contextualiser et expliquer les découvertes du site de Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound à Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria [fr]

Résumés

Les têtes grandeur nature en cuivre et en alliage de cuivre de Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound, Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria, ont stupéfié le monde de l’art lors de leur découverte en 1938. De facture fine et naturaliste, elles ont attiré l’attention des chercheurs qui ont soigneusement étudié leur technologie, leur style et leurs caractéristiques afin de mieux comprendre leur signification historique. Malgré cela, on sait peu de choses sur le contexte archéologique de ces objets ou sur les récits oraux locaux contemporains qui cherchaient à les expliquer. En outre, la littérature publiée présente des divergences quant au nombre de ces têtes en alliage de cuivre existantes. Cet article vise donc à démystifier cette situation. Il s’appuie sur des archives inédites pour éclairer le contexte archéologique de ces découvertes, documenter les récits locaux contemporains qui s’y rapportent et estimer le nombre probable de ces têtes. Ce faisant, l’article cherche à améliorer notre compréhension de l’importance historique des têtes et à soutenir les efforts visant à localiser et à rapatrier les exemplaires manquants.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Introduction: The Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Heads Unearthed

  • 1 Sources differ on the exact number–see discussion below.

1The copper and copper alloy heads of Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound (Ilé Wúnmọníjẹ̀) in Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria, constitute a widely admired yet enduringly enigmatic component of Yorùbá cultural patrimony. An alleged total of 17 or 18 heads1 depicting men and women (Eyo 1982: 11), and part of a copper alloy figure, were uncovered here in 1938 during the building of a new house, not far from the ruling Ọ̀ọ̀ni’s (king) ààfin (palace complex) in the centre of the town (Duckworth 1938b; Bascom 1939; Fig. 1–3). Manufactured using the cire perdue (lost-wax) casting technique and naturalistic in style (Willett 2004), the heads are believed to have been produced during an era that witnessed a florescence of artistic and technological elaboration in copper, brass, stone sculpture, terracotta, glass, and other media at Ilé-Ifẹ̀ during the early- to mid-second millennium AD. The development of these novel forms of material culture is thought to have coincided with the elaboration of institutions of sacred kingship and other political and religious offices, the intensification of metal technologies and glass beadmaking industries, and processes of urbanisation in the region (Ogundiran 2020). In style and technology, these artefacts closely resemble a copper alloy head bearing a crown that had been described by German anthropologist Leo Frobenius following his visit to Ilé-Ifẹ̀ in 1910 (Frobenius 1913)— shown in Figures 1 and 3. This had been in the possession of a priest of the òrìṣà Olókun, deity of the sea and wealth, whom local people associated it with. They also resemble a copper mask attributed to the past Ọ̀ọ̀ni Ọbalùfọ̀n housed in the ààfin. This was traditionally claimed to have always been kept in the ààfin since its production centuries previously, however it is not known to have been seen publicly before 1919 (Murray 1955: 17) and its original provenance thus remains problematic (Obayemi 1979: 175).

Figure 1 – Ten Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound heads at the British Museum in 1947, as well as the crowned Olókun head (far left) and Ọbalùfọ̀n mask (foreground, left), where they were on loan for an exhibition

Figure 1 – Ten Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound heads at the British Museum in 1947, as well as the crowned Olókun head (far left) and Ọbalùfọ̀n mask (foreground, left), where they were on loan for an exhibition

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 2 – Thirteen Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads on exhibition at University College Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan), Nigeria, 1949

Figure 2 – Thirteen Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads on exhibition at University College Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan), Nigeria, 1949

Each head is identified alphabetically from left to right by the author, with the equivalent systems of numbering used by Leon Underwood (1949)/the British Museum and Frank Willett (2004) noted below:
A. Underwood Ife, No. 7/Willett M7. Material: leaded zinc-brass with a deliberate addition of gold. Considered to be similar in appearance to the Ọbalùfọ̀n mask. Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1993, returned in 1997
B. Underwood Ife, No. 12/Willett M13. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass
C. Underwood Ife, No. 5/Willett M6. Material: copper
D. Underwood Ife, No. 4/Willett M11. Material: copper
E. Underwood Ife, No. 2/Willett M16. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Stolen from the Jos Museum in 1987, resurfaced in Belgium and then the UK. Currently held in London by the Metropolitan Police
F. Underwood Ife, No. 14/Willett M15. Material: leaded zinc-brass
G. Underwood Ife, No. 6/Willett M5. Material: almost pure copper. Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1993
H. Underwood Ife, No. 9/Willett M12. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass
I. Underwood Ife, No. 15/Willett M18. Material: leaded zinc-brass. One of the more badly damaged examples. Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1994, returned from Zürich in 2001
J. Underwood Ife, No. 11/Willett M9. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. The largest and heaviest of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads
K. Underwood Ife, No. 1/Willett M19. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Fragmentary from extensive damage; considered to be similar in appearance to Head M. Stolen from Ifẹ̀, apparently in the 2000s. Recovered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for repatriation to Nigeria
L. Underwood Ife, No. 3/Willett M10. Material: almost pure copper with about 1% of lead. Stolen from Ifẹ̀, returned from Zürich in 2001
M. Underwood Ife, No. 8/Willett M8. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Considered to be similar in appearance to Head K
[Not in image]: Underwood Ife, No. 10/Willett M14. Material: copper. A heavily damaged (crushed) example
[Not in image] Willett M17 (not featured in Underwood 1949). Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. One of the two heads exported by W. Bascom in 1938, then repatriated in 1950. This one is “crownless” whereas the other which Bascom took has a crown as part of the same casting (see Fig. 3: Head P). Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1994.
Photograph by William Buller Fagg © RAI

Figure 3 – The only three Ifẹ̀ heads with crowns as components of the same castings

Figure 3 – The only three Ifẹ̀ heads with crowns as components of the same castings

Two are believed to be from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound (left, centre), and the third (right) is the Olókun head known prior to the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ discoveries.
P. Willett M3 (not featured in Underwood 1949). Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. The smallest of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads, and one of the two heads exported by W. Bascom in 1938, then repatriated in 1950
Q. Underwood Ife, No. 18/Willett M2. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Exported by H. M. Bate in 1939 (or 1938), then sold by him to the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the British Museum where it currently resides. Shown also in Figure 13

© The Trustees of the British Museum

  • 2 Papers of Edward Harland Duckworth, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, (...)
  • 3 Ibid, p. 20.
  • 4 See Figure 2 for information on the system of alphabetical codification of the heads used in this a (...)

2Published articles on the heads by E. H. Duckworth, Inspector of Education in Nigeria, in 1938, and the American anthropologist William Bascom in 1939, coupled with the controversial export of several heads to the US and UK by Bascom and British journalist Henry Maclear Bate at that time, brought them to the widespread attention of Western scholars and curators (Tignor 1990; Ottenberg 1994). Sir William Rothenstein, art adviser to the British Secretary of State, Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, London, and Dr. John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery, London, pronounced the heads “work in the same class as the best Greek sculptures”.2 Sir Kenneth Clark was so impressed by the heads that he declared them “one of the most important antiquarian finds of the present century”.3 Excepting some that have since been stolen, and the head exported by Bate that came into possession of the British Museum (Head Q: Fig. 3, 13),4 all known, documented Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads are in Nigeria, having been exhibited at the National Museum, Lagos, the Ifẹ̀ National Museum, and elsewhere. However, based on a number of contemporary accounts soon after the time of the discoveries, several heads that were not officially documented by the British and Nigerian authorities likely also exist.

  • 5 Material for this article was primarily obtained from the following archives:
    I. The Melville J. Her
    (...)

3Despite the historical and cultural importance of this spectacular group of heads, many of the details of their original archaeological and historical contexts remain ambiguous due to a paucity of published information on the circumstances of their discovery. Though valuable analyses of the style and technology of the heads have been undertaken, they remain poorly understood from an archaeological perspective, as well as according to local Yorùbá explanations from the period of their unearthing. Furthermore, published sources are sometimes contradictory regarding how many of the heads are in existence (Tignor 1990: 423; Willett 2004), and it remains unclear why such discrepancies exist. To address these areas of ambiguity, this article reviews unpublished correspondence, reports, field notes, and other documents from multiple archives pertaining to some of the major figures associated with the 20th century unearthing and study of these heads.5 In doing so, it provides a more detailed archaeological context for these artefacts, reports previously unpublished contemporary local Yorùbá oral narratives and explanations pertaining to them, and seeks to estimate how many documented and undocumented copper and copper alloy Ifẹ̀-style heads are in existence by investigating the reasons for discrepancies in numbering.

  • 6 See Shyllon (2017, 2018), Hicks (2020), Bodenstein (2022), and Phillips (2022a) for recent discussi (...)

4The aim in doing this is to improve our understanding of the history and significance of the heads, and of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ more broadly, as well as account for a number of undocumented heads that may exist so as to benefit potential future repatriation efforts. At a time when the push for the repatriation and restitution of cultural heritage from Western museums to Nigeria and elsewhere is accelerating, most prominently with regard to the looted arts of the Benin Kingdom,6 this “head count” is important in accounting for thefts and disappearances of such artefacts, whether these occurred recently or during the late colonial era.

  • 7 Notably horizontal nicks on the forehead and a missing right ear.

5Relatively recent thefts of Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads occurred in 1987, 1993, and 1994 (ICOM 1997; Willett 2004). Some of these stolen objects have been successfully returned, but several have not yet been recovered. One example (Head E) was stolen while on exhibition at the Jos Museum on January 14th 1987. This has since resurfaced at auctions in Brussels in 2007, and then in London in 2017 when a dealer tried to sell it through the auction company Woolley & Wallis who passed it on to the British police (Phillips 2022b). As of now, the head remains in Britain as the dealer has so far been unwilling to relinquish his claim over it, unless paid. Two examples (Head A and Head G) are known to have been stolen from the National Museum of Ife Antiquities on April 18th or 19th 1993, though one of these (Head A) was returned to the Nigerian authorities after it was found to be unsaleable (Willett 2004). Two more heads (Head O, formerly repatriated by Bascom in 1950, and Head I) were stolen from this museum the following year, one of which (Head I) was returned by the Galerie Walu, Zürich, Switzerland, on May 4th, 2001. Another one of the heads (Head L) had also been obtained by this gallery following a theft at an unknown date, and this was also returned on May 4th, 2001. A further stolen head was brought to light by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2021 (Angeleti 2021; Bahr 2021). The museum obtained this from a private collector, with the aim of repatriating it to Nigeria. Based on the museum’s photographs of the object and Willett’s (2004) description,7 this piece is very clearly Head K, which Willett does not report as stolen in 2004. As well as these documented thefts, several undocumented examples (variously estimated to number 3, 11, or 14) are believed to have been exported from Nigeria in 1938 and possibly 1939, and are discussed in more detail below.

Previous Research on the Copper Alloy Heads of Ilé-Ifẹ̀

  • 8 Such as the wars between Ifẹ̀ and the adjacent town of Modákẹ́kẹ́ (founded by northern Yorùbá refug (...)

6The first documentary sources describing Ifẹ̀ copper and copper alloy heads, written in the early 20th century, derive from observations made within a local context of continual rediscovery of metal, stone, and terracotta artifacts. These objects were important focal points of religious activity throughout the centuries following their original manufacture, repeatedly reburied, re-excavated, and reused in sacred contexts (Willett 1967a). Rediscovered material culture—such as ground stone axes, terracotta figurative art, and glass beads—was regularly brought to shrine (ojúbọ) accumulations dedicated to various òrìṣà (deities), thus acquiring renewed significance to successive generations. Such sacred spaces are abundant in Ifẹ̀, which is at the heart of many of the traditional creation stories of the Yorùbá, and which served as a spiritual centre in the region. Some particularly prominent òrìṣà represented in the oral traditions and shrines of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ include Odùduwà, whose descendants were traditionally said to have founded the royal dynasties of the Yorùbá, Ọbàtálá who fashions human forms from clay, Ògún, deity of iron and war, Ọ̀ṣun, a deity of cool water, Èṣù, a gatekeeper deity who neutralizes malevolent magic, and Olókun who is associated with wealth, fertility, and the sea (Olupona 2011). These old objects would have been obtained from various past contexts including collapsed earthen shrine structures, burial sites, deep midden pits, and large buried caches created to protect important items during times of conflict.8 Far from being static or pristine spaces, many of Ifẹ̀’s sacred sites were therefore fluid and permeable places with evolving histories and material cultural repertoires (Ogundiran & Ogunfolakan 2017: 78–79). Local rediscoveries likely intensified in the early- to mid-20th century as the city underwent rapid urban expansion (Ogundiran & Ogunfolakan 2017: 78). It was this urban development that would ultimately contribute to the unearthing of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads in 1938.

Documentation of Ifẹ̀ Copper Alloy Objects Prior to the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Discoveries

  • 9 Read was one of the early critics of Frobenius’s theory of an Atlantean origin for the antiquities (...)
  • 10 Named for the important òrìṣà of wealth and the sea.
  • 11 At the city of Wagadugu (Ouagadougou), see Frobenius (1913: 92–96).
  • 12 A.J.H. Goodwin Archive, University of Cape Town Libraries: Special Collections, Cape Town (UCT), J2 (...)

7Following his expedition to Ifẹ̀ in 1910, the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius provided an early written account of one of the naturalistic copper alloy heads which he observed during his visit. This was a crowned head named for the òrìṣà Olókun (orí Olókun), shown in Figure 3, which as Read (1911: 335) would later point out, closely resembled a terracotta Ifẹ̀ head kept at the British Museum.9 Frobenius claimed to have originally heard about “an ancient ‘statue’ of the Olokun”10 at Ifẹ̀ from informants far to the north on the Niger bend in 1908.11 As such, soon after his arrival in Ifẹ̀, he eagerly visited the grove of that òrìṣà (igbó Olókun; Fig. 5) with the aim of documenting and acquiring some of this material to ship back to Germany. The grove sacred to Olókun had in earlier periods been an important locus of largescale glass-working in the city—a source of glass beads that were significant in far-reaching trade networks across the Sahel and Sahara (Babalola et al2018). By the 19th and early 20th centuries, the grove had become a source of valuable objects dug up by locals who undertook large-scale excavations, the scars of which were observed by various 20th century visitors including Frobenius in 1910, as well as Bernard Fagg and A. J. H. Goodwin in the 1950s.12 Thus, glass beads, as well as ceramic crucible fragments glazed with glass, continued to be “mined” in Ifẹ̀, and were coveted in, and circulated across, markets throughout the region. For instance, a piece of glass beadmaking crucible excavated from Ifẹ̀ was acquired at a market in Old Ọ̀yọ́ (Katunga) by John and Richard Lander in 1830 (Lander et al. 2004 [1830]), and excavations at relatively recent shrine contexts across Ifẹ̀ have revealed that fragments of such crucibles were incorporated into them (Willett 2004).

8Frobenius suggested that the Olókun head was discovered by locals within this context of excavation and re-discovery and named due to its unearthing in the grove associated with that deity. It is not clear whether the grove in earlier periods was sacred to Olókun, or whether it obtained this significance in later periods due to the discovery of a wealth of glass material that had come to be associated with the òrìṣà, especially with Olókun’s probable rise in prominence during the centuries of the Atlantic trade (Law 2011). In any case, at the time of Frobenius’s visit, the naturalistic Olókun head was being used as a sacred object for festivals by the grove’s priest. At this time, sculptured heads were being buried in the ground at the foot of great trees, and resurrected when they were needed for rituals (Eyo 1982: 11). This was certainly the case for a number of terracotta heads of similar style at the time, and given that Bascom (1939) was informed of another copper alloy head in use at a shrine during his visit in 1937–8, it is possible that other copper alloy heads were being used in similar ways during the 19th and 20th centuries. According to one of the Ọ̀ọ̀ni’s ilari (“messengers”) who accompanied Frobenius to the grove, the head was probably first found within the lifetime of the priest, and had subsequently been reburied and stored underground at the place of its discovery, brought out at festivals during which sacrifices were made to it (Frobenius 1913: 99–100). Frobenius pressured the elderly priest and his sons into selling him the head for the meagre sum of £6, a half-empty bottle of whiskey, and some other “trifles”, including a tumbler (Frobenius 1913: 99; Eyo 1982: 11).

