Ancient African artefacts: From the Benin Bronzes to the Zimbabwe Birds

The Benin Bronzes
Composite image: Foreground ancestral head of an oba (a king) - Bristol museum, taken by Matt Neale | CC BY-SA 2.0: Background: Single-figure plaque, mid-sixteenth to seve

In 2022, Germany will be returning the world-famous Benin Bronzes to Nigeria over a hundred years after they were looted during the colonisation of Africa. They are a group of sculptures, plaques and ornaments, most of which are made of brass and bronze and date back some 500 years from the West African Kingdom of Benin (modern-day Nigeria). Many pieces were cast for the ancestral altars of past kings and queen mothers.

During the late 19th century, over a thousand of these individual artefacts were stolen from Benin by British soldiers. They were then auctioned off and scattered to private collections and museums across the globe.

Growing pressure from the international community for these culturally significant treasures to be returned to their homeland has sparked fierce debate recently about how looted artefacts should be treated. Some argue the objects serve as 'cultural ambassadors' when displayed internationally, others suggest they have no rightful place outside their ancestral home.

With regards to the Benin Bronzes, various museums along with representatives from Nigeria have joined the Benin Dialogue Group. The group has the objective of establishing new museums in Benin City, including the forthcoming Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), to facilitate permanent displays of objects from the Kingdom of Benin.

The Benin Bronzes are one of many artefacts that represent the rich cultural heritage of Africa. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most famous objects and archaeology from African antiquity.

The Rosetta Stone

Before the Rosetta Stone, nobody knew how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. Discovered by Napoleon's army in Egypt in 1799, the stone dates back to 196 BC. The one-metre high black basalt slab has an ancient priestly decree carved onto it in three different scripts. The multi-lingual inscriptions enabled scholars to decipher and understand Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time. The Rosetta Stone now resides in the British Museum in London which describes its historical importance as ‘immense’.

The Tomb of Tutankhamun

Dating back some 3,300 years to Egypt’s New Kingdom, the tomb of King Tut was discovered in 1922 by a team of archaeologists led by Howard Carter, a British Egyptologist. Although it was the smallest royal tomb found in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, it was the most intact. Containing a treasure trove of thousands of ancient Egyptian objects, including an iron dagger made from a meteorite and an elaborate funerary mask, the tomb revealed to the modern world the sheer wealth that ancient Egyptian pharaohs took with them to the grave.

Oldowan Choppers

Dating back between 2.5 and 1.2 million years ago, Oldowan chopper tools were created by ancient humans known as Homo habilis for chopping, cutting and scraping. Originally discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the 1930s, the primitive objects are considered one of the oldest stone tools in existence. Their discovery, along with many others at Olduvai Gorge, helped to establish the fact that the first humans evolved in Africa.

The Brass Head of Ife

Unearthed at Ife in Nigeria in 1938, the Brass Head is one of 18 copper alloy sculptures that challenged Western conceptions of African art. Created during the 14th or 15th centuries AD, the intricate and naturalistic features of the head displayed a sophistication of craftsmanship that is so unique in African art that it astonished historians across the world. Believed to represent an Ooni (king or ruler) of the West African kingdom of Ife, the remarkable piece of brass-casting is seen as one of the highest achievements of African art and culture.

Bangwa Queen

Not only is the Bangwa Queen one of the world's most famous pieces of African art, but it also has huge sacred significance for the country of its origin, Cameroon. The 81cm tall wooden carving of a woman represents a physical manifestation of the power and health of the Bangwa people, a people indigenous to the western part of Cameroon. Taken by German colonisers in 1899, it once sold at auction for $3.4million. It currently resides in Paris under the care of the Dapper Foundation.

Golden Rhino of Mapungubwe

Created in the medieval Kingdom