Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu
Intricate bronze ceremonial pot, 9th century, Igbo-Ukwu
|Location||Anambra State, Nigeria|
|Satellite of||Oraeri, Kingdom of Nri|
|Excavation dates||1959–1960, 1964|
|Archaeologists||Charles Thurstan Shaw|
The Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu has been revealed in bronzes dating from the 9th century, which were discovered during excavations by Thurstan Shaw and his team in 1959 and 1964 in Igbo-Ukwu, an Igbo town in present-day Nigeria. A total of three sites have been excavated, revealing bronze artifacts along with pottery and thousands of glass beads, materials demonstrating trade with such distant cultures as the Egyptians.
These bronze artifacts had been made by Igbo Ukwu's ancient residents from local copper and other materials. They have been confirmed as the first people in West Africa to work copper and its alloys, centuries before other cultures. The objects are culturally connected with those of the Igbo, and related to those of the Nri-Igbo.
While digging a well in his compound in Igbo Ukwu in 1939, a villager named Isiah Anozie struck some bronze objects. He dug them out, piled them against the wall of his hut and, not realizing their importance, invited friends and neighbors to take any pieces they wanted. Months later, J.O. Field, the colonial British district officer of the area, learned of the bronzes. He purchased most of them to keep them together and reported the find in an anthropology journal publication.
In the dry season of 1959-60, the site was excavated at the request of the Nigerian Federal Department of Antiquities. The excavation was led by Thurstan Shaw, the first trained archeologist to work in British West Africa. He was assisted by Mallam Liman Ciroma. Information gleaned by the team on site prompted them to start excavation in two promising areas, the first being the compound of Isiah Anozie (called Igbo-Isiah), the second being in the compound of Richard Anozie (Igbo-Richard) about 30 meters to the south-west of the first site.
In 1964, Shaw and his team again excavated in Igbo-Ukwu, this time for the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, where he had an appointment as Research Professor. The team dug in an area east of the previous finds, in the compound of Jonah Anozie. They named the site Igbo-Jonah. In 1970 he published a two-volume monograph on his findings, and later books that added to his scholarship.
He established that the site was for the burial of the Nri elite, who were surrounded by grave goods of high quality. The bronze pieces were made by the sophisticated lost-wax technique. Shaw demonstrated by these finds that indigenous tribes had become highly sophisticated craftsmen "long before they had come into contact with Arabs or Europeans," as had been a common conception of cultural influence at the time.
The art historian Alice Apley wrote about the works in a book published in 2000:
"The inhabitants of Igbo-Ukwu had a metalworking art that flourished as early as the ninth century. Three sites have been excavated, revealing hundreds of ritual vessels and regalia castings of bronze or leaded bronze that are among the most inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made. The people of Igbo-Ukwu, ancestors of present-day Igbo, were the earliest smithers of copper and its alloys in West Africa, working the metal through hammering, bending, twisting, and incising. They are likely among the earliest groups of West Africans to employ the lost-wax casting techniques in the production of bronze sculptures. Oddly, evidence suggests that their metalworking repertory was limited and Igbo smiths were not familiar with techniques such as raising, soldering, riveting, and wire making, though these techniques were used elsewhere on the continent."
These bronze works were found with tens of thousands of beads, attained through trade for slaves, ivory, or spices. Igbo-Ukwu bronzeworking was an isolated phenomenon at the time, but bronze casting developed several centuries later in other parts of Nigeria.