  • 13 Papers of Professor Frank Willett, University of Glasgow Archive Services, Glasgow (UG), GB 248 ACC (...)

9It was not long until Frobenius’s activities attracted the attention of the suspicious British colonial authorities. Allegations were made that he’d used threats and violence to extort the head from the priest, and that he had misled the Ọ̀ọ̀ni in his efforts to secure the head for himself.13 This palaver resulted in the confiscation of the head and most of the rest of his collection by the authorities, represented by Charles Partridge, the Acting Resident in Ibadan (Eyo 1982: 11). The Olókun head is said to have remained in the possession of the Olókun priests until 1934 (Fagg & Underwood 1949) when it was moved to the palace as part of the new Ọ̀ọ̀ni Adesọji Aderẹmi’s drive to acquire and protect Ifẹ̀’s cultural patrimony (Aderẹmi 1937). Here it was kept secure and carefully protected by the Ọ̀ọ̀ni alongside the so-called Ọbalùfọ̀n copper mask of the same style. According to tradition, this mask was said to represent the past Ọ̀ọ̀ni Ọbalùfọ̀n II and believed to have been kept at the Omirin chamber in the palace since it was first manufactured (Willett 1967a: 19–20; 29–30). The Ọbalùfọ̀n mask closely resembles a terracotta piece found at an area about twenty metres from the Ọbalùfọ̀n shrine (Fig. 5), to the extent that the two pieces may depict the same individual (Eluyemi 1977: 41; Blier 1985: 384–385, 2012a: 76–80, 2017: 103, 380). Thus, although claimed to have always been kept in the palace, it is alternatively possible that the copper mask may also have been discovered in this area of the town and brought to the palace, given that it was not known to have been seen publicly until 1919 (Murray 1955: 17). It was observed and described by visitors to the palace thereafter, such as during the H. Rawson–Field Museum ethnological expedition to West Africa in 1929–30 (Hambly 1935: 465), and the first published image of it occurred in 1937 in an article by Ọ̀ọ̀ni Aderẹmi (Aderemi 1937). The Olókun and Ọbalùfọ̀n pieces were the only two metal heads of this type known until 1938 when the spectacular Wúnmọníjẹ̀ collection was uncovered.

10However, in the 1920s, photographs were published of another metal find, since argued to be in the same style as these Ifẹ̀ pieces. This was observed at a shrine in the Nupe village of Tada some 120 miles north of Ifẹ̀ where it was kept with other copper alloy figures of people and animals in contrasting styles (Fraser 1975: 30). This example is an unalloyed copper seated figure, over half a metre tall, traditionally said to have been brought by the Nupe founder hero Tsoede to this region during the 16th century (Fig. 4). At the time of its first documentation, it was being washed and cleaned in the Niger River during weekly religious practices pertaining to the fertility of the people, land, and river. Willett considered this seated figure to have been made “almost certainly in Ife.” (Willett 2004: M74).

Figure 4 An image of the copper seated figure from Tada (centre, front) as well as other copper alloy objects from the area. Reproduced from Peek (2020)

Figure 4 – An image of the copper seated figure from Tada (centre, front) as well as other copper alloy objects from the area. Reproduced from Peek (2020)

© Phillips Stevens, Jr., Tada, 1965

Figure 5 Author’s map of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ marking important sites mentioned in the text as well as the town’s walls (linear earthworks)

Figure 5 – Author’s map of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ marking important sites mentioned in the text as well as the town’s walls (linear earthworks)

The three main documented sites from where copper and copper alloy objects have been found are marked in red. After Willett (1967a) and Ozanne (1969)

Pioneering Archaeological Excavations at Ilé-Ifẹ̀ (1950–1980)

11The accelerating uncovering and rising international popularity of Ifẹ̀ artworks—significantly bolstered by the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound discoveries made in 1938—inspired a number of systematic excavations across the city throughout the colonial and post-colonial periods, aimed at better contextualising these chance finds. In 1953, Bernard Fagg, working as an archaeologist and assistant surveyor of antiquities for the colonial government, would lead a series of excavations in collaboration with South African archaeologist A. J. H. Goodwin from the University of Cape Town, and his brother William Fagg from the British Museum. Excavations were conducted at a number of shrines—notably Ọ̀sángangan Ọbamákin, Ògun Láàdìn (in the palace), two groves of Olókun (igbó Olókun and Olókun Walode), Elésìjẹ́, the Ọ̀rànmíyàn monolith, and the Ìwìnrìn grove—viewed at the time by these archaeologists as promising sources of in situ antiquities. The project sought to improve scholarly understanding of the nature and chronology of the early city, and it was hoped that evidence of copper alloy casting would be discovered. This latter material was not found, and direct archaeological evidence of the locations and specific practices of Ifẹ̀ copper alloy manufacture remains lacking to this day. The excavations nevertheless recovered a range of material, including a large amount of pottery and terracotta figurative art, most of which appeared to come from secondary deposits (Willett 2004: I. 2; Fagg B. 1953).

12Following further chance discoveries of copper alloy objects at the grove of Ìta Yemòó near the Ifẹ̀ town walls/linear earthworks (discussed in more detail below), Frank Willett would undertake three field seasons here between 1957 and 1963, and would also excavate other sites throughout the city. At Ìta Yemòó, he made several spectacular discoveries including potsherd pavements (courtyards of the early city), terracotta artwork, deep pits, and stratigraphic evidence from the bank and trench of the town earthworks (Willett 1959a, 1959b, 1959c, 1967a; Roth et al. 2021). Willett’s excavations were followed by those of Oliver Myers at Igbó Ọbamèri, a sacred grove near Ìta Yemòó, and at Oduduwa College, at the latter of which he uncovered potsherd pavements and a terracotta head (Myers 1967a, 1967b). Ekpo Eyo in 1969 excavated the sites of Odo Ogbe Street and Láfògido, the latter of which is located behind the palace, opposite Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound (Eyo 1970a, 1970b, 1974). This excavation was notable for its uncovering of a probable sacred area, consisting of terracotta sculpted animal heads upon globular pots sat on top of a potsherd pavement. As well as Láfògido, there have been several other documented sites of chance discoveries in the area around Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound, behind the palace. These include Kúbọlájẹ́, a purported burial site and place of royal coronation where terracotta figurative objects and other artefacts have been recovered (Willett 2004: II. 17), Aro Ajin Compound, where stone stool fragments were found during house construction in 1910 (Willett 2004: S95, S96), and the Epinbodò shrine where further stool fragments were collected by Willett in 1957 (Willett 2004: III. 11). Taken together, this evidence reveals the area behind the current palace to have been an important site of both probable in situ deposits and “secondary” accumulations of sacred material culture.

13Further spectacular finds of terracottas and potsherd pavements would be made by Peter Garlake during excavations undertaken between 1970 and 1973 at a site on the land of Chief Obalara, opposite the University of Ifẹ̀, and at the site of Wòyè Asirì during excavations in 1972–73 (Garlake 1974, 1977). A notable find was a concentration of human cranial fragments, found beside several terracotta figurines. He interpreted the site as having been two separate compounds from the early city, with excavated samples yielding radiocarbon dates ranging from the 12th to 15th centuries CE (Garlake 1974). None of these excavations, nor any since, located either in situ copper or copper alloy sculptures or evidence of casting. However, the discovery of stylistically identical terracotta artworks and associated contextual and chronological evidence has aided in interpretations of the copper and copper alloy heads and other objects found by chance earlier in the century. This research, as well as more recent excavations across Ifẹ̀ (e.g., Babalola 2015; Ogundiran & Ogunfolakan 2017; Chouin & Ogunfolakan 2023) have also improved our understanding of the town’s importance in West African history, especially from the 11th to 15th centuries when it developed as a centre of glass production, copper, copper alloy and iron metallurgy, urbanism, and sacred kingship (Ogundiran 2002: 41, 2020).

Explaining the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Heads: Previous Scholarship

14As mentioned above, between 1938 and 1940, long before these pioneering archaeological excavations in Ifẹ̀ would occur, 17 or 18 additional copper and copper alloy heads of a similar style to the Olókun and Ọbalùfọ̀n pieces would come to light in the city following construction work at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound (Fig. 5). Due to the lack of systematic archaeological work at this site, little evidence of their archaeological context remains, and even less of this has been published. In spite of this dearth of contextual evidence, these heads, as well as the Olókun and Ọbalùfọ̀n pieces described above, have received much attention from scholars, with a number of analyses conducted and interpretations put forward that have sought to explain their date, technology, history, and functionality.

15Thermoluminescence (TL) testing has yielded mean dates for fired clay core fragments deriving from within four of these head castings (as well as the associated half-figure) that range from between the 12th and 16th centuries CE (Willett & Fleming 1976; Willett 2004: I. 8). This is consistent with 13th to 15th century TL dates obtained for stylistically similar material culture including brass and terracotta art of the same naturalistic style found at Ìta Yemòó and other sites in Ifẹ̀ and beyond (Willett 1967a), as well as radiocarbon dates from in situ archaeological contexts that yielded terracotta art. Most of the heads (Fig. 2), like other copper alloy objects from the region, are composed largely of copper, with varying amounts of zinc, lead, tin, and other metals (Goucher et al. 1976). Others consist of almost pure copper—an incredible feat of lost-wax metallurgy given the metal’s higher melting point and fragility when compared with its main alloys (Willett & Sayre 2006; Blier 2012a: 80). Based on analyses of lead (Pb) isotope ratios, including from 15 copper alloy samples from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound, Willett and Sayre (2006: 67, 77) have argued that these metals resemble ores found in Western Europe, and believe that they were thus likely obtained via the trans-Saharan trade in the form of ingots, then smelted and moulded into artworks in or near Ifẹ̀. However, as noted by Killick, Stephens and Fenn (2020: 6) isotopic ratios of lost-wax castings from West Africa are notoriously difficult to interpret, and so this area of research remains preliminary. This is due to relatively few lead isotopic measurements being available for West African copper deposits, as well as the fact that the lead isotope ratios of copper ores from across Europe and the Mediterranean often overlap, making it difficult to identify provenance.

  • 14 BM AOA/Africa/Ife/1947–8 Loan, K. C. Murray to H. J. Braunholtz, 9 November 1948.

16Following analysis of the Olókun head at the British Museum (while the heads were on loan for an exhibition (Fig. 1, 6), Fagg and Underwood (1949: 6) concluded that, in contrast to the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ pieces, it was a modern reproduction made using recent sand-casting methods rather than traditional lost-wax techniques. This determination was based on a series of features on the head viewed as uncharacteristic of cire perdue casting, contrary to the features of the other heads, and differing from Frobenius’s descriptions of the “original” Olókun piece. These traits included a purported lack of corrosion, lack of sharp angles, significant granularity, and its heavy weight and thickness. Ọ̀ọ̀ni Aderẹmi did not accept this claim,14 and his scepticism at the time has received some vindication following more recent research by Craddock et al. (2013) which has revealed that the piece is very likely to be a genuine cire perdue casting manufactured in the region. This determination was based on several observations, including the amount of corrosion, soil and mould adhesion, its comparable weight to other examples, presence of clay mould material within its interstices, and presence of West African plant taxa within these traces of clay. The composition of the metal is also very similar to that of the other heads (based on Moss 1949). However, in contrast to some of their other evidence—and to dates obtained from the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ pieces—TL dates acquired for a sample of clay core from the head suggested that it had last been fired less than 200 years ago. They posit that this might be due to (re)heating of the head following a 19th or 20th century rediscovery, rather than necessarily suggesting manufacture within the last 200 years.

Figure 6Twelve Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound heads on display at an exhibition held at the British Museum in 1947–48

Figure 6 – Twelve Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound heads on display at an exhibition held at the British Museum in 1947–48

Also in the photograph: the Ọbalùfọ̀n mask (middle, above) and the half-figure from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound (middle, below)

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 7 – A terracotta piece described by Eluyemi (1977) which closely resembles the copper mask of Ọbalùfọ̀n (see Figure 1 and Figure 6)

Figure 7 – A terracotta piece described by Eluyemi (1977) which closely resembles the copper mask of Ọbalùfọ̀n (see Figure 1 and Figure 6)

© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. Reproduced from Willett (2004: T625C)

17In the absence of archaeological contextual data and written historical documentation contemporary with the heads’ production and use, most explanations of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads’ functions and significance have relied upon analysis of the materiality of the objects cross-referenced with particular oral traditions, specific ethnographic or ethnohistorical analogues, and more generalised concepts lifted from Yorùbá (and other West African) ethnography and language. An important stylistic observation made is that the different heads are unique in their appearance: in facial features and/or adornment. This has led to the broad conclusion that they are supposed to represent specific personages. There is, however, no academic consensus regarding who these individuals were, their socio-political role(s) and status within the city, whether they were living or dead at the time of manufacture, and how the heads related to the entities depicted, as well as the ways in which they were viewed, remembered, engaged with, and/or memorialised by the people of Ifẹ̀.

18Published examples of oral traditions pertaining specifically to the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads, and which are thought to pre-date, or are contemporaneous with, their discovery are lacking. This has led to the suggestion that they had been forgotten by the people of the city, and their location lost (Willett 1967a: 28). Nevertheless, connections have come to be drawn between them and more general pre-existing oral traditions, and apparently novel local narratives have been developed to explain them. Perhaps the most prominent example of this has been the association of particular heads with royal and/or deified figures present in the oral traditions of the town. The compound where the heads were discovered is located near the contemporary palace (Fig. 5) and has traditionally been identified as the site of the compound where the 19th century Ọ̀ọ̀ni Wúnmọníjẹ̀ lived (Ogunfolakan 2001). This, in turn, is close to the purported site of the compound of the Ọ̀ọ̀ni Láfògido, where Ekpo Eyo excavated in 1969 (Eyo 1970a), whom certain traditions identify as the father of Wúnmọníjẹ̀ (Ogunfolakan 2001: 84). The discovery of the heads in this traditionally significant location so close to the palace, as well as their rarity and the fact that two are crowned (Fig. 3), has led to their association with royalty and divine kingship. However, these assumptions have since been critiqued by some authors (e.g., Murray 1955; Abiodun 2014—discussed in further detail below).

19Nevertheless, certain oral traditions regarding Ifẹ̀ copper alloy casting more broadly have been used to support the idea of royal connection. For instance, one story told by elders, cited by Idowu (1962: 208), recounts the use of the naturalistic effigy of a deceased Ọ̀ọ̀ni by metalworkers to deceive people into paying him homage. In collusion with palace officials, they kept the effigy in a dark corner of the state room, and issued orders on behalf of the dead king. The deception was discovered, and the perpetrators executed, leading to the loss of knowledge of copper alloy casting in Ifẹ̀. Willett suspected however that the story was a recent means of explaining the disappearance of these arts from Ifẹ̀, suggesting that it may post-date the rediscovery of these arts rather than being a deeper-time tradition passed down over centuries (Willett 1967a: 150). Blier (1985, 2012a, 2017) and Lawal (2001) have also emphasised traditions of the Ọ̀ọ̀ni Ọbalùfọ̀n II which are linked more generally to copper alloy casting when considering the heads, and this particular Ọ̀ọ̀ni later became identified as the patron deity of this technology who may be responsible for the creation of the heads (Blier 1985: 401). Lawal (2001) cites specific Bini traditions to develop a potential interpretation of them which state that, due to Ifè’s traditional importance as a source of Benin’s kingship, the heads of deceased obas of Benin would be sent to Ifè for burial. In return, a brass head and other royal emblems would be received to confirm the successor on the throne. He speculates that the Ifè heads may thus have been created in such a way to preserve the heads and memories of famous kings. While potentially enlightening, these possible associations with Ọbalùfọ̀n II, or potential overlaps with purported Bini practices, do not derive from local oral narratives about the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads from the time of their discovery. They are recent attempts to explain the heads with reference to broader oral traditions in Ifè and elsewhere.

