In 1938, an ordinary day in the town of Igbo-Ukwu, located about 40 kilometres southeast of Onitsha in Anambra State, took an extraordinary turn when Isaac Anozie was digging a well in his compound. Amidst the earth, he uncovered a collection of highly decorated bronze bowls, a discovery that would reshape the region’s history. Mr. J.O. Field, the district officer, recognised the historical and archaeological significance of these findings and purchased some of them. In 1946, these invaluable artefacts found their permanent home in the Nigeria Museum in Lagos, where the Federal Department of Antiquities was first established.
The allure of the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes lies in their unique style of decoration, distinct from the famed art of Ife and Benin.
Origin: Unveiling Mysteries
The true origin of Igbo-Ukwu remains shrouded in mystery, even among the native inhabitants. While it was initially presumed to be a recent find due to the preservation of some cloth materials alongside the bronzes, the ancient roots of this discovery beg further exploration.
The Excavations: Thurstan Shaw’s Arrival
In November 1959, British archaeologist Thurstan Shaw answered the call from the Nigerian Department of Antiquities and began the comprehensive excavation of Igbo-Ukwu. The excavations spanned three major locations, each uniquely identified as Igbo-Isaiah, Igbo-Richard, and Igbo-Jonah. This nomenclature facilitated reference and cataloguing.
Igbo-Isaiah Excavation: The Treasures Below
The first excavation, Igbo-Isaiah, unearthed a treasure trove of richly decorated bronzes, including bronze roped pots, bronze altar stands, iron knives, globular pots with stoppers, bronze shells, copper spiral ornaments, cloth pieces, small and large bronze bowls, bead rows, calabash pieces, and more. The artistry displayed is remarkable, differing from the artistic traditions of Benin and Ife. These bronzes, ornately decorated with complex castings, demonstrate impressive technical expertise and detail. They suggest the use of sacred vessels by wealthy kings in their rituals and ceremonies, with the bronze staff head signifying regal authority.
Igbo-Richard Site: A Window into Igbo Culture
While the Igbo-Richard site offered insights into Igbo culture and burial customs, it yielded fewer art objects. Within this site, archaeologists uncovered a tomb seemingly lined and roofed with wooden planks, believed to belong to a priestly king. Among the findings were a bronze leopard skull set on a copper rod, a bronze horse rider, a faw holder, bracelets, anklets, and an astonishing 100,000 beads, alongside scattered skeletons. Evidently, a deceased king had been positioned on a stool, adorned with bracelets, amidst five accompanying slaves.
Igbo-Jonah Site: A Mixed Bounty
Four years later, the Igbo-Jonah site was excavated. Although it did not yield as much as the previous two sites, it still held significance. Discoveries included a large number of decorated pots, a pottery vessel adorned with two snakes and a chameleon, and various miscellaneous bronze pieces, such as whistles, bells, and iron razors, all reflecting the ancient Igbo culture.
Techniques: Mastery of Art and Craft
The findings from Igbo-Ukwu represent a concentration of social wealth. While the bronze casting took place in this region, raw materials were likely imported, potentially from North Africa, with glass for beads originating from the Islamic world. These artefacts display advanced modelling techniques, showcasing the expertise of early craftsmen, unrivalled in Black Africa.
Dating: Echoes of the 9th Century
Through radiocarbon dating, it has been established that the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes date back over a thousand years, with most falling in the middle of the 9th century A.D. These ancient treasures offer a window into a rich and sophisticated past, challenging preconceived notions of African art and craftsmanship.
Extract from the archives of the late Chief Akpallah Okenyodo’s research on art history.