|Artifacts recovered prior to excavation|
|1 Bronze brazier or bowl with stand|
|3 Large bronze bowls (over 30 cm diameter), round or oval|
|2 Medium-size bronze bowls (under 30 cm diameter), round or oval|
|9 Crescent-shaped bronze bowls, resembling pinched calabashes|
|1 Small pear-shaped bronze bowl|
|1 Bronze pot ring|
|2 Bronze vessels in the shape of shells|
|4 Cylindrical bronze ornaments|
|9 Bronze pendant ornaments, consisting of animal or human heads|
|1 Small bronze circular pendant ornament|
|4 Coiled bronze snakes on spikes|
|1 Bronze spiral 'handle'|
|1 Bronze sword hilt|
|4 Bronze sword scabbards|
|2 Bronze staff heads|
|1 Large bronze chain|
|24 Pieces of small bronze chain|
|20 Small bronze conical spiral bosses|
|4 Small bronze lattice-work ornaments|
|120 bronze rings, diameter about 12 cm|
|100 Small 'bell-shaped' bronze ornaments|
|8 Small bronze plaques|
|3 'Aro knot' manillas|
|2 'D-shaped' bronze ornaments|
|1 Small bronze conical bell|
|Artifacts excavated from the Igbo-Isiah site|
|1 bronze vase, approx. 33 cm high, consisting of a pot standing on its own pot stand or pedestal, and the whole enclosed in a knotted ropework pattern, attached below the rim of the pot and to the base, but free-standing away from the middle of the vessel|
|1 bronze pot stand, approx. 30 cm high, consisting of a hollow open-work cylinder terminating at top and at base in a wide flange; on one side there is a male, on the other a female, human figure, with negroid features|
|1 large bronze bowl|
|1 medium-size bronze bowl|
|1 vessel in the shape of a shell|
|1 bronze staff head|
|1 bronze sword hilt|
|1 bronze sword scabbard|
|1 coiled bronze snake on spike|
|2 pendant bronze ornaments of animal heads|
|A number of bronze rings, diameter approximately 104cm, D- shaped bronze ornaments, small plaques and conical spiral bosses.|
|A large number of bell-shaped bronze ornaments and pieces of small chain.|
|A heap of iron knives or razors|
|An iron sword lying in situ by the scabbard|
|Artifacts excavated from the Igbo-Richard site|
|A hearth or cooking place with bronze implements in it|
|A shrine containing a heap of pots piled up on top of each other|
|An ancient cistern containing pottery|
|A burial chamber containing human remains, four elephant tusks, a heavy bronze bangle, two bronze brackets supported on rods, a bronze leopard's skull surmounting a long rod, two remarkable wristlets or anklets consisting of a bronze framework the intervening panels of which were entirely filled in with blue beads, a number of flat metal plates and roundels, a number of bronze rings about 12 cm in diameter, a flat sceptre-like bronze object with a tang for hafting and an 'Aro knot' design above it, a bronze sword or dagger handle mounted by a human figure, and a large double circle, one above the other, of bronze bosses set in the remains of wood-perhaps some kind of coronet.|
|Artifacts excavated from the Igbo-Jonah site|
|One large complete pot and one probably complete. Large amounts of potsherds|
|Three small bronze bells|
|Eighteen bronze armlets|
|Two short bronze rods|
|One semi- circular 'knot' bar|
|One larger cylindrical object of bronze, decorated with birds, monkeys and fish|
|Crotal with chain link|
|Long bronze rod|
|Iron funnel- shaped object|
|One larger cylindrical object with 'ribbon loops'|
|Two smaller cylindrical objects|
|Two iron armlets|
|One bronze finger ring|
|Two pieces of iron sword|
|Hooked iron bar with fragment of bone attached|
|Four blue beads|
Interpretation of excavation data
After several interim reports, Professor Shaw published his conclusive report on the archaeological excavations in 1970. Professor Shaw's monograph was noted as being one of the most comprehensive in African archaeology at the time. Its "lavish production" largely prevented anyone but libraries and reviewers from possessing it, but in 1977 a paperback version was published, making the work more widely accessible. In this monograph, Shaw supported his initial thesis that the three sites comprise principally a repository for the keeping of sacred vessels and regalia (Igbo Isiah), the burial-place of an important dignitary (Igbo Richard), and a pit used for the deliberate disposal of a collection of ritual and ceremonial objects following the razing of a shrine house (Igbo Jonah).
The Radiocarbon dating technique was used to determine the age of the Igbo-Ukwu site and artifacts. Of six samples sent to the laboratory for testing, the one from Igbo Isiah was destroyed when the apparatus went wrong, and consequently there are no dates from this site. Of the remaining five samples, only one (sample I-2008), from the burial chamber (Igbo Richard), came from an artifact (wood from a stool) and therefore qualified for A1 status. The remaining four samples from the Igbo Jonah site were all composite charcoal samples, presumed to date the source deposits of artifacts, and thus qualified for A2 status.
For sample I-2008 (Igbo Richard), a calendar range of 880-1160 AD was determined. Of the other four samples from Igbo Jonah, sample HV1514 was dated at 760-1060 AD, sample HV1515 was dated 730-1000 AD, sample I 1784 was dated 690-1020 AD, and sample HV1516 was dated 1350-1430 AD. The much later date determined for sample HV1516, as compared to all other samples, is explained by Shaw as most probably being as a result of contamination of the sample, going into detail to show in what ways this contamination may have come about.
The academic community was initially skeptical of Shaw's published dates for Igbo-Ukwu, but these have now found general acceptance. The implications of the dating were criticised by Babatunde Laval and some other authors. and acceptance was slow because the data did not fit into conventional knowledge of the early 1970s.