20In this general absence of published oral tradition detailing the early functions and significance of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads, several archaeologists and art historians have sought to find other means of explaining why they were made, how they were used, and what they meant to the people who manufactured them. William Bascom, who was present in Ifẹ̀ at the time of the chance discovery of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads, was the first to publish a detailed description of them (Bascom 1938, 1939). He interpreted the perforations along the foreheads and faces of some as holes for hair and beards, and revealed the heads to have likely been fully painted, him having documented traces of white, black, and red paint on one of the examples he’d collected. Similar traces of paint are also visible in anthropologist and colonial administrator Gwilym Iwan Jones’s early photographs of the other heads from 1938 (Willett 2004). Bascom suggested the possibility that the heads represented portraits of rulers, perhaps used as mnemonic devices—as records of past monarchs. Meanwhile, he speculated that the so-called Ọbalùfọ̀n mask may have been used for religious masquerades based on some of its features, such as its lack of neck and slits under the eyes.

  • 15 A legendary queen of Ifẹ̀, identified in certain oral traditions as Ọbalùfọ̀n II’s wife—see Blier ( (...)

21Bascom also recorded some of the more recent uses of the heads. The Olókun head observed by Frobenius was still being used for the annual rites of that òrìṣà at the time of Bascom’s visit in 1937–1938, being brought from the palace to igbó Olókun for these purposes. Furthermore, he observed sacrifices being made to three naturalistic terracotta heads at the “festival of Ija” and, most significantly of all, was informed of another copper alloy head that had been found by chance and incorporated into contemporary religious practice. This had apparently been found one day by young boys playing in the dirt, and was turned over to a priest of Mọ́remí following its identification with that deity,15 though Bascom never saw it. At the time of his writing, although local informants he spoke to believed that the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads also represented deities, they had not yet been identified with specific ones. He speculated that a number of other such copper alloy heads likely existed, secluded as objects of active worship. After learning of the covert export, by Bascom and others, of several heads from Nigeria, Ọ̀ọ̀ni Aderemi in 1939 obtained three additional heads and a copper alloy half-figure that he referred to as Láfògido. The broken figure was identified as such due to the close proximity of Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound to the site traditionally identified as Ọ̀ọ̀ni Láfògido’s compound and burial place (Willett 2004: I. 6; Fig. 5).

22Other publications from the 1930s to 1950s also focused on these heads, though much of this literature was largely descriptive, with discussion of functionality relatively lacking (Duckworth 1938b; Meyerowitz & Meyerowitz 1939; Braunholtz 1940; Murray 1941). Echoing Bascom, Meyerowitz and Meyerowitz (1939) argued that they were likely portrait heads, suggesting that they may have been made by artists working for an established court who created idealised representations of “aristocrats”. Like Bascom, they were sceptical of recent traditions identifying particular heads with specific deities, considering the Olókun head to more likely be a representation of a divine king, reinterpreted by later communities as a deity. Underwood (1949), concurring that these were likely portrait heads (reflecting the “individual ideal” of Ifẹ̀ portraiture), stated that the differences between the heads are slight enough to “have been produced by one hand”, thus suggesting them to be coeval (1949: 14). However, this suggestion has since been criticised in part by Blackmun (2004) who, based on a number of stylistic and technical criteria, concluded that multiple artists and workshops likely created the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads and other examples of art from early Ifẹ̀. Fagg and Underwood’s analyses at the British Museum found that small glass beads on strings were attached to the holes in some of the heads. At this time, these beaded strings, combined with the indented lines running down some of the faces, were interpreted as representing the beaded veil associated with the crowns (adé) of the Yorùbá obas (kings), used to cover, hide, and protect sacred monarchs from view (Fagg & Underwood 1949).

  • 16 UCT, J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part IV. The City, Ile-If (...)

23Kenneth Murray (1955: 8–11, 20) concurred with other authors that the heads were portraits, assuming them to have been made over a relatively short period given their similarity. In this regard, he speculated that they probably represented several Ọ̀ọ̀nis as well as other members of the Ifẹ̀ court, rather than exclusively sacred monarchs. However, unlike much of the earlier scholarship, Murray also speculated about the archaeological context of the heads, suggesting from their clustered position that they had likely been part of a shrine, and eventually buried under a fallen building. This phenomenon of structural collapses burying works of art was something that he believed had occurred at other sites in Ifẹ̀, such as the grove of Ọ̀sángángán Ọbámàkin (Willett 2004: II. 5). A limited amount of further evidence came to light from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound in subsequent years, though too little to confirm or contradict Murray’s argument about the nature of the site. Some finds were made in 1949 when a small, gagged copper alloy head likely from a staff similar to those later found at Ìta Yemòó, and a terracotta head with a similar band around the mouth were uncovered there (Fagg 1950: 69–70). Attempts by Bernard Fagg and A. J. H. Goodwin to find further metal finds using a mine detector at the site during their fieldwork in Ifẹ̀ in 1953 were unsuccessful, however.16

24Frank Willett, following his research into the chance discovery of copper alloy objects at Ìta Yemòó, made a more thorough attempt to explain the context, functions, and significance of the copper alloy heads of Ifẹ̀ than his predecessors. While no such heads were found at Ìta Yemòó, stylistically similar cire perdue copper alloy objects were uncovered, including a pair of figures: a crowned man and woman (as a single casting), an individual crowned figure similar to the half-figure from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ shown in Figure 6 (assumed to depict an Ọ̀ọ̀ni), staves depicting human heads at their apexes, a vessel, and two mace heads depicting back-to-back pairs of gagged heads (Willett 1959a: 135–137). These objects were reported to have been put in large pots and placed upon potsherd pavements (Willett 1959a: 137; 1959b). Echoing Kenneth Murray (1955: 17), Willett interpreted both this and Wúnmọníjẹ̀ as collapsed shrine structures in which many artworks were buried. These structural collapses, he suggested, perhaps followed hurried abandonment during times of conflict, leading to the forgetting and loss of these buried locations by the time the town was resettled (Willett 1959a: 137; Willett 1967b: 34).

25Prior to this purported collapse and abandonment, the presumed Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound shrine, he argued, had been a repository for rediscovered copper and copper alloy heads that had been buried across the town centuries previously, either intentionally dug from known locations or accidentally found. He suggested that they were brought together here perhaps during the 17th century, hundreds of years after their original manufacture and deposition (Willett 2004: I. 8). Willett highlighted that several of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads appeared to have been crushed and, in the general absence of contextual data, interpreted this as the result of the “collapse of the shrine which housed them” (Willett 1967a: 23). However, some of this damage, he argued, was made prior to their being moved to this site. Drawing from Ward Price (1933: 24), Willett cited oral traditions suggesting that this location was formerly part of the palace before it was reduced in size at a much later date, in order to exclude from it a group of people who had been preying on local townsfolk. According to Willett, this would have occurred no later than the first half of the 19th century. He speculates that Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound was later built at the spot of this supposed collapsed shrine, now outside the palace, during or after the time that Wúnmọníjẹ̀ was purportedly Ọ̀ọ̀ni around 1840.

  • 17 There remains disagreement in the literature regarding whether this represents a mouth veil or a be (...)

26Willett’s interpretations of the heads were also influenced by Ọ̀ọ̀ni Aderẹmi’s observations. Aderẹmi interpreted the regalia of the single figure from the Ìta Yemòó site as resembling that used for coronations. He also noted its similarity to the copper alloy half-figure that had been found at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ (the so-called Láfògido figure). Drawing from this, Willett interpreted the heads (along with the objects from Ìta Yemòó) as part of a larger “royal ancestor cult” in the early city, akin to that which would later occur in the Benin Kingdom. Initially, Willett disagreed with earlier interpretations of the heads as accurate portraits of individual kings, suggesting instead that they may have instead been more general symbols of royal ancestors (Willett 1959b: 192). Later, however, he would concur with earlier views that they were likely idealised portraits of real kings—“as he would wish to appear, or wish to be remembered” (Willett 1967a: 19). He suggested that the heads without crowns had likely had real ones attached to them using the small holes present along the tops of the heads, based on the observation of nails and thread in some of these holes, and the presence of crowns on numerous terracotta heads from Ifẹ̀. He concurred with W. Fagg (1950: 70) in interpreting the holes on the faces as more likely having been used for beadwork veils than for beards, as a means of hiding the mouth in public in accordance with documented traditions of Yorùbá and other West African institutions of sacred kingship (Fagg & Willett 1960). As later stated by Willett, beards are exceptionally rare in Ifẹ̀ art, and there are castings (such as the copper alloy figures) that clearly do not have facial hair (Willett 2004: I. 8). Willett later suggested that these beaded covers were a precursor to the longer beaded veils of the contemporary adé. He did not consider the lines running down some of the heads to be representations of longer veils as previously suggested, instead stating that they likely represented an old form of scarification, no longer used in Ifẹ̀ (Willett 2004: I. 8), something argued in more detail by Adepegba (1991), Blier (2017), and others. A crucial piece of evidence used to interpret the holes along the heads and mouths of these objects has been the terracotta head from Obalufon Street that closely resembles, in its facial features, the copper mask of Ọbalùfọ̀n, shown in Figure 7 (Eluyemi 1977: 41; Blier 1985: 384–385, 2012a: 76–80, 2017: 103, 380). This piece has both a crown and mouth veil or beard represented on it,17 implying that the metal examples may also have had such objects affixed to them.

  • 18 Unbeknownst to Willett at the time (and later brought to his attention, see Willett 2004: I. 8), Ju (...)

27To interpret the specific uses of the heads in their original context as part of a purported “royal ancestor cult”, Willett drew from recorded traditions of second-burial ceremonies in Ọ̀wọ̀ and Benin (Willett 1966; 1967b: 34) in which àkó effigies were made: representations of recently deceased rulers that were paraded through the streets, brought to various shrines, and finally buried (Fig. 8).18 Such rites were important in securing the status of the deceased in the next world and ensuring that these ancestors would continue to look favourably upon the living (Cordwell 1952, 1953; Willett 2004: I. 8). Babatunde Lawal (1985: 94) would later elaborate on this, suggesting that the naturalistic nature of such effigies, and the copper alloy Ifẹ̀ heads before them, references the orí òde (“external physical head”) and are idealised but individualised in order to recall persons in their last earthly appearance before proceeding to the land of the dead. Interpreting some of the damage visible on the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads as pre-dating the supposed structural collapse that buried them (based on heavy patination of the cuts), Willett hypothesised that they had been used as components of second-burial effigies and buried in different areas of the town. At certain points, the remains of these effigies were later uncovered and assembled at the shrine within the (purportedly) larger earlier palace. If we follow this view, it would suggest that other copper alloy heads, such as the so-called Ọbalùfọ̀n and Olókun heads, the purported Mọ́remí head mentioned by Bascom (Bascom 1939: 592), an Ifẹ̀-style head present in Ado Ekiti (found in the possession of a man who died there in 1964—see Willett 2004: M72), and perhaps other undocumented examples, had presumably remained buried and undiscovered until a later date, and so were not incorporated into the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ group; or were otherwise circulated to other places. Willett attributed the purported abandonment and “loss” of memory of locations such as Wúnmọníjẹ̀ and Ìta Yemòó to the 19th century conflicts associated with the Modákẹ̣́ settlers, as well as earlier periods of turbulence and upheaval in the Yorùbá region.

Figure 8 – A photograph of a second burial effigy (àkó) from Ọ̀wọ̀ taken by F. Willett in 1958

Figure 8 – A photograph of a second burial effigy (àkó) from Ọ̀wọ̀ taken by F. Willett in 1958

It represents Queen Olashubude, mother of the Olowo (king) of Ọ̀wọ̀ at the time.

© The Hunterian, and University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, Frank Willett collection, GB248 ACCN 3120/16

28Ekpo Eyo’s excavations at Láfògido (Eyo 1970a; 1970b; 1974; see above) shaped his interpretation of the head discovery at the nearby Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound site. Eyo interpreted the former—traditionally held to be the site where the Ọọ̀ni Láfògido lived and was buried – as a temple containing a number of royal symbols manifest in its associated arts. In accordance with previous scholarship, Eyo considered several examples of shrine art at Ifẹ̀ as later accidental discoveries either incorporated into existing shrines, or used as objects of new cults. Many of these were kept hidden underground and only brought out when required for rituals, as occurred with the Olókun head (Eyo 1970b: 73). In contrast to this, he considered Láfògido an in situ site from early Ifẹ̀, whereas he believed Wúnmọníjẹ̀ to be a secondary context, as had Willett. However, Eyo, diverging from Murray (1955) and Willett (1967a) who had argued that the site represented a collapsed abandoned shrine context, suggested instead that the copper alloy heads were intentionally buried at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ for security during a time of war (Eyo 1974: 100). Wúnmọníjẹ̀, according to this interpretation, was thus the site of a cache of objects hidden and protected underground—a planned burial rather than a hasty abandonment.

Reinterpreting the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Heads: Recent Scholarship

  • 19 The Ògbóni was an important organisation in Yorùbá history that performed key judicial and religiou (...)

29More recent scholarship has critiqued several prevailing assumptions regarding these heads. Notably, and echoing Murray (1955), there have been further critiques of the idea that the copper and copper alloy heads represent past monarchs and the institution of divine kingship. Rowland Abiodun has criticised the view that the diadems upon several of the heads and figures, as well as other adornments, necessarily mean that these were representations of royal personages (Abiodun 2014). He has advocated moving away from what he views as an ethnocentric preoccupation with sacred kingship, instead suggesting possible connections between some of these arts and other (non-royal) powerful Yorùbá institutions such as the divinatory priests of Ifá, male and female Ògbóni19 leaders, and other important chiefs, elders, and quarter heads that he believes played a significant role in the early city’s history. Abiodun is also critical of Aderẹmi (1937) and others’ identification of the copper mask head with Ọbalùfọ̀n, expressing scepticism that 20th century informants could give detailed descriptions relating to an individual said to have lived many centuries earlier. This is something which perhaps further casts doubt on the traditional claim that the mask had always been kept in the palace, from the time of its creation. Overall, Abiodun views the detail and naturalism of the heads as in stark contrast to recorded traditions of secrecy and concealment associated with Yorùbá royalty. Thus, while he concurs with Willett that the heads may have been used and buried at àkó-type ceremonies, he suggests that these ceremonies were more likely for non-royal persons of high rank, rather than for any previous Ọ̀ọ̀ni (Abiodun 2014: 226–228). Lawal (2001: 506–507) however highlights the traditional Adámúòrìsà (Èyò) obsequy among the Àwórì Yorùbá of Lagos as an example of a second-burial rite that is specific to royalty (during which the face of the effigy remains covered). He is open to the idea that copper alloy Ifè heads may have been used in such a manner, citing the aforementioned tradition of the royal effigy used as a deception by metalworkers as possible evidence that the creation of naturalistic royal effigies was a feature of Ifè’s past (Lawal 2001: 507), made by “a kind of lineage guild” of sculptors and artists (Idowu 1962: 208).

  • 20 Ìwà: “essential character of a person or thing”.

30Abiodun interprets the aesthetics of the heads by drawing from Yorùbá language, custom, and proverbs. He associates their features with concepts of ìfarabalẹ̀ (“composure” or “coolness”), ẹwà (the expression and appreciation of ìwà),20 and the importance of orí-òde and orí-inú: the “outer”, physical head, and “inner”, spiritual head (associated with destiny) respectively. For Abiodun, the heads are idealised representations of people, which depict the ideals of “coolness” and “composure” connected with good leadership, capture the “essential character” of their subjects, and pertain to ensuring the immortality of these figures. In response to some of Abiodun’s critiques, Willett (2004: I. 8) emphasised that the apparent rarity of these copper alloy heads, and the association of copper alloy objects with royalty more broadly in West Africa, supported his association of the heads with kingship, and suggested that the practices of secrecy associated with Yorùbá monarchs in more recent centuries may not have developed at the time of the Ifẹ̀ heads’ manufacture and use (Willett 2004).

