Sunday, February 19, 2012

Archeological finds in Ile-Ife

If I had been born elsewhere, I might have considered becoming an archeologist. But I was born in Nigeria and concluded at an early age that Nigeria had nothing to offer archeologically.  The ancient inhabitants of the land had left nothing that could be discovered, not even their bones could survive the  humid rain forest climate. Whatever artifacts that were of any cultural or historical significance were in plain sight and yet, had not been decoded (such as the Oranmiyan staff). So instead, I read up on ancient Egypt and fantasized about discovering a new mummy and accompanying treasures, and maybe cracking the curse of Tutankamen.

Then I discovered the Ife heads. Well, I did not discover them – they were discovered in 1938 - but I just learned of their existence (or more precisely, of their significance).  After watching documentaries on youtube I decided to order a book. British museum in 2010, I decided to order a book which would allow me to peek closer at the images. Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria features a collection put together by the Museum of African Art and this collection was on display at the British Museum in 2010. Professor Akin Ige and his wife were visiting my family, so I thought I would show off my new acquisition as it was delivered. “See what I got,” I said to Mrs. Ige. She looked and said, “Oh, we were there, at the opening of the exhibit.”

It turned out that Prof. Ige was there to deliver a lecture. He is a professor of geology and is the Director of the Natural History Museum at Ile-Ife, so it should come as no surprise that he would deliver a lecture at the opening of an exhibit of historical artifacts discovered in Ife. It was the subject of his lecture that shocked me. The ancient production of glass at Ile-Ife! “Glass? Really? Wouldn’t that be ironic?” I asked doubtfully (thinking of the stories, mockingly narrated and readily accepted, of chiefs and obas who sold out their land and people for glass beads).
He went on to tell me a lot about the archeological work he has done and I will narrate my conversation with Prof. Ige in another post.  For now, here are some highlights:
  • Ancient glass furnaces have been discovered and glass bead manufacture is estimated to have existed up until 1200, though the beads continued to be traded afterwards. The glass beads were at one time thought to have been imports, but no other glass anywhere in the world has the same properties. Recent discoveries have led to the conclusions that were locally manufactured.
  • There was an ancient ceramic tile industry around 1200 when Oluwo, the only female Ooni (king) of Ile-Ife established an environmental code that required construction of potsherd pavements. 
  • The iron industry was not all iron. Steel was also produced.
  • There’s a huge collection of figurines depicting people in different walks of life in Esie, a town about 150km northwest of Ile-Ife. They weren’t hidden or buried, simply worshipped or revered by the local people. These figurines, about a thousand of them and reputed to be the largest collection of figurines discovered in sub-saharan Africa, formed the basis of the first National Museum in Nigeria in 1945.
After the initial surprise and awe comes a feeling of incongruency.  If these skills existed a thousand years ago, what happened to them and to the people who had them? Did the skills not evolve, grow, expand?  Why did glass making disappear? Who made the Esie figurines and why would those who came to live there afterwards believe they were of supernatural origin?  I suspect part of the answer lies in a culture of secrecy that may have existed in a super-specialized guilds with knowledge strictly constrained within the bounds of each group. But that’s too simple and unsatisfying…there had to be more.

Perhaps, continued archeological research, which is still in its infancy in West Africa will yield more answers.

1 comment:

Ife Ooye said...

interesting. i just posted it on my blog. i hope you don't mind.