Bronze Head from Ife

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Coordinates: 7°28′20″N 4°33′20″E / 7.4722°N 4.5556°E / 7.4722; 4.5556

Bronze Head from Ife
Arte yoruba, nigeria, testa da ife, 12-15mo secolo.JPG
The Ife Head on display at the British Museum
Material"Bronze", actually brass
Size35 cm high
Createdc.1300 AD
Present locationBritish Museum, London

The Bronze Head from Ife, or Ife Head,[1] is one of eighteen copper alloy sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal centre of the Yoruba people. It is believed to represent a king. It was probably made in the thirteenth-fourteenth century AD, before any European contact had taken place with the local population. The realism and sophisticated craftsmanship of the objects challenged Western conceptions of African art at the time. A year after its finding, the Ife Head was taken to the British Museum.[2]


Like most west African "bronzes" the piece is actually made of copper and various alloys, described by the British Museum as "heavily leaded zinc-brass".[3] Modern practice in museums and archaeology is increasingly to avoid terms such as bronze or brass for historical objects in favour of the all-embracing "copper alloy".[4] The head is made using the lost wax technique and is approximately three-quarters life-size, measuring 35 cm high. The artist designed the head in a very naturalistic style. The face is covered with incised striations, but the lips are unmarked. The headdress suggests a crown of complex construction, composed of different layers of tube shaped beads and tassels. This decoration is typical of the bronze heads from Ife.[5] The crown is topped by a crest, with a rosette and a plume which now is slightly bent to one side. The crown's surface includes the remains of both red and black paint. The lifelike rendering of sculptures from mediaeval Ife is exceptional in sub-Saharan African art, and initially was considered the earliest manifestation of a tradition that continued in Yoruba art, in early Benin art and other pieces. An excavation in Igbo-Ukwu in 1959 provided scientific evidence of an established metal working culture and bronze artifacts that may be dated to the ninth or tenth centuries.

1938 excavation[edit]

The Ife Head was found in 1938 at the Wunmonije Compound, Ife, by accident during house building works. It was found among sixteen other brass and copper heads and the upper half of a brass figure. Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound and neighbouring areas ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces left Nigeria and are now in the collections of major museums. The British Museum's Ife Head was acquired by the editor of the Daily Times of Nigeria, and the bronze sculpture eventually made its way to the National Art Collections Fund,[6] which donated it to the museum in 1939.

The discovery of the sculptures was the spur for the government to control the export of antiquities from Nigeria. Before this was achieved, this head made its way to London via Paris and another two were sent to America. Attempts to prevent further exports, prompted by Leo Frobenius, were successfully promulgated in 1938, when legislation was enacted by the colonial authorities.[7] Frobenius was a German ethnologist and archaeologist who was one of the first European scholars to take a serious interest in African art, especially that of the Yoruba.


Yoruba copper mask for King Obalufon II; circa 1300 AD; copper; height: 29.2 cm; discovered at Ife; Ife Museum of Antiquities (Ife, Nigeria)

The Ife head is thought to be a portrait of a ruler known as an Ooni or Oni. It was likely made under the patronage of King Obalufon II whose famous naturalistic life size face mask in copper shares stylistic features with this work. Today among the Yoruba, Obalufon is identified as the patron deity of brass casters. The period in which the work was made was an age of prosperity for the Yoruba civilisation, which was built on trade via the River Niger to the peoples of West Africa. Ife is regarded by the Yoruba people as the place where their deities created humans.[8]

These bronze heads are evidence of additional trade since Ife-made glass beads have been found widely in West Africa. The copper is thought to be from local Nigerian ores, although earlier scholars believed it to have come from Central Europe, North West Mauritania, the Byzantine Empire, or Southern Morocco.

The bronze casts could have been modelled on contemporary terracotta sculptures.[9] A long tradition of terracotta sculpture with similar characteristics existed in the culture prior to the date of the creation of these metal sculptures. Ivory was another material used frequently in African art.