31Suzanne Blier has also associated the heads, like other Ifẹ̀ works of art, with Yorùbá ideals of composure, inner calm, and tranquillity (Blier 2012a). However, Blier is sceptical of the notion that they were used in second-burial rituals, suggesting alternative potential uses. An important piece of evidence against the second-burial hypothesis derives from a ceramic find excavated by Peter Garlake at the site of Obalara’s Land (Garlake 1974). The ceramic (Fig. 9), apparently dating to a period contemporaneous with the naturalistic arts of Ifẹ̀, depicts an image of one such naturalistic terracotta, copper, or copper alloy head within a structure, probably a shrine, flanked by two conical stone heads of another, highly stylised type also known in Ifẹ̀ (Schildkrout 2010; Blier 2012a: 78; 2017: 280–281). This suggests that naturalistic heads were likely used for ritual purposes at shrine contexts in the earlier period of Ifẹ̀’s history and not merely in later times. The imagery also casts some doubt on the idea that such heads were used—or at least solely used—as part of effigies in second-burial ceremonies as there is no corresponding body depicted. Blier also noted how certain copper alloy heads in Benin City were set up outdoors and affixed to branched iron staffs, where they were used for ceremonial purposes, thus demonstrating how evidence of affixture on the heads need not mean that they were attached to constructed bodies (Blier 2017: 280–281).

Figure 9 Imagery on a pot excavated from the centre of a potsherd pavement at the site of Obalara’s Land by P. Garlake

Figure 9 – Imagery on a pot excavated from the centre of a potsherd pavement at the site of Obalara’s Land by P. Garlake

It depicts a naturalistic head flanked by two more stylised stone heads within a possible shrine structure.

© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. Reproduced from Willett (2004)

  • 21 Àṣẹ: the power or energy within all things that can be invigorated to stimulate those things to ful (...)

32Blier (1985) initially suggested that the heads found at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound may have represented (symbolically at least), the founders of the sixteen city-states that are traditionally said to have owed their allegiance to Ifè in the past. She speculated that they may have thus been used as sacred crown supports during legitimating ceremonies for the rulers of these other city-states upon the death of a king and the transfer of rule to another, within a temple of the important past Ọ̀ọ̀ni Ọbalùfọ̀n II. However, this interpretation is partly reliant on the idea that there were sixteen heads uncovered at the site, which does not appear to reflect the actual number of finds (Willett 2004; see also discussion below). Blier (2017) later further developed her ideas about the heads, suggesting that they were commissioned by Ọbalùfọ̀n II to depict a range of chiefly offices and titles. She argues that this would have been a means of honouring male and female chiefs from various families as part of a truce following a period of warfare alluded to in Ifẹ̀ oral traditions. These would have been cast to evoke and imbue the àṣẹ21 of a number of historic individuals and spirit personifications: iconic models of them as opposed to mere portraits (Blier 2017: 266).

  • 22 Religious symbols associated with sacred practices are observable on some of these items, such as s (...)

33Blier stated that the Ọbalùfọ̀n temple that she believed originally housed the heads might have been located somewhere around the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ complex where the aforementioned rituals of enthronement, and other regular ceremonies honouring ancient chief priests, may have occurred. Blier takes a more continuous view of Ifẹ̀ religious practice than many earlier authors, arguing that such traditions would have continued until the 18th or 19th century. It is at this time that she speculates that the temple(s) housing these objects may have been destroyed. Like Eyo, she suggests that the site where the copper alloy heads were discovered was a spot where they were moved to and buried for safekeeping (Blier 2017: 261). Given the nature of some of the other finds that have since come to light at the site—including the smaller copper alloy gagged head, the so-called Láfògido figure, a copper alloy bracelet, a large copper alloy figural ring, and several terracotta finds, she considers this to be the site of one “cohesive” grouping of religious objects (Blier 2017: 267).22 As Willett (2004) has argued, the main problem with this suggestion is that the area around where the heads were found is more associated with the royal figures of Láfògido and Wúnmọníjẹ̀ than with Ọbalùfọ̀n.

34Like Blier, Henry Drewal has also rejected the second-burial theory. He has done so on the basis of certain local beliefs which purport that kings—as deputies of the gods do not die and are not buried in graves, instead disappearing and descending into the earth where they become òrìṣà (Drewal et al. 1989; Drewal 1993, 2010). While Drewal cites traditions suggesting that none have seen the tomb of an oba (Drewal 2010), Lawal (2001) and Willett (Willett 2004: I. 8) have been critical of this, citing the existence of traditions of purported royal burial sites in Ifẹ̀ and elsewhere. Given the likelihood that crowns were fastened upon many of these heads, Drewal, like Blier (1985), has argued that they would have been used as crown supports during important rites of rulership. Drewal proposed that they were used to display the crowns of rulers as part of annual rites of purification and renewal for them, their people, their beaded regalia, and their spiritual heads (orí inú). Drewal uses ethnographic analogy to support this claim, notably the annual crown ritual in Okuku, a town northeast of Ifẹ̀. Here, crowns are concealed in a box until the time of the ritual, and on the fifth day all of the beaded royal regalia is displayed in an inner courtyard of the palace where it is blessed by the king’s mother (or her spirit) with subsequent sacrifices made to the royal ancestors as the king sits with them. Drewal likens the concealment of the crowns in a box at Okuku with the burial of the heads at Wúnmọníjẹ̀, which he interprets as a means of keeping these powerful ancestral royal objects hidden between annual rites. The main problem with this theory, as highlighted by Willett (2004: I. 8), is that the nails and threads in the attachment holes of some of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads indicate a more permanent fixing of crowns to them, as opposed to the temporary placement seen at Okuku centuries later.

35While concurring that the plethora of terracotta arts largely represent a range of prominent non-royal individuals in Ifẹ̀, Akinwumi Ogundiran (2020) contrasts with several of the aforementioned authors by arguing that the copper alloy heads specifically represent royal figures. He suggests that they may have been generalised portrayals of royal ancestors—mostly retrospective representations of deceased rulers commissioned by living kings of Ifẹ̀, given the probability that they were made within a short timescale. Ogundiran suggests that such objects would have become important components of the mortuary cults of these past rulers, focal points of royal ceremonies and rituals, and mnemonic devices used for recording time and presenting stories about the past.

36In spite of this wide range of interpretations of the functions, meanings, and context of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ copper alloy heads (see Table 1 and Table 2 for summaries), a few points of consensus emerge. Firstly, these scholars all agree that they likely related to positions of leadership and/or rulership in the early city—whether divine kings (Willett 1967a; Ogundiran 2020) and/or otherwise (Murray 1955; Abiodun 2014; Blier 2017), and whether specific individuals or more generalised political offices and titles. Secondly, all authors appear to agree that the heads had religious functions and associations, whether for second-burial ceremonies (Willett 1967a; Abiodun 2014), at shrines that had the heads affixed to them permanently (Blier 2012a, 2017; Ogundiran 2020), or displayed temporarily during annual rituals (Drewal 2010). Thirdly, most scholars suggest that the site does not represent the original place of the heads’ use from the early period of the city, proposing that they were moved to a shrine here from their original burial places (Willett 1967a) or brought here for safe burial from an earlier temple context (Eyo 1974; Blier 2017). There appears to be continued confusion however pertaining to exactly how many heads are in existence, and disagreement regarding the nature of this site—whether it is a hastily abandoned collapsed shrine (Murray 1955; Willett 1967a), an intentionally buried hidden cache for safekeeping during conflict (Eyo 1974; Blier 2017), a burial place to store and hide the heads between annual rituals (Drewal 2010), or something else entirely. Unpublished observations of the depositional context, oral traditions, and later circulation of these copper alloy heads can help contribute to these considerations, as will be discussed below.

Table 1 – A summary of hypotheses regarding the early uses of the heads

Hypotheses of Original Use

Authors

Components of second-burial effigies for royalty

Cordwell, Willett, Lawal

Components of second-burial effigies for non-royal elites

Abiodun

Focal points of temples; commemoration of chiefly offices and titles; used in rituals of enthronement and ceremonies honouring chief priests

Blier

Components of royal purification ceremonies, excavated for use then reburied afterwards

Drewal

Retrospective commemoration of past royals; components of mortuary cults of past royal rulers, used in royal ceremonies

Ogundiran

Table 2A summary of hypotheses regarding the context of the heads’ discovery at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound

Hypotheses of Context

Authors

Collapsed shrine structure

Murray, Willett

Hidden cache for protection during conflict

Eyo, Blier

Storage location between annual ceremonies

Drewal

Using Unpublished Archival Material to Understand the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Heads

37Unpublished material from several archives (see Note 5) can aid in better understanding unresolved questions pertaining to these heads, including the nature of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ site, how they were interpreted by local people in Ifẹ̀ at the time of their discovery, and how many are likely in existence. With regard to the site’s context and contemporary oral narratives of the heads, William Bascom’s archive at UC Berkeley is especially useful. Bascom was, at the time of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ discoveries in 1938, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, advised by the renowned Africanist anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Conducting ethnographic research in the city during this period, Bascom was in the right place at the right time when the heads were uncovered and was able to record some contextual and oral traditional information deriving from the time of their discovery, some—but not all—of which he would later publish. Several other archives also contribute to these considerations, as well as to better estimating the number of heads in existence, as is discussed below.

Archaeological Context

38Bascom published very little with regard to the depositional context of the heads. He was not a professional archaeologist and, as outlined above, the objects derived from a chance discovery during construction work rather than a scientific excavation. As such, little to nothing exists in the way of carefully recorded evidence pertaining to important aspects of archaeological context such as stratigraphy, the spatial configuration of the finds in situ, and what other artefacts may have been found in association with the heads. Nevertheless, in the absence of any systematic archaeological work having been undertaken at this site, Bascom’s published and unpublished material represents the most detailed information pertaining to the archaeological context of the heads in existence. Before considering in more detail the new information that this unpublished material has to offer, I will discuss first what can be said about the archaeological context of the finds based on the published work of Bascom and others.

39In his initial description of the discovery in a letter to the journal Man in 1938 (Bascom 1938: 176), Bascom gives the following information pertaining to the context of the first seven heads uncovered:

40“Five were found during the first week in January, and two more in the second week in February. They were uncovered by Hausa labourers building a new house in the compound of ile oni wunmonijè which is about an eighth of a mile East of the East wall of the Afin of the oni. The heads were found in two groups, of three and four, about 10 feet apart, and at a depth of no more than 2 feet. The first five were found in clearing away the topsoil to give a firm foundation for the walls, and the last two, one near each of the two groups, were uncovered in digging mud to build the walls.” (Bascom 1938: 176).

  • 23 It is probable that there were, in fact, five heads in this next batch of finds—discussed below.

41Bascom’s second account of the heads’ discovery in the Illustrated London News (Bascom 1939: 592) was written following the documented discovery of (at least) four further heads at the site.23 It was also written after his own covert purchase of two heads sometime in 1938. As such, Bascom states that there were thirteen heads at the time of his publication, which we now know is an underestimation. Bascom at the time was aware that there were more heads than this, though he likely left these others out as they were undocumented and controversial examples. In this piece, Bascom adds some additional information on the context of the heads. He writes that:

42“Thirteen new bronze heads of the type peculiar to Ife, Nigeria, were discovered during the early months of 1938… Eleven of these heads were uncovered at a depth no greater than two feet by labourers engaged in building a new house in a compound a short distance east of the palace of the Oni, the native ruler of the city.” (Bascom 1939: 592).

43Bascom, then, appears to lack contextual knowledge pertaining to two of the heads, but is confident of the context of the other eleven. His archive confirms that the two he excludes from this count of eleven are the two that he acquired himself from a local seller—discussed below. He also includes an additional image of a man standing at the site of the discovery (Fig. 10) coupled with the following caption which offers some further spatial information:

44“The site where the bronze heads were recently discovered at Ife: excavations made during the building of a new house in a compound near the palace of the native ruler. The site is here seen after the first five heads had been removed. Two had been taken from just below the man on the right, and three from the doorway opposite him. The rest were found in levelling off the floors of the rooms.” (Bascom 1939: 592).

Figure 10A photograph from W. Bascom’s 1939 Illustrated London News article of the foundations of the house being built at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound in 1938

Figure 10 – A photograph from W. Bascom’s 1939 Illustrated London News article of the foundations of the house being built at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound in 1938

© Illustrated London News Ltd./Mary Evans Picture Library

45Willett (2004: I. 6) offers an additional suggestion pertaining to the discovery of the latter heads that were found when levelling off the floors of the rooms:

46“It would seem most likely that all the heads found after the first five were found in this way, for the normal practice in building houses in Ife is to dig the foundations then to puddle the earth in the middle of each room to furnish the material with which to build the walls.” Willett (2004: I. 6).

  • 24 Duckworth, in his editorial for that edition of Nigeria Magazine (Duckworth 1938a), names Ọọ̀ni Ade (...)

47E. H. Duckworth, in his 1938 Nigeria Magazine article, gives only a very brief mention of the context of the finds (1938b: 102): “Early this year seven magnificent bronze heads were found during the digging of foundations for a house; shortly afterwards four more were found on another site”. The claim that the other heads were found at “another site” contradicts Bascom’s account which suggests they came from different rooms in the same house. It is possible that this was an error: Duckworth was in Lagos, not Ifẹ̀, at the time of the discovery, and so this account is his interpretation of second-hand information that he acquired from informants.24 He likely lacked the same level of information that Bascom obtained on the heads’ context. Bascom’s own observations (as a trained anthropologist), coupled with his correspondence with informants in Ifẹ̀ such as Rufus Awojodu for a brief period when he was away, afforded him a more detailed picture of the discovery.

48The above passages represent all of the published information that we have on the original context of the find from the time of discovery. From combining Bascom’s two published pieces on the heads, Duckworth’s article, and Willett’s later observations, the following details are apparent:

  1. The first five heads were found in groups of two and three while clearing away topsoil for walls on either side of a room being constructed at this site in the first week of January 1938.

  2. Two additional heads were found, one near the group of two and the other near the group of three, when digging mud to build the walls (likely from the puddled earth in the middle of each room) in the second week of February 1938.

  3. These groups of three and four heads were approximately ten feet apart.

  4. These seven, and four additional documented heads, were found at a depth of no more than two feet.

  5. All of the heads other than the initial five were found when “levelling off the floors of the rooms”. Bascom’s use of the plural here implies that they may not have been part of the first two groups, thus perhaps found further away in other rooms of the house. Based on Bascom’s description, Duckworth’s mention of these latter heads being found “on another site” may be a misinterpretation, due to them having likely come from another part, or other parts, of the house than the initial seven, but not a separate site.

  6. Bascom references two more heads—making a total of thirteen—but does not give any contextual information pertaining to them. Thus, it is not clear from his work whether they come from the same house excavations as the other eleven mentioned.

49Published details of the scale, configuration, and orientation of the entire site, and the precise locations of the heads found there, are lacking. Consideration of Bascom’s unpublished material offers a clearer picture of the site, the locations and potential locations of the heads within it, and explanation of why contextual information is completely absent for two of the heads in the piece. Some of this information can be gleaned from sketches of the site made by Bascom in his handwritten and typed notes from his fieldwork in 1938. Two sketches were made shortly after he heard of the finds, and he then drew better, more careful sketches subsequently (Fig. 11 and Fig. 12, for a redrawn version), see below:

50As can be seen in Figure 11, the sketches give us the heads’ location within the larger context of the house foundations, details of the cardinal orientation of the house and the arrangement of rooms, and a basis for estimating the scale of the site—all aspects missing from Bascom’s published work. From these sketches and notes, we can therefore add the following, novel, contextual information to that outlined above from the published material:

  1. Of the initial five heads found in January, the two acquired “from just below the man on the right” were eastwards and slightly to the south of the group of three.

  2. The group of three was found just north of the doorway opposite.

    • 25 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31:20, Typed field notes, p. 978. This was according to Rufus Awojodu (acting (...)

    As can be read on the notes shown in Figure 11, at least some of these initial five heads are stated to have been found with “a pot having been over them”.25

  3. The next two, found in February, appear to have come from further within the room rather than from the wall foundation trenches, and respectively slightly to the east and west of their respective “groups”.

  4. No contextual information is present about the other four heads that Bascom reports as having derived from the site. This was because these finds were made while Bascom was out of town, and may have comprised five rather than four heads (giving a total of 12 heads) based on other information considered below.