As P.S. Garlake explains:
The weight of the evidence places it in the ninth century A.D. Certainly there is no concrete support for alternative interpretations. This means that an extremely sophisticated metal technology, an abundance of imported goods and extravagant accumulations of wealth in the hands of individuals, existed deep in the forest when, in the savanna, mercantile states were still very young. This is very different from the conventional view of the early historical developments of West Africa.
More than 165,000 beads were excavated in Igbo-Ukwu, the majority being monochrome glass beads with yellow, grayish blue, dark blue, dark green, peacock blue, and reddish brown colors predominating. Longitudinally striped beads of various colors and multicolored eye beads were also found. Beads made of stone were also recovered, including 15,000 short carnelian cylinders and barrels and lesser quantities of long barrels and faceted examples, as well as polished and dull quartz short-barrel, standard cylinder, and bi-cone beads.
The beads have established an international commercial element existing between Igbo-Ukwu and the north, as far as Egypt, with excavations in Gao, Mali and Fustat revealing similar beads. Beads have been discovered at those sites that have marked similarities to the Igbo-Ukwu beads, and are roughly dated to the same period. As a result of these finds, it has been established that most of the glass beads recovered in Igbo-Ukwu were manufactured in Old Cairo, notably in the workshops of Fustat. The glass beads, and some of the stone ones, are the only categories of material obtained by external long-distance trade which have been recovered in Igbo-Ukwu. This may be because other possibly traded goods (such as textiles) were more perishable in nature. Recovery of such beads from Gao suggests that this trade moved along the River Niger.
The high level of technical proficiency of artifacts found in Igbo-Ukwu raised questions about their origins, as it was new information about the culture. At the time, some historians theorized foreign influence or "phantom voyagers." But, from all indications, the metals were mined from nearby areas. At the time of excavation, the general opinion prevalent among scholars was that the copper needed to produce the bronze for the Igbo-Ukwu works was not found in Nigeria. This was one of the reasons why some scholars speculated a foreign source of materials, as well as a foreign background for the technology and cultural origin of the bronzes.
Research since the late 1970s has shown that such early assumptions were unfounded. Local copper deposits, exploited by the ninth century, have been researched, dated, and identified as the source of the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes through isotope analysis. As Craddock et al. note:
The most important reasons for invoking outside influence in the production of the bronzes from Igbo-Ukwu were technical and geological; in their sophistication and composition they apparently revealed outside technology and metals. In reality, research over the last 20 years has established that the very opposite is true.
A technically sophisticated bronze industry developed using its own metals with apparently little or no contact with outside technology. The idiosyncratic sophistication bespeaks a long but isolated tradition, and this must also apply to the culture that produced them, developing independently to attain a considerable degree of sophistication on the edge of the rain forest.
The skills of these ancient casters were based on the lost wax technique. Many of the castings were made in stages, adding to complexity. For instance, a bronze bowl had decorative items as part of its wall. Researchers have learned that the small decorative items, including insects and spirals, were cast first and placed in the wax model before the main parts of the bowl were made. The vessel was cast in two parts and fitted together by casting a middle band. A variety of ritual vessels have designs that seem to copy the form of organic gourd vessels, to which metal handles were fixed. Other bronze items included pendants, crowns and breastplates, staff ornaments, swords, and fly-whisk handles. These works were found with tens of thousands of glass beads, which were attained through trade.
The bronzes demonstrated a high artistic tradition and the artworks lacked known prototypes at the time. The highly skilled crafts and evidence of long-distance trading were evidence of specialized groups and wide-ranging economic relationships. The coloured glass beads were apparently made in Egypt. Researchers believed that the bronzes were part of the "furniture" in an elite burial chamber. The occupant may have held a position as a forerunner of a high personage, possibly a forerunner of the eze nri, a priest-king. Such figures held religious but not political power over large parts of the Igbo-inhabited region well into the 20th century.
A bronze ceremonial vessel made around the 9th century, one of the bronzes found at Igbo Ukwu, now at the British Museum.
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- Shaw, Thurstan (1 November 1960). "210. Excavations at Igbo-Ukwu, Eastern Nigeria: An Interim Report". Man 60: 161. doi:10.2307/2797876.
- Thurstan Shaw, "Further Excavations at Igbo-Ukwu, Eastern Nigeria: An Interim Report", Man, Vol. 65 (Nov. - Dec., 1965), pp. 181-184
- "Professor Thurstan Shaw", The Telegraph (UK), 9 March 2013
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- THURSTAN SHAW, Igbo- Ukwu: An Account of Archaeological Discoveries in Eastern Nigeria, London: Faber and Faber, Ltd./Evanston: Northwestern University Press, I970
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- British Museum Collection 
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