Impact on art history[edit]

When Frobenius discovered the first example of a similar head it undermined existing Western understanding of African civilisation. Experts could not believe that Africa had ever had a civilisation capable of creating artefacts of this quality. Attempting to explain what was thought an anomaly, Frobenius offered his theory that these had been cast by a colony of ancient Greeks established in the thirteenth century BC.[10] He made a claim, widely circulated in the popular press, that his hypothesised ancient Greek colony could be the origin of the ancient legend of the lost civilization of Atlantis.[11][12][13]

It is now recognised that these statues represent an indigenous African tradition that attained a high level of realism and refinement.[8]

Influence on contemporary culture[edit]

There is widespread use of the Ife Head in logos and branding of Nigerian corporations and educational institutions such as Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife.[14]

The Ife Head was the symbol for the 1973 All-Africa Games in Lagos.[15]

The British Museum's Ife Head was included in the 2010 major exhibition Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa, developed in partnership with Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the Museum for African Art, New York and the British Museum. The exhibition was part of a series of events that marked the 50th anniversary of Nigerian independence.[16] In 2011 the Ife Head was included in the British Museum/BBC's A History of the World in 100 Objects[17]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ The name used by the British Museum
  2. ^ The Ife Head, British Museum, retrieved 30 November 2013
  3. ^ British Museum online database "The Ife Head"
  4. ^ The British Museum collection database "scope note" on "copper alloy", "brass" and "bronze" reads "The term copper alloy should be searched for full retrievals on objects made or bronze or brass. This is because bronze and brass have at times been used interchangeably in the old documentation, and copper alloy is the Broad Term of both. In addition, the public may refer to certain collections by their popular name, such as 'The Benin Bronzes' most of which are actually made of brass." British Museum, "Scope Note" for "copper alloy". Retrieved on 2014-05-26.
  5. ^ Bronzes from Ife and Benin, Peter Herrmann, Berlin, 2007, retrieved 30 November 2013
  6. ^ Ife head Brass head of a ruler, British Museum highlights, retrieved 30 November 2013
  7. ^ Hoffman, edited by Barbara T. (2006). Art and cultural heritage : law, policy, and practice (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 138. ISBN 0521857643.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b Ife head, History of the World in 100 Objects, BBC, retrieved 30 November 2013
  9. ^ Smith, Robert (1988). Kingdoms of the Yoruba (3rd ed.). Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 25. ISBN 0299116042.
  10. ^ Frank Willet (1960). "Ife and Its Archaeology". The Journal of African History. 1 (2): 231–248. doi:10.1017/s002185370000181x.
  11. ^ On the ruins of Atlantis – Leo Frobenius between research and Vision (in German) Archived 2013-12-03 at the Wayback Machine,, retrieved 1 December 2013
  12. ^ "German Discovers Atlantis in Africa; Leo Frobenius Says Find of Bronze Poseidon Fixes Lost Continent's Place" (PDF). The New York Times. January 30, 1911. Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  13. ^ C. Hercules Read (March 1911). "Plato's "Atlantis" rediscovered". Burlington Magazine. 18 (96). pp. 330–5. Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  14. ^ Platte, Editha (2010). Bronze Head from Ife. Hambolu, M. O. (Musa O.). London: British Museum Press. ISBN 9780714125923. OCLC 430498709.
  15. ^ "Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa". British Museum. Retrieved 2018-11-09.
  16. ^ "Kingdom of Ife". British Museum. Retrieved 2018-11-10.
  17. ^ "BBC - A History of the World - Object : Ife head". Retrieved 2018-11-10.

Further reading

  • Suzanne Preston Blier, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Politics, and Identity c.1300, Cambridge University Press, 2015
  • John Mack (ed), Africa, Arts and Cultures, London 2005
  • Editha Platte, Bronze Head from Ife, British Museum Press, 2010
  • Frank Willett, The Art of Ife (CD Rom), The University of Glasgow, 2004
Preceded by
62: Hebrew astrolabe
A History of the World in 100 Objects
Object 63
Succeeded by
64: David Vases