    • 26 This very approximate figure is based on his estimate of a 10-foot distance between the initial two (...)

    However, given that this additional group of four or five heads came from “levelling off the floors of the rooms”, and based on Bascom’s drawing of the foundations for the whole house as well as his distance estimates, we can conclude that they all came from within a close area of approximately 700–900 square feet (see approximate scale Fig. 12).26

Figure 11 Sketches by Bascom of the plan of the house at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound where the heads were found

Figure 11 – Sketches by Bascom of the plan of the house at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound where the heads were found

The first two sketches (on the left) were made on January 15th and February 15th, 1938 respectively, and reveal the locations of the first five heads—as well as the next two—that were uncovered. The other more carefully drawn sketches (right) were made later by Bascom. The heads and their locations within the site are represented by the Xs and circled numbers. See also Figure 12 for the author’s own plan of the site.

  • 27 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 31, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, January’ [Sketch of the initial five].
  • 28 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 32, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, February’ [Sketch of the subsequent two].
  • 29 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 18, Typed field notes, p. 891 [Better sketch of the subsequent two].
  • 30 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 20, Typed field notes, p. 978 [Better sketch of the initial five].

Image credit: Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.27 282930

Figure 12 A redrawn plan by the author of the house foundations at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound where the heads were found, based on the compiled evidence from Bascom’s sketches, notes, and photograph pertaining to the site

Figure 12 – A redrawn plan by the author of the house foundations at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound where the heads were found, based on the compiled evidence from Bascom’s sketches, notes, and photograph pertaining to the site
  • 31 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 31, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, January’ [Sketch of the initial five].
  • 32 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 32, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, February’ [Sketch of the subsequent two].
  • 33 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 18, Typed field notes, p. 891 [Better sketch of the subsequent two].
  • 34 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 20, Typed field notes, p. 978 [Better sketch of the initial five].

The approximate locations of the first seven heads to be found are marked—the first five in January 1938 dug from the wall foundation trenches in black, and the two found in February within the room in grey. Note that the specific arrangement of the heads (in lines) is conjectural: even though he documented the locations of each group, Bascom doesn’t describe the positioning of each individual example of the first five heads. The scale used here is approximate, based on Bascom’s estimate of the distance between the two initial groups of heads uncovered.31 323334

  • 35 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 5:60, W. R. Bascom to A. Lynch (draft; no date), final version composed 7 Mar (...)
  • 36 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 5:60, W. R. Bascom to A. Lynch, 7 March 1947.
  • 37 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; ‘A Description of Articles (...)
  • 38 An alternative view to this—that Aderẹmi was in fact aware of Bascom’s exports at the time—exists, (...)

51As well as these 11–12 heads, Bascom obtained and exported an additional two which he purchased from a local who, according to his later testimonies, had been excavating heads from the site.35 This local man had apparently also offered him a third head which he did not purchase—the one that H. M. Bate acquired, exported, and sold, with it eventually ending up in the British Museum (Head Q, Fig. 3, 13).36 Nigeria’s Surveyor of Antiquities, Kenneth Murray, in correspondence with the British Colonial Office, suggested that the man selling additional heads was the person who had been building the house, having secretly held finds back from the Ọ̀ọ̀ni.37 These covert excavations and sales were apparently done without Ọ̀ọ̀ni Aderẹmi’s, knowledge (Tignor 1990: 433)38 which encouraged him to make inquiries to recover any others in circulation (Willett 2004: I. 6).

52In doing so, Aderẹmi successfully acquired the final three documented heads as well as the so-called Láfògido figure. These had apparently also come from the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ site according to Murray’s later interview of the landowner (see Willett 2004), though their locations within it, like those of the heads acquired by Bascom and Bate, remain unclear. This would mean that a total of 17–18 heads were found at the site during this time—the initial seven as well as an additional four or five moved immediately from the house to the palace, and then a number that were circulated behind the Ọ̀ọ̀ni’s back (the two heads purchased by Bascom, the head purchased by Bate, and the three heads later acquired by Aderẹmi). Bascom mentions only 13 heads in his 1939 article as his count may exclude one of the initial heads obtained by the Ọ̀ọ̀ni (this “missing” head is discussed below), does not include Head Q (exported by Bate), and does not include the three heads later obtained by Aderẹmi, which were not yet accounted for at the time of writing. He also does not include the number of additional heads claimed to have been exported by Germans in 1938, as he was probably unaware of these rumours at the time.

Local Narratives and Explanations of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Heads

  • 39 BL MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, ‘A Survey by E. H. Duckworth of the Development of Science (...)
  • 40 TNA, CO 147/95, 17826, Despatch from G. Carter to the Marquess of Ripon, August 30 1894.

53As well as this basic contextual information, Bascom also recorded local narratives pertaining to the heads that he heard during his stay in Ifẹ̀. As noted above, Bascom’s visit followed decades of considerable political upheaval and social turbulence that had impacted local practices pertaining to, and understandings of, the town’s material cultural heritage. The late 19th and early 20th century history of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ is one that witnessed frequent destruction, looting, and removal of the city’s antiquities—first by some of the town’s adversaries from Modákẹ̣́ and Ibadan, and then increasingly by British colonial agents and various Western visitors from the 1890s onwards (Willett 1970: 305–306; Blier 2017: 24–29).39 This was a time when the people of Ifẹ̀ were regularly having to abandon, hide, re-adapt, and reconnect with their ancient material heritage—a process that may have had deeper roots in the city’s past, but which intensified with the onset of the British colonial era. Gilbert Carter, Governor of Lagos, visited the town in 1894 and wrote of its ruined state at the time, following wars with the Modákẹ̣́.40 At this time, many of its antiquities had been destroyed, hidden away, or removed by looters during these conflicts. Furthermore, rapid urban development in the 20th century, combined with largescale conversion to Christianity and Islam, led to increasing encroachment into areas that were losing their earlier significance to some locals (such as sacred groves), that stimulated the unearthing of antiquities previously left buried in these places.

54Considering this historical milieu, while certain oral narratives from the period of Bascom’s fieldwork may have had deep roots in the past, others were more novel as people uncovered and reinterpreted long-lost objects in the earth. Some of these had remained buried for centuries, while others appear to have witnessed episodic burials, excavations, and reburials. The discovery, rediscovery, and re-deposition of ancient finds thus appears to have developed into a common practice in the city with old objects being continually reinterpreted and recontextualised in novel shrine aggregations by local people. Reburial of ancient material culture may have at times been a means of protecting it from raiders and looters. It was also potentially a way of containing and concealing the sacred power of particular spiritually charged objects, which were often only dug up for specific festivals, rituals, or celebrations. Such philosophies and activities revolving around concealment of the sacred have been important across Yorùbá societies (Abiodun 2014: 217–219), and underpin such practices as the concealment of ọbas, storage of various shrine and palace regalia—which would only leave palace complexes at specific festivals—and the use of inverted bowls at shrines to keep certain potent objects hidden from the public gaze (Blier 2012b).

  • 41 The Melville J. Herskovits Papers, Northwestern University, Evanston (NU), Series 35/6, Box 3, Fold (...)

55During his visit to Ilé-Ifẹ̀ in 1937–1938, Bascom immersed himself in the daily life of the city, mingling with local people and colonial officials alike. Having persuaded the Ọ̀ọ̀ni Adesọji Aderẹmi and his chiefs of the importance of his work in promoting Ifẹ̀’s reputation to a global audience soon after his arrival, the Ọ̀ọ̀ni recommended to Bascom a skilled interpreter—a local Christian man named Rufus Awojodu. Awojodu was vital in gaining Bascom access to important ceremonies, regalia, and significant anthropological knowledge,41 and would act as an important informant for later researchers such as Bernard Fagg, A. J. H. Goodwin, and Frank Willett. Awojodu lived very close to Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound, his father having built his house at the adjacent Aro Ajin Compound in 1910, where art objects were also found (Willett 2004: S95; Fig. 5). It was Awojodu who, following some of the early Wúnmọníjẹ̀ head discoveries in January and February 1938, informed Bascom of the purported local folklore pertaining to them, which is recorded in his research notes. This was written by Bascom on January 18th, 1938, just three days after he had learned of the discovery on the 15th:

  • 42 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 31:18, Typed field notes ‘Yoruba Technology and Religion’, p.679.

56“Rufus now (several days late) remembers the story of these heads. He says he heard it from an old man who used to live in the compound where they were found. At that time, they had a beautiful head of a woman. The man told the story of this woman, saying that she used to have five children, and all six of that family were very handsome, and that every morning people used to come to their gate to look at them. But once while she was away, all 5 of her children were executed. She came home and found them so, and buried them on the spot, and then died herself as the result of a curse. He said at the time that the five children were under the ground there but no one would believe them. The family kept the head of the woman, but now no one knows who has it.” 42

57The detail of there being exactly five children is very convenient, and is probably a novel part of this story, altered and/or misremembered to conform to the five copper alloy heads that had been found at that point given that more were soon to emerge from the same spot. Thus, this may well be a case of Awojodu telling Bascom what he wanted to hear. However, despite this, and the fact that Bascom appears to have been sceptical of the story given the delayed telling of it, this does not necessarily mean that the entire tale was an invention by Awojodu. The core elements of it may still reflect an earlier tradition, and perhaps the memory of another head previously found here or elsewhere that had since gone missing. If this is the case, then it might suggest that metal heads had previously been unearthed around here by local people, and some memories of their location remained. The head of the mother that the story refers to may have been lost in the past, or it may have been reburied and its location forgotten. Alternatively, it may have been reburied at the site and rediscovered in 1938 given that some of the heads are believed to depict women. Bascom’s scepticism and the overly convenient details of the story mean that it should be taken with a large grain of salt, but even if it is a modern invention, the story suggests some of the interesting frameworks by which novel discoveries might be interpreted and explained (in this case to a foreign anthropologist) through contemporary storytelling.

  • 43 UCT J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part V Osangangan Obamakin (...)

58Awojodu’s mention of an overturned pot covering some of the heads is another interesting piece of information. As detailed above, this was a common convention relating to the containment and concealment of particular sacred objects in Ifẹ̀. It is both manifest in modern religious practice, and observable at shrine aggregations from various earlier periods, suggesting deep historical continuity. For example, in 1953 during excavations at the shrine of Ọ̀sángángán Ọbámàkin, A. J. H. Goodwin and Bernard Fagg observed the terracotta sculpture of an ape that was covered in such a way, within an aggregation of pots and other material culture sacred to the òrìṣà Èṣù.43 Willett also documented that some of the Ìta Yemòó copper alloy objects, uncovered by labourers in 1957, were apparently kept in pots. One narrative of the latter discovery suggested that only the complete copper alloy figure of an “Oni”, as well as two copper alloy mace heads, were found in a pot, which was covered by another inverted pot (Willett 1959c), while another suggested that the other copper alloy objects uncovered were also found in another pot (Willett 1959b: 189). Willett wrote that the fragment of these pots which was kept was “highly decorated as is usual on ritual pottery, and could be either the narrow neck of a water pot or the handle of a lid” (Willett 1959c: 29). Willett likened the keeping of these objects in pots to practices of storing shrine objects in vessels in modern Ifẹ̀ (Willett 1959c: 32). Assuming then that Awojodu’s claim—that some of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads were inside an overturned pot—is accurate, this piece of evidence may support Murray and Willett’s argument that the site thus represents a collapsed shrine context where such storage vessels were often present. However, it is nevertheless also possible that they might have been buried in pots as a form of storage or protection if the theories of intentional burial of Eyo, Blier, and Drewal are correct. Many details pertaining to this are unfortunately missing, such as which of the initial five heads were covered by the pot, and there’s no record of Bascom having ever seen the ceramic himself. It is not clear why Bascom did not include this important detail in his publications on the heads, which may suggest that he became sceptical of the accuracy of this observation—as he appears to have been of Awojodu’s story of the woman and her five children.

59An unpublished draft version of Bascom’s 1939 Illustrated London News article contains interesting passages that were redacted from the final version. These reveal an additional local narrative pertaining to the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads—the claim that they were likely buried to conceal and protect them during wars with Ibadan and Modákẹ̣́:

  • 44 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 6:58, Edited drafts of Bascom’s 1939 Illustrated London News article.

60“Some of the natives suggest that when their forefathers evacuated Ife before the invading people of Ibadan, they buried these heads, which they had been worshipping, so that they might not fall into the hands of the enemy.”44

61This suggestion runs counter to the idea that the site was an abandoned (accidental) collapsed shrine context, with some local people evidently considering it to be an intentional deposition, made to protect items taken from shrines elsewhere. In line with this theory, if Awojodu’s claim of an inverted pot is correct, then the ceramic might have been used to protect, contain, and conceal the buried material culture within this new “cache” as opposed to being an in situ feature of a shrine. This narrative of course appears to be a novel explanation of rediscovered artefacts rather than a lasting memory of these specific objects. Nevertheless, it is a rare and useful insight into how some local people interpreted the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ finds at the time of their discovery according to their experiences and memories of broader practices pertaining to the protection of valuable objects in Ifẹ̀ during times of conflict. Bascom in his published version of the Illustrated London News article also describes another brass head being discovered by local people, which was identified with the deity Mọ́remí and turned over to her priest. Based on this, and Frobenius’s observations of the uses of the Olókun head, Bascom speculated that there might have been other heads of this type kept at secluded shrines elsewhere in the town. These occurrences, coupled with the above oral narratives, suggest that discoveries of metal (and terracotta heads), their re-use as religious icons that were the focus of worship, and in some cases their reburial, was likely common in Ifẹ̀, especially at a time when they may have been regularly threatened.

Counting Heads: Documenting and Accounting for the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Finds

62Frank Willett’s (2004) CD-ROM The Art of Ife represents the most comprehensive published record of the copper and copper alloy heads that we have, with entries describing aspects of the materiality, context of discovery, publication history, and whereabouts (as of 2004) of each one. However, in the work of Willett and other scholars of Ifẹ̀ art, certain details are absent or remain ambiguous pertaining to the nature and number of such heads known or presumed to be in existence. In Willett’s CD-ROM, as well as the “Ọbalùfọ̀n mask” and “Olókun head” known before the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ discoveries, Willett lists 11 heads as originally deriving from the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ site. This figure is in line with the publications of Duckworth (Duckworth 1938b: 102) who listed 11 heads; Bascom (1939: 592) who listed 13 heads (adding the two he covertly purchased to the figure of 11 initial finds); and the notes and photographs of G. I. Jones from 1938—who documented 11 heads—which Willett had access to (Willett 2004). Then, a later 6 heads would be added to this figure – the two exported by Bascom, one exported by Bate (Fig. 3, 13), and three more recovered later by Aderẹmi. Underwood’s (1949: 27–28) system of numbering the heads thus includes 15 heads, which encompasses the 11 initial discoveries, the Bate export, and the three obtained later by Aderẹmi, but not the two exported by Bascom—see Figures 2 and 3 for how the numbering used by Willett and Underwood equate to the author’s alphabetical system used in this article.

Figure 13 – The Wúnmọníjẹ̀ head exported by H. M. Bate, probably in 1939

Figure 13 – The Wúnmọníjẹ̀ head exported by H. M. Bate, probably in 1939

The head (listed here as Head Q) is now in the British Museum, and is the only example that remains in a museum collection outside of Nigeria.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

  • 45 K. C. Murray, ‘List of places in Ife known or believed to contain antiquities’, compiled November 1 (...)

63However, contrasting with the number of heads listed by Duckworth, Bascom, Jones, and Underwood, Willett also cites an unpublished list compiled by Kenneth Murray who recorded 7 initial discoveries at the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ site, and then 5 additional heads taken to the Ọ̀ọ̀ni,45 uncovered after levelling off the rooms at the house. Murray acquired this figure of 12 heads from an interview with the man who was building the house where the discoveries were made (Willett 2004: I. 6). If correct, this would increase the total (including the other six listed above) to 18. Tignor (1990: 432) also references this number based on claims by Michael Kan and Ekpo Eyo who, like Murray, believed there to be a total of 18 documented heads—12 from the initial house finds, followed by the 6 later finds (Eyo 1982: 11)—see Table 3 for a summary. This raises further questions: why does such a discrepancy exist, and which number is correct?

Table 3 A summary of different numbers of the initial Wúnmọníjẹ̀ head finds according to different authors

Source

Initial Finds

Total

Duckworth (1938b)

11

17

Jones (1938 photographs)

11

17

Bascom (1938, 1939)

11

17

Underwood (1949)

11

17

Bascom (unpublished)

12

18

Murray (unpublished)

12

18

Eyo (1982)

12

18

Willett (2004)

11

17

Disagreement exists on if 11 or 12 heads were initially found, which is why sources conflict regarding whether 17 or 18 total known examples exist. Note that not all documented examples had come to light prior to the 1940s, so the totals recorded here include later documented examples not known at the time of the earliest publications in 1938 and 1939.

Explaining Discrepancies in Numbering

64Willett was conscious of this discrepancy and assumed that this higher number of 12 initial heads provided by Murray and others was an error, given the figure of 11 provided by Duckworth, Jones, and Bascom who documented them closer to the period of the discoveries. However, a letter sent by Bascom to his advisor Herskovits in April 1938 offers useful details on the round of finds that were obtained following the first seven heads which suggests that Murray’s count of 12 may be correct. Bascom, although not present in Ifẹ̀ at the time (he was undertaking fieldwork in Iganna that spring), was informed by Rufus Awojodu that the Ọ̀ọ̀ni was intentionally hiding a twelfth head found at the house:

  • 46 NU, Series 35/6, Box 3, Folder 19, W. R. Bascom to M. Herskovits, 19 April 1938.

65“FIVE MORE heads [after the initial seven] were discovered in the same spot [at Wúnmọníjẹ̀] while I was gone in Iganna. I haven’t even seen these, but they are all supposed to be of the same type except one, which was deformed in the making. The Oni tries to keep this one in the background and says there are only 11 now, but to me, this one is the most interesting. I’m anxious to see it.”46

  • 47 UCT, J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part IV The City, Ile-Ife (...)

66This claim is supported by circumstantial evidence from a diary entry written by archaeologist A. J. H. Goodwin during excavations in Ifẹ̀ in 1953. Goodwin, who used a mine detector to attempt (unsuccessfully) to locate further heads at Wúnmọníjẹ̀, gives a figure of “20 heads”47 found at the site. He comments on a visit made by his collaborators Bernard Fagg and William Fagg to the ààfin where they were to be shown antiquities by Ọ̀ọ̀ni Aderẹmi:

  • 48 UCT, J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part VIII, Architecture, (...)

67“They [Bernard and William Fagg] were shown one or two things by the Oni in his storeroom in the compound, but suspect him of holding back one or two brass heads, which he has a perfect right to do in his official position as custodian of all holy things in Ife.”48

68If the Fagg brothers’ suspicions were correct, it may be that these were undocumented heads, or merely previously documented ones that he did not want these British researchers to see. In any case, their suspicions suggest that the Ọ̀ọ̀ni may have been renowned among the British for withholding details of many of the antiquities kept in the palace from them, and increases the likelihood that Awojodu’s suggestion of a hidden Wúnmọníjẹ̀ head was accurate.

69Following the discoveries of the initial 11–12 heads (Heads A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, L, M, and N [Fig. 2]; the purported twelfth is undocumented), Willett then notes a “second group” of six heads (plus the so-called Láfògido half-figure) which came to light following the revelation of the first group—apparently found a week later according to Murray’s conversations with the house owner (Willett 2004: I. 6). These heads are said to have come from the area of the site but were not immediately brought to the palace, and their circulation occurred behind the Ọ̀ọ̀ni’s back. Of these, Head O and Head P are those that were acquired by Bascom and exported to the US before later being repatriated (Fig. 2, 3), while Head Q is the one exported by Bate, currently in the British Museum (Fig. 3, 13). Willett further identified two of the heads later acquired by the Ọ̀ọ̀ni: Head I and Head K. Willett also details Head E which was not one of the ones photographed by G. I. Jones, thus apparently part of this second group of finds—the third of the heads obtained by the Ọ̀ọ̀ni.

  • 49 TNA, CO 554/121/8, Original Correspondence regarding the Preservation of Products of Tropical Afric (...)
  • 50 BL MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, ‘A Survey by E. H. Duckworth of the Development of Science (...)
  • 51 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; ‘A Description of Articles (...)
  • 52 Bascom does not give the man’s name.
  • 53 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 3:7, W. R. Bascom to A. Hunt-Cooke, 1 June 1939.
  • 54 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 5:60, W. R. Bascom to A. Lynch, 7 March 1947.

70Materials from the archives of William Bascom, E. H. Duckworth, and the British Colonial Office offer some insights into how these latter six heads were acquired. Duckworth, in a letter sent to Sir William Rothenstein, art advisor to the British Secretary of State to the Colonies,49 and in a report written to his superiors in the British colonial government in Lagos, wrote that a “dishonest servant of the Oni”50 had been excavating Ifẹ̀ heads to sell, behind the Ọ̀ọ̀ni’s back. He suggests that he sold two heads to Bascom, one to Bate, and potentially more to German buyers (see below). Murray, in a report sent to the British Colonial Office in 1945, suggests that it was the man whose new house was being developed at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ that “kept back and sold” some of the heads that were found there.51 These claims are supported by items of correspondence from Bascom’s archives which reveal that he purchased two heads from a local Yorùbá man52 shortly before he departed Nigeria in July 1938,53 who had also offered him another head that had eventually been sold to Bate following Bascom’s departure.54 This explains why Bascom, both in his published and unpublished writings, only has contextual information for 11 of the initial heads documented from the site of the house foundations—the excavation of the others had apparently occurred covertly, their specific contexts unrecorded.

  • 55 According to Murray—see above.
  • 56 The third being the Olókun head first described by Frobenius.

71Thus, we can say with some confidence that there were at least 17 or 18 heads discovered at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound – the five found in January 1938, the two finds in mid-February, the four or five finds made soon after that while Bascom was in Iganna (in spring), the three heads covertly sold to Bascom and Bate, and the final three retrieved by Aderẹmi. Archaeological contextual information for these latter six that were covertly circulated is even more lacking than for the other 11 or 12. However, given that the man selling them was probably the same person whose house was under construction,55 it seems likely they were excavated from somewhere in or around the approximately 700–900 square foot house site of the initial discoveries given their purported discovery so soon after these finds, and the testimony of the house owner to Murray. It is notable that two of the three crowned examples of Ifẹ̀ heads56—one of the ones purchased by Bascom, and the one sold by Bate now in the British Museum—are part of this second group, whereas the initial 11 were all crownless. Perhaps this division corresponds to a difference in the positioning of these atypical examples at the site with the crowned heads found later in a separate area from the uncrowned examples, or perhaps the seller chose to keep these ones hidden from the Ọ̀ọ̀ni, given that the crowns might afford them a higher value on the market.

  • 57 This excludes metal staff and mace heads that depict smaller human heads in a different style, as w (...)

72On top of these 17 or 18 Wúnmọníjẹ̀ copper alloy heads, Willett documents several more in this style. There are of course the Olókun head (Willett’s M4) and Ọbalùfọ̀n mask (Willett’s M1), and also a fragment from another such head (Willett’s M72). This latter piece was purchased by the Ifẹ̀ Museum from a man from Ado-Ekiti (Mr Abdurahman Adenigba) who brought it there in 1963 having noticed its similarity to the other heads that had been on exhibition. Willett reported that it had belonged to the man’s father, was kept wrapped in a bag with other “medicinal” artifacts, and was believed to be for the òrìṣà [A]Dodo who appeared to be particularly associated with Adenigba’s lineage (Willett 2004: M72). Adenigba did not know how the fragment came into his father’s possession, but Willett considered whether this may be one of the heads from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ “alleged to be unaccounted for” due to the fact that earthy encrustation on the piece suggested that it had been buried until fairly recently. However, if the stories of heads being found elsewhere in Ifẹ̀ are correct (as has been suggested for the Olókun head and undocumented Mọ́remí head), then this piece may also have come from another spot in Ifẹ̀ (or elsewhere) and not specifically Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound. Willett also suggests the possibility that the piece was found at Ekiti or Ọ̀wọ̀, revealing far-reaching artistic influences or exchanges in the past. Willett furthermore documented a smaller example in a similar style to the other heads, now in a private collection following purchase from a trader in Lomé in 1972. Though smaller in size, the similar naturalistic style, similar features and adornment, traces of black and red paint, composition of the alloy, and holes in the neck suggest that it “clearly originated in Ife” (Willett 2004: M75). The Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads (17 or 18 total), Ọbalùfọ̀n mask, Olókun head, Ado-Ekiti fragment, and Lomé piece represent all of the known copper alloy heads in this style, yielding a total tally of 22 assuming that Bascom, Murray, and Eyo were correct in stating that 12 (and not 11) were initially found at Wúnmọníjẹ̀.57 It has been alleged, however, that a number of other such heads existed that were covertly exported by Germans operating in southern Nigeria in the 1930s, as shall be discussed below.

Estimating the Number of Undocumented Copper Alloy Heads in Existence

  • 58 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; K. C. Murray to C. Y. Carst (...)
  • 59 TNA, CO 554/121/8, Original Correspondence regarding the Preservation of Products of Tropical Afric (...)
  • 60 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 3:7, A. Hunt-Cooke to W. R. Bascom, 22 Apr. 1939.

73An article by Duckworth from 1951 on the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads in Nigeria Magazine remarks that “three or eleven others may have been found at the same time but if so there is no trace of them now” (Duckworth 1951: 20). Murray’s correspondence with the Colonial Office from 1945 suggests that up to fourteen were obtained by Germans, contrasting with Duckworth’s estimate of three to eleven.58 These claims of three, eleven, and fourteen likely derive from separate sources. Bate suggested to Braunholtz, when approaching the British Museum to sell the head he acquired, that three more were available.59 11 (or 12 according to one letter written by Duckworth’s colleague Hunt-Cooke to Bascom)60 are rumoured to have been exported by German ship. This claim is based on a discovery made by E. H. Duckworth in 1938 when he was Inspector of Education in Nigeria, and recounted in a report from 1945:

  • 61 BL MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, ‘A Survey by E. H. Duckworth of the Development of Science (...)

74“One day, just before the war, I was working in my office at the Education Head Quarters and in came Herman the Gauleiter of the German Community. At the time I was in charge of film censoring and he required a permit to show a film on a German ship. Files had to be searched and he was kept waiting for a time, he amused himself by lightly turning over the pages of No.14 “Nigeria”, the special arts and crafts number, that was on my table. Coming to the pictures of Ife Heads he said “By the way Duckworth have you got these heads? “Oh; no” I replied. “They were photographed in Lagos then sent back to the Oni of Ife”. Herman added. “Well, I know where there are eleven heads far better than these now in Lagos.” I showed astonishment and asked for more information “Where are they”? “Could I photographed [sic] them”? Herman grew cautious and would tell me nothing more. He left, and I wondered what action to take. I decided to write a letter at once to the Chief Secretary and inform him of the incident. Knowing that this letter would take about a fortnight to trickle through the Secretariat files, I went on to inform the C. I. D. in the hope that they could make a search. Ife heads were the talk of the German community and more information came in indicating that the heads were in Gaisers [sic] store awaiting shipment. The C. I. D. were powerless to act. I called on Herman at his store in Broad Street and asked him to use his influence to avert the loss of the heads pointing out that the removal of them would only cause more tension between German and English interests. He refused to take action. In any case, he added, they have now gone to Berlin. I got information about the heads conveyed to Sir Bernard Bourdillon during a bathing party at lighthouse beach and sought the help of the Comptroller of Customs. Many weeks later an Order-in-Council was signed prohibiting the export of Ife antiquities.”61

  • 62 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; Annual Reports of the Antiq (...)
  • 63 TNA, CO 554/121/8, Original Correspondence regarding the Preservation of Products of Tropical Afric (...)

75Corroborating Duckworth’s account, Murray’s correspondence with the Colonial Office suggests – based on investigations he conducted in the 1940s—that it was leading figures in the German export firm Gaiser responsible for these exports, and that the man who tipped off Duckworth was Otto Herman, an assistant German consul and the proprietor of a chemist’s shop in Lagos.62 Duckworth and Murray took this claim very seriously as it was backed up by an interview by Murray of H. M. Bate (who confirmed Gaiser’s involvement), as well as the account of a District Officer who went to a colonial conference in Germany in 1939 and heard talk there of many Ifẹ̀ heads having recently been imported. In a letter to William Rothenstein, Duckworth suggested that a German trading agent was set up in Ifẹ̀ who purchased copper/copper alloy heads from the local seller: the same man who sold heads to Bascom and Bate. He claims that these were likely hidden—along with other acquired antiquities—at a secret collecting place in the bush.63 Duckworth originally reported the initial German export brought to his attention (of 11 heads) in a Nigeria Magazine editorial from the last quarter of 1938 (Duckworth 1938c: 260–2), though an editorial of his from 1940 states that “…there is little doubt that many Ife bronzes were shipped to Germany in 1939” (Duckworth 1940: 269–70) implying that more may have been lost after the purported initial 11.

  • 64 William Buller Fagg Collection, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Londo (...)

76Therefore, it is possible that some of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads went missing this way, and that the count of 18 is thus an underestimation. However, if correct it’s not clear whether the German exports came from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ compound or other parts of Ifẹ̀. The claim of three undocumented heads comes from Bate’s testimony while the claim of eleven comes from Duckworth’s. The claim of fourteen undocumented heads likely derives from Murray adding the three reported by Bate to the eleven mentioned in Duckworth’s account. It is certainly possible however that the three that Bate claims to have known were in German hands were part of the eleven recorded by Duckworth, so this suggestion of fourteen heads could be an overestimation. Murray also became sceptical of Duckworth’s figure of eleven: in a letter to William Fagg in 1948, he wrote that he had “definite information of only three that have disappeared without trace.”64

77This looting activity supposedly organised by Germans may have also led to the acquisition of other Ifẹ̀ copper/copper alloy heads not recovered from Wúnmọníjẹ̀, given that examples exist such as the Olókun head, Ọbalùfọ̀n mask, and purported Mọ́remí head that likely did not come from the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ site. There is also the narrative recounted to Bascom by Rufus Awojodu (see above) which tentatively implies that there may have been another head found in the vicinity of Wúnmọníjẹ̀ that has since disappeared—that of the mother of the children who supposedly had lived there—though it may well be apocryphal. While the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ group appears to be exceptional in the sheer number of heads uncovered, it is very possible then that there are several more heads that are unaccounted for which have vanished into the ether of the international art market. Given their rumoured export on the cusp of the Second World War, these heads would have been bound for Europe at the worst possible time, when material cultural heritage was at a high risk of destruction from bombing, shelling, looting, and other forms of conflict-related destruction. There are documented examples of African art objects in Europe that were destroyed or stolen during the war (see for example Tythacott 1998: 25; De Grunne & Pezzoli 2023). Furthermore, a number of cultural treasures were systematically looted from Germany by the USSR, and often brought to secret repositories. Many of these looted objects have not been found, recovered, or repatriated since (Akinsha 2017). While these purported heads may thus have been destroyed (if they indeed ever existed), it’s also plausible then that they may have been lost due to looting. If we include these officially undocumented examples, the number of uncovered Ifẹ̀ naturalistic copper and copper alloy heads that are (or were) in existence may be as high as in the thirties.

Conclusion: Contextualising the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Heads

78The unpublished archival materials cited above provide limited but important observations regarding the archaeological context, oral traditions, and subsequent circulation of these copper alloy heads, that can help contribute to the ongoing debates regarding the history, significance, and context of these objects as discussed in this article. Bascom’s fieldnotes appear to be the only record we have of the original uncovering of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads, especially the first seven of these. They offer us a better insight into the nature of the wider site, and the location of the heads within it. Bascom’s writings also provide additional contextual information such as the purported covering of several heads with a large pot. This information is absent from Bascom’s limited published work on the heads, and so his archive at UC Berkeley has proven a useful resource for improving our knowledge of their context. The other body of valuable information recorded by Bascom in his notes and drafts, but hitherto unpublished, are some of the local narratives which seek to explain the context and significance of the heads. These include Rufus Awojodu’s tale of the woman who buried her five children at the site of the compound, as well as suggestions from informants that the heads were buried as a strategy of protecting them during periods of conflict. Awojodu’s mention of an overturned pot being present (if accurate) would more strongly support the idea that the finds represent a collapsed shrine context, though this runs counter to the suggestion by some (unnamed) local informants that the collection was buried for safekeeping. Furthermore, there’s also the possibility that the overturned pot could have been used to protect and store the objects in the ground. However, such inverted ceramics are common in religious contexts throughout the city’s history, right up to the present, and so may more likely be evidence of a sacred site. Overall, the scanty evidence does not conclusively address the somewhat competing views on this issue in the published literature, but it will hopefully stimulate and contribute to future discussion on the nature of the heads.

79This article has also shown how unpublished material from several repositories can help contribute to lingering questions, and resolve contradictions, pertaining to the number of these heads that are in existence. Bascom’s suggestion in his correspondence that a purported head was kept hidden by Ọ̀ọ̀ni Aderemi may explain why different numbers of heads were provided by different authors (11 or 12 initial discoveries). And additional evidence from Duckworth and Murray offers useful details pertaining to claims of heads taken by Germans in the aftermath of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ discoveries. Estimates of 3, 11 (or 12), and 14 undocumented heads exported during this period can now be tied to specific (unpublished) sources in the archives. These, coupled with other discoveries (such as the Ado-Ekiti head fragment and Lomé head) strongly imply that more heads from Ifẹ̀ may exist beyond those that are officially documented. Furthermore, and as discussed above, thefts of copper alloy heads in Nigeria have occurred from the 1980s onwards, with ongoing efforts being made to locate and repatriate these stolen objects. With the archival material revealing that others were probably also exported during the colonial period, it’s also important that further investigations be made to test the validity of these assertions and potentially trace these undocumented examples should they still exist.

Acknowledgements

80I would like to thank the staff at the Jagger Library (University of Cape Town), Deering Library (Northwestern University), Bancroft Library (UC Berkeley), Bodleian Library (University of Oxford), British Museum, Royal Anthropological Institute (London), National Archives (London), Hunterian Museum, and University of Glasgow for their kindness and helpfulness throughout this research. I am especially grateful to Julie Hudson (British Museum), Phillips Stevens Jr., and Andrei Nacu (Royal Anthropological Institute), for their help in acquiring images for this article. I am also grateful to William & Mary’s Anthropology Department, Graduate Studies Advisory Board, and Office of Graduate Studies for funding this work, and to the anonymous reviewers of Afrique : Archéologie & Arts and Professors Gérard Chouin, Neil Norman, and Grey Gundaker for their support and comments.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Abiodun R. (2014) – Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Adepegba C. O. (1991) – Yoruba Metal Sculpture. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.

Aderemi A. T. (1937) – Notes on the City of Ife. Nigeria Magazine, 12: 3–6.

Akinsha k. (2017) – Restitution as Diagnosis: Political Aspects of the “Trophy Art” Problem and Russian-German Relations. New German Critique, 44(1): 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1215/0094033X-3705703

Angeleti G. (2021) – The Met repatriates looted Benin works. The Art Newspaper, 22 November. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/11/22/met-returns-looted-benin-works

Babalola A. B (2015) – Archaeological Investigations of Early Glass Production at Igbo-Olokun, Ile-Ife (Nigeria). Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 11 : 61-64. https://doi.org/10.4000/aaa.545

Babalola A. B., Dussubieux L., McIntosh S. K. & Rehren T. (2018) – Chemical analysis of glass beads from Igbo Olokun, Ile-Ife (SW Nigeria): New light on raw materials, production, and interregional interactions. Journal of Archaeological Science, 90: 92–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2017.12.005

Bachmann J. (2023) – Materialization through Global Comparisons: the Findings at Ile-Ife from the Late 19th century to the 1960s. Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society. https://doi.org/10.30965/23642807-bja10086

Bahr S. (2021) – Met Museum Announces Return of Two Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. The New York Times, 9 June. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/09/arts/design/met-museum-benin-bronzes-nigeria.html

Bascom W. R. (1938) – Brass Portrait Heads from Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Man, 38: 176.

Bascom W. R. (1939) – The legacy of an unknown Nigerian “Donatello”. Illustrated London News, 194(2): 592–594.

Bertho J. & Mauny R. (1952) – Archéologie du Pays Yoruba et du Bas-Niger. Notes Africaines, 56: 97–115.

Blackmun B. W. (2004) – The hands of the artists. In: F. Willett, The Art of Ife: A Descriptive Catalogue and Databas, CD-ROM, Glasgow: Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Blier S. P. (1985) – Kings, Crowns, and Rights of Succession: Obalufon Arts at Ife and other Yoruba Centers. The Art Bulletin, 67(3): 383–401. DOI: 10.1080/00043079.1985.10788279

Blier S. P. (2012a) – Art in Ancient Ife, Birthplace of the Yoruba. African Arts, 45(4): 70–85.

Blier S. P. (2012b) – Religion and Art in Ile-Ife. In: E. K. Bongma (ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, Blackwell Publishing Limited: 399–416.

Blier S. P. (2017) – Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139128872

Bodenstein F. (2022) – Getting the Benin Bronzes Back to Nigeria: The Art Market and the Formation of National Collections and Concepts of Heritage in Benin City and Lagos. In: F. Bodenstein, D. Otoiu & E.-M. Troelenberg (eds.), Contested Holdings: Museum Collections in Political, Epistemic and Artistic Processes of Return, Berghahn Books: 220–241.

Braunholtz H. J. (1940) – Bronze Head from Ifé, Nigeria. The British Museum Quarterly, 14(4): 75–77.

Chouin G. & Ogunfolakan A. (2023) Mission Archéologique Ife-Sungbo 2018–2022: Rapport quadriennal. William & Mary; TEMPS; Obafemi Awolowo University; University of Ibadan; Northwestern University. https://hal.science/hal-03933839

Cordwell J. M. (1952) – Some Aesthetic Aspects of Yoruba and Benin Cultures. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University.

Cordwell J. M. (1953) – Naturalism and stylization in Yoruba art. Magazine of art, 46: 220–225.

Craddock P. T., Ambers J., van Bellegem M., Cartwright C. R., Hudson J., La Niece S. & Spataro M. (2013) – The Olokun head reconsidered. Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 9 : 13-42. https://doi.org/10.4000/aaa.266

De Grunne B. & Pezzoli G. (2023) – Two Buye Statues that Disappeard from the Mostra d’Oltremare in 1940. Tribal Art, 108: 90.

Drewal H. J. (1993) – L’art d’Ile Ifè. Arts d’Afrique Noire, 87 : 41-51.

Drewal H. J. (2010) – The Splendor of Ancient Ife: Art in an Early West African State. In: Drewal H. J. & Schildkrout E., Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria. New York: Museum for African Art.

Drewal H. J, Pemberton J. & Abiodun R. (1989) – Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. New York: Center for African Art and Harry Abrams Inc.

Drewal H. J. & Schildkrout E. (2010a) – Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria. New York: Museum for African Art.

Drewal H. J. & Schildkrout E. (2010b) – Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa. London: British Museum Press. New York: Museum for African Art.

Duckworth E. H. (1938a) – Editorial. Nigeria Magazine, 14: 101–105.

Duckworth E. H. (1938b) – Recent archaeological discoveries in the ancient city of Ife. Nigeria Magazine, 14: 101–105.

Duckworth E. H. (1938c) – Editorial. Nigeria Magazine, 16: 260–2.

Duckworth E. H. (1940) – Editorial. Nigeria Magazine, 20: 269–70.

Duckworth (1951) – Ife Bronzes. Nigeria Magazine, 37: 20.

Eluyemi O. (1977) – Terracotta Sculptures from Obalara’s Compound. Ile-Ife. African Arts, 10(3): 41–42.

Eyo E. (1970a) – 1969 Excavations at Ile-Ife. African Arts, 3(2): 44–87.

Eyo E. (1970b) – Ife So Far. Black Orpheus, 2(4): 21–42.

Eyo E. (1974) – Odo Ogbe Street and Lafogido: Contrasting Archaeological Sites in Ile-Ife, Western Nigeria. West African Journal of Archaeology, 4: 99–109.

Eyo E. (1982) – Introduction. In: Eyo E. & Willett F., Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, London: Royal Academy in association with Collins.

Fagg B. E. B. (1953) – Some archaeological problems at Ife. Conférence Internationale des Africanistes de l’Ouest, Ve Réunion, Abidjan, Compte rendu, 125–126.

Fagg W. B. (1950) – A Bronze Figure in Ife Style at Benin. Man, 50: 69–70.

Fagg W. B. (1951) – De l’art des Yoruba. L’Art Nègre, Paris, Présence Africaine, 10-11 : 103-135. Original English text in Fagg W. B. & Pemberton J. (1982), Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa: 5–23, additional notes: 23–24, B. Holcombe, New York, Alfred Knopf.

Fagg W. B. & Underwood L. (1949) – An Examination of the So-Called ‘Olokun’ Head of Ife, Nigeria. Man, 49: 1–7.

Fagg W. B. & Willett F. (1960) – Ancient Ife. An Ethnographic Summary. Odù, 8: 21–35.

Fraser D. (1975) – The Tsoede Bronzes and Owo Yoruba Art. African Arts, 8 (3): 30–91.

Frobenius L. (1913) – The Voice of Africa: being an account of the travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the years 1910–1912 (Vol. 1). Hutchinson and Company.

Garlake P. (1974) – Excavations at Obalara’s land, Ife, Nigeria. West African Journal of Archaeology, 4(1): 111–148.

Garlake P. (1977) – Excavations on the Woye Asiri family land in Ife, Western Nigeria. West African Journal of Archaeology, 7: 51–96.

Goucher C., Teilhet J. H., Wilson K. R. & Chow T. J. (1976) – Lead Isotope Studies of Metal Sources for Ancient Nigerian ‘Bronzes’. Nature, 262 (5564): 130–131.

Hambly W. D. (1935) – Culture Areas of Nigeria. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

Hicks D. (2020) – The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution. London: Pluto Press.

Icom–International Council of Museums (1997) Looting in Africa / Pillage en Afrique: Cent objets disparus / One Hundred Missing Objects. Paris: International Council of Museums.

Idowu E. B. (1962) – Olodumare, God in Yoruba Belief. London: Longmans.

Killick D. J., Stephens J. A. & Fenn T. R. (2020) – Geological Constraints on the Use of Lead Isotopes for Provenance in Archaeometallurgy. Archaeometry, 62: 86–105.

Lander R., Lander J. & Hallett R. (2004 [1830]) – The Niger Journal of Richard and John Lander. London: Routledge.

Law R. (2011) – West Africa’s Discovery of the Atlantic. International Journal of African Historical Studies, 44 (1): 1–25.

Lawal B. (1985) – Orí: The Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture. Journal of Anthropological Research, 41 (1): 91–103.

Lawal B. (2001) – Àwòrán: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art. The Art Bulletin, 83 (3): 498–526.

Meyerowitz H. & Meyerowitz V. (1939) – Bronzes and Terra-Cottas from Ile-Ife. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 75 (439): 150–155.

Moss A.A. (1949) – Further light on the ‘Olokun’ head of Ife. Man, 49: 120.

Murray K. C. (1941) – Nigerian Bronzes: work from Ife. Antiquity, 15 (57): 71–80.

Murray K. C. (1955) – The Art of Ife. Lagos: Nigerian Museum.

Myers O. H. (1967a) – Excavations at Ife, Nigeria, Obameri’s Shrine. West African Archaeological Newsletter, 6: 6–7.

Myers O. H. (1967b) – Excavations at Ife, Nigeria, Oduduwa College Site. West African Archaeological Newsletter, 6: 8–11.

Obayemi, A. (1979) – Ancient Ile-Ife: another cultural historical reinterpretation. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 9 (4): 151–185.

Ogundiran A. (2002) – Filling a Gap in the Ife–Benin Interaction Field (Thirteenth–Sixteenth Centuries AD): Excavations in Iloyi Settlement, Ijesaland. African Archaeological Review, 19: 27–60.

Ogundiran A. (2020) – The Yorùbá: A New History. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Ogundiran A. & Ogunfolakan A. (2017) – Colonial Modernity, Rituals and Feasting in Odùduwà Grove, Ilé-Ifẹ̀ (Nigeria). Journal of African Archaeology, 15(1): 77–103.

Ogunfolakan A. (2001) – A New Terracotta Head from Wunmonije Compound, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. West African Journal of Archaeology, 31(2): 84–92.

Olupona J. (2011) – City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifẹ̀ in Time, Space, and the Imagination. University of California Press.

Ottenberg, S. (1994) – Further light on W. R. Bascom and the Ife bronzes. Africa, 64 (4): 561–568.

Ozanne P. C. (1969) – A new archaeological survey of Ife. Odu, 1: 28–45.

Peek P. M. (2020) – The Lower Niger Bronzes: Beyond Igbo-Ukwu, Ife, and Benin. New York: Routledge.

Phillips B. (2022a) – Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes (Revised and Updated Edition). London: Oneworld Publications.

Phillips B. (2022b) – Nigerian Ife head: Why UK police are holding a priceless sculpture. BBC News, 26 June. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-61826273

Read C. H. (1911) – Plato’s “Atlantis” rediscovered. Burlington Magazine, 18: 330–335.

Roth L., Chouin G. & Ogunfolakan A. (2021) – Lost in Space? Reconstructing Frank Willett’s excavations at Ita Yemoo, Ile-Ife, Nigeria: Rescue Excavations (1957–1958) and Trench XIV (1962–1963). Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 17 : 77-114.

Schildkrout E. (2010) – Ife Art in West Africa: An Introduction to the Exhibition. In: Drewal, H. J. & Schildkrout E., Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, New York: Museum for African Art: 2–69.

Shyllon F. (2017) – Benin Dialogue Group: Perhaps No Longer a Dialogue with the Deaf; University of Cambridge Students to the Rescue. Art Antiquity & Law, 22: 299.

Shyllon F. (2018) – Benin Dialogue Group: Benin Royal Museum – Three Steps Forward, Six Steps Back. Art, Antiquity & Law, 23: 341.

Tignor R. L. (1990) – W. R. Bascom and the Ife Bronzes. Africa: Journal of the International African institute, 60(3): 425–434.

Tythacott L. (1998) – The African Collection at Liverpool Museum. African Arts, 31 (3): 18–94.

Underwood L. (1949) – Bronzes of West Africa. London: Alec Tiranti LTD.

Willett F. (1959a) – Bronze and Terra-Cotta Sculptures from Ita Yemoo, Ife. The South African Archaeological Bulletin, 14(56): 135–137.

Willett F. (1959b) – Bronze Figures from Ita Yemoo, Ife, Nigeria. Man, 59(11): 189–193.

Willett F. (1959c) – The Discovery of New Brass Figures at Ife. Odù, 6: 29–34.

Willett F. (1966) – On the Funeral Effigies of Owo and Benin and the Interpretation of the Life-Sized Bronze Heads from Ife, Nigeria. Man, 1(1): 34–45.

Willett F. (1967a) – Ife in the History of West African Sculpture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Willett F. (1967b) – Ife in Nigerian Art. African Arts, 1(1): 30–35, 78.

Willett F. (1970) – Ife and its Archaeology. In: J. D. Fage and R. A. Oliver (eds.), Papers in African Prehistory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 303–326.

Willett F. (2004) – The Art of Ife: A Descriptive Catalogue and Database. CD-ROM, Glasgow: Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

Willett F. & Fleming S. J. (1976) – A Catalogue of Important Nigerian Copper Alloy Castings Dated by Thermoluminescence. Archaeometry, 18(2): 135–146. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4754.1976.tb00156.x

Willett F. & Sayre E. V. (2006) – Lead Isotopes in West African Copper Alloys. Journal of African Archaeology, 4(1): 55–90.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Sources differ on the exact number–see discussion below.

2 Papers of Edward Harland Duckworth, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, ‘A Survey by E. H. Duckworth of the Development of Science Education in Nigeria, of the Development of the Magazine “N I G E R I A”, of the Fight for the Recognition of Nigerian Arts and Crafts, for the Establishment of Museums, for the Preservation of Antiquities and for a Wider Conception of Education’, 1945, p. 20.

3 Ibid, p. 20.

4 See Figure 2 for information on the system of alphabetical codification of the heads used in this article.

5 Material for this article was primarily obtained from the following archives:
I. The Melville J. Herskovits Papers, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
II. The William R. Bascom Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
III. The Papers of Edward Harland Duckworth, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
IV. Archive of Hermann Justus Braunholtz, British Museum Archive, London.
V. Colonial Office papers from The National Archives, London.VI. The William Buller Fagg Collection, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, London.
VII. Papers of Professor Frank Willett, Hunterian Museum and University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, Glasgow.

6 See Shyllon (2017, 2018), Hicks (2020), Bodenstein (2022), and Phillips (2022a) for recent discussion of this.

7 Notably horizontal nicks on the forehead and a missing right ear.

8 Such as the wars between Ifẹ̀ and the adjacent town of Modákẹ́kẹ́ (founded by northern Yorùbá refugees) throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

9 Read was one of the early critics of Frobenius’s theory of an Atlantean origin for the antiquities of Ifẹ̀. This notion, and the racism intrinsic to it, has been discussed in detail elsewhere (e.g., Bachmann 2023).

10 Named for the important òrìṣà of wealth and the sea.

11 At the city of Wagadugu (Ouagadougou), see Frobenius (1913: 92–96).

12 A.J.H. Goodwin Archive, University of Cape Town Libraries: Special Collections, Cape Town (UCT), J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part viii, ix, and x, Ogun Ladi and the Olokun Grove’.

13 Papers of Professor Frank Willett, University of Glasgow Archive Services, Glasgow (UG), GB 248 ACCN 3120/29, ‘Transcription from Partridge’s pencil-written notes’, 5 October 1990.

14 BM AOA/Africa/Ife/1947–8 Loan, K. C. Murray to H. J. Braunholtz, 9 November 1948.

15 A legendary queen of Ifẹ̀, identified in certain oral traditions as Ọbalùfọ̀n II’s wife—see Blier (2012a).

16 UCT, J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part IV. The City, Ile-Ife’.

17 There remains disagreement in the literature regarding whether this represents a mouth veil or a beard—Willett (2004) and Drewal & Schildkrout (2010a) suggest the former, Blier (2012a, 2017) the latter. I concur more with Blier, as the feature doesn’t cover the mouth as one might expect with a veil, and it resembles stylised, cross-hatched beards seen in other examples of West African art, such as the mahen yafe stone heads of Sierra Leone and Guinea (Lamp 1990: 50).

18 Unbeknownst to Willett at the time (and later brought to his attention, see Willett 2004: I. 8), Justine Cordwell (1952: 37–39, 1953) had already made this association between the copper alloy heads and second-burial practices. Willett also acknowledged (2004) that W. Fagg had also highlighted the naturalism of second-burial effigies in 1951 (Fagg 1982). And as Blier (2012a) points out, Bertho and Mauny (1952: 108) had also alluded to this possible connection. Furthermore, the suggestion that the heads were attached to posts and effigies was made by Underwood (1949: 27–28).

19 The Ògbóni was an important organisation in Yorùbá history that performed key judicial and religious duties. Its chiefs were held in high esteem and had considerable authority.

20 Ìwà: “essential character of a person or thing”.

21 Àṣẹ: the power or energy within all things that can be invigorated to stimulate those things to fulfil their essential natures (ìwà), see Abodun (2014).

22 Religious symbols associated with sacred practices are observable on some of these items, such as snakes and snails on the bracelet, and human sacrifice and vultures on the figural ring.

23 It is probable that there were, in fact, five heads in this next batch of finds—discussed below.

24 Duckworth, in his editorial for that edition of Nigeria Magazine (Duckworth 1938a), names Ọọ̀ni Adesọji Aderẹmi and Arthur Hunt-Cooke of the Education Department as his main sources on the discovery of the heads—both were present in Ifẹ̀ at the time of the finds.

25 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31:20, Typed field notes, p. 978. This was according to Rufus Awojodu (acting as Bascom’s informant during his fieldwork)—see below for discussion.

26 This very approximate figure is based on his estimate of a 10-foot distance between the initial two groups (found on the edges of one room), combined with the sketched dimensions of the other rooms depicted in his drawings. We can conclude that the site is roughly 25–30 feet from North to South and East to West. This is a basic estimate but demonstrates that the head finds were relatively tightly clustered.

27 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 31, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, January’ [Sketch of the initial five].

28 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 32, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, February’ [Sketch of the subsequent two].

29 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 18, Typed field notes, p. 891 [Better sketch of the subsequent two].

30 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 20, Typed field notes, p. 978 [Better sketch of the initial five].

31 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 31, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, January’ [Sketch of the initial five].

32 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 30: 32, ‘Field Notes–Yoruba, February’ [Sketch of the subsequent two].

33 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 18, Typed field notes, p. 891 [Better sketch of the subsequent two].

34 BLB BANC MSS 82/163, 31: 20, Typed field notes, p. 978 [Better sketch of the initial five].

35 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 5:60, W. R. Bascom to A. Lynch (draft; no date), final version composed 7 March 1947.

36 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 5:60, W. R. Bascom to A. Lynch, 7 March 1947.

37 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; ‘A Description of Articles the Return of Which to Nigeria is Desired’ (report), 1945.

38 An alternative view to this—that Aderẹmi was in fact aware of Bascom’s exports at the time—exists, but it is based on limited evidence, notably snippets of paraphrased personal communication that is decades old (referenced by Ottenberg 1994).

39 BL MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, ‘A Survey by E. H. Duckworth of the Development of Science Education in Nigeria’, 1945: 29: “After the Frobenius episode nothing outstanding occurred at Ife apart from the steady loss of valuable antiquities from the shrines in the bush by casual European visitors interested in acquiring souvenirs.”

40 TNA, CO 147/95, 17826, Despatch from G. Carter to the Marquess of Ripon, August 30 1894.

41 The Melville J. Herskovits Papers, Northwestern University, Evanston (NU), Series 35/6, Box 3, Folder 19, First Quarterly Report, 8 October 1937.

42 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 31:18, Typed field notes ‘Yoruba Technology and Religion’, p.679.

43 UCT J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part V Osangangan Obamakin’.

44 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 6:58, Edited drafts of Bascom’s 1939 Illustrated London News article.

45 K. C. Murray, ‘List of places in Ife known or believed to contain antiquities’, compiled November 1943, revised November 1948. Unpublished typescript (cited in Willett (2004) The Art of Ife).

46 NU, Series 35/6, Box 3, Folder 19, W. R. Bascom to M. Herskovits, 19 April 1938.

47 UCT, J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part IV The City, Ile-Ife’.Note that Goodwin’s figure of 20 heads may be an estimation rather than an exact figure (or is perhaps erroneously inclusive of the Olókun and Ọbalùfọ̀n pieces). Goodwin also suggests here that the heads were probably deposited together during a war.

48 UCT, J2.23 Unpublished book manuscript on Goodwin’s Nigerian expedition, ‘Part VIII, Architecture, Shrines, and Sanitation’.

49 TNA, CO 554/121/8, Original Correspondence regarding the Preservation of Products of Tropical African Culture (West Africa 33620/1939), ‘Extract from a letter from E. H. Duckworth’, 28 June 1939.

50 BL MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, ‘A Survey by E. H. Duckworth of the Development of Science Education in Nigeria’, 1945, p.19–20.

51 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; ‘A Description of Articles the Return of Which to Nigeria is Desired’ (report), 1945.

52 Bascom does not give the man’s name.

53 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 3:7, W. R. Bascom to A. Hunt-Cooke, 1 June 1939.

54 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 5:60, W. R. Bascom to A. Lynch, 7 March 1947.

55 According to Murray—see above.

56 The third being the Olókun head first described by Frobenius.

57 This excludes metal staff and mace heads that depict smaller human heads in a different style, as well as copper alloy figures such as the Láfògido statue.

58 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; K. C. Murray to C. Y. Carstairs, 8 July 1945.

59 TNA, CO 554/121/8, Original Correspondence regarding the Preservation of Products of Tropical African Culture (West Africa 33620/1939), G. I. Jones to Major Vischer, 9 June 1939; H. M. Bate to the Secretary of The International Institute of African Languages & Cultures, London, 26 May 1939.

60 BLB, BANC MSS 82/163, 3:7, A. Hunt-Cooke to W. R. Bascom, 22 Apr. 1939.

61 BL MSS. Afr. s. 1451 Duckworth Box 6/2, ‘A Survey by E. H. Duckworth of the Development of Science Education in Nigeria’, 1945, p.31.

62 TNA, CO 927/32/1, Nigeria: recovery of antiquities from German museums; Annual Reports of the Antiquities Section for 1946–1947.

63 TNA, CO 554/121/8, Original Correspondence regarding the Preservation of Products of Tropical African Culture (West Africa 33620/1939), ‘Extract from a letter from E. H. Duckworth’, 28 June 1939.

64 William Buller Fagg Collection, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, London, (RAI), Box 4, ‘Correspondence between Kenneth Murray and Billy’, 27 November 1948.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 443k
Titre Figure 1 – Ten Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound heads at the British Museum in 1947, as well as the crowned Olókun head (far left) and Ọbalùfọ̀n mask (foreground, left), where they were on loan for an exhibition
Crédits © The Trustees of the British Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 619k
Titre Figure 2 – Thirteen Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads on exhibition at University College Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan), Nigeria, 1949
Légende Each head is identified alphabetically from left to right by the author, with the equivalent systems of numbering used by Leon Underwood (1949)/the British Museum and Frank Willett (2004) noted below:A. Underwood Ife, No. 7/Willett M7. Material: leaded zinc-brass with a deliberate addition of gold. Considered to be similar in appearance to the Ọbalùfọ̀n mask. Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1993, returned in 1997B. Underwood Ife, No. 12/Willett M13. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brassC. Underwood Ife, No. 5/Willett M6. Material: copperD. Underwood Ife, No. 4/Willett M11. Material: copperE. Underwood Ife, No. 2/Willett M16. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Stolen from the Jos Museum in 1987, resurfaced in Belgium and then the UK. Currently held in London by the Metropolitan PoliceF. Underwood Ife, No. 14/Willett M15. Material: leaded zinc-brassG. Underwood Ife, No. 6/Willett M5. Material: almost pure copper. Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1993H. Underwood Ife, No. 9/Willett M12. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brassI. Underwood Ife, No. 15/Willett M18. Material: leaded zinc-brass. One of the more badly damaged examples. Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1994, returned from Zürich in 2001J. Underwood Ife, No. 11/Willett M9. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. The largest and heaviest of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ headsK. Underwood Ife, No. 1/Willett M19. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Fragmentary from extensive damage; considered to be similar in appearance to Head M. Stolen from Ifẹ̀, apparently in the 2000s. Recovered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for repatriation to NigeriaL. Underwood Ife, No. 3/Willett M10. Material: almost pure copper with about 1% of lead. Stolen from Ifẹ̀, returned from Zürich in 2001M. Underwood Ife, No. 8/Willett M8. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Considered to be similar in appearance to Head K[Not in image]: Underwood Ife, No. 10/Willett M14. Material: copper. A heavily damaged (crushed) example[Not in image] Willett M17 (not featured in Underwood 1949). Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. One of the two heads exported by W. Bascom in 1938, then repatriated in 1950. This one is “crownless” whereas the other which Bascom took has a crown as part of the same casting (see Fig. 3: Head P). Stolen from Ifẹ̀ in 1994. Photograph by William Buller Fagg © RAI
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 246k
Titre Figure 3 – The only three Ifẹ̀ heads with crowns as components of the same castings
Légende Two are believed to be from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound (left, centre), and the third (right) is the Olókun head known prior to the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ discoveries. P. Willett M3 (not featured in Underwood 1949). Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. The smallest of the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ heads, and one of the two heads exported by W. Bascom in 1938, then repatriated in 1950Q. Underwood Ife, No. 18/Willett M2. Material: heavily leaded zinc-brass. Exported by H. M. Bate in 1939 (or 1938), then sold by him to the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the British Museum where it currently resides. Shown also in Figure 13
Crédits © The Trustees of the British Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 448k
Titre Figure 4 An image of the copper seated figure from Tada (centre, front) as well as other copper alloy objects from the area. Reproduced from Peek (2020)
Crédits © Phillips Stevens, Jr., Tada, 1965
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 165k
Titre Figure 5 Author’s map of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ marking important sites mentioned in the text as well as the town’s walls (linear earthworks)
Légende The three main documented sites from where copper and copper alloy objects have been found are marked in red. After Willett (1967a) and Ozanne (1969)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 397k
Titre Figure 6Twelve Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound heads on display at an exhibition held at the British Museum in 1947–48
Légende Also in the photograph: the Ọbalùfọ̀n mask (middle, above) and the half-figure from Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound (middle, below)
Crédits © The Trustees of the British Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 675k
Titre Figure 7 – A terracotta piece described by Eluyemi (1977) which closely resembles the copper mask of Ọbalùfọ̀n (see Figure 1 and Figure 6)
Crédits © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. Reproduced from Willett (2004: T625C)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Figure 8 – A photograph of a second burial effigy (àkó) from Ọ̀wọ̀ taken by F. Willett in 1958
Légende It represents Queen Olashubude, mother of the Olowo (king) of Ọ̀wọ̀ at the time.
Crédits © The Hunterian, and University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, Frank Willett collection, GB248 ACCN 3120/16
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 361k
Titre Figure 9 Imagery on a pot excavated from the centre of a potsherd pavement at the site of Obalara’s Land by P. Garlake
Légende It depicts a naturalistic head flanked by two more stylised stone heads within a possible shrine structure.
Crédits © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. Reproduced from Willett (2004)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 125k
Titre Figure 10A photograph from W. Bascom’s 1939 Illustrated London News article of the foundations of the house being built at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound in 1938
Crédits © Illustrated London News Ltd./Mary Evans Picture Library
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 962k
Titre Figure 11 Sketches by Bascom of the plan of the house at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound where the heads were found
Légende The first two sketches (on the left) were made on January 15th and February 15th, 1938 respectively, and reveal the locations of the first five heads—as well as the next two—that were uncovered. The other more carefully drawn sketches (right) were made later by Bascom. The heads and their locations within the site are represented by the Xs and circled numbers. See also Figure 12 for the author’s own plan of the site.
Crédits Image credit: Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.27 282930
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 731k
Titre Figure 12 A redrawn plan by the author of the house foundations at Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound where the heads were found, based on the compiled evidence from Bascom’s sketches, notes, and photograph pertaining to the site
Légende The approximate locations of the first seven heads to be found are marked—the first five in January 1938 dug from the wall foundation trenches in black, and the two found in February within the room in grey. Note that the specific arrangement of the heads (in lines) is conjectural: even though he documented the locations of each group, Bascom doesn’t describe the positioning of each individual example of the first five heads. The scale used here is approximate, based on Bascom’s estimate of the distance between the two initial groups of heads uncovered.31 323334
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 45k
Titre Figure 13 – The Wúnmọníjẹ̀ head exported by H. M. Bate, probably in 1939
Légende The head (listed here as Head Q) is now in the British Museum, and is the only example that remains in a museum collection outside of Nigeria.
Crédits © The Trustees of the British Museum
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/4918/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 519k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Tomos Llywelyn Evans, « A Copper Alloy Head Count: Contextualising and Accounting for the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound Discoveries of Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria »Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 19 | 2023, 67-100.

Référence électronique

Tomos Llywelyn Evans, « A Copper Alloy Head Count: Contextualising and Accounting for the Wúnmọníjẹ̀ Compound Discoveries of Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria »Afrique : Archéologie & Arts [En ligne], 19 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2023, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/4918 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aaa.4918

Haut de page

Auteur

Tomos Llywelyn Evans

tlevans@wm.eduDepartment of Anthropology, William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

CC-BY-NC-4.0

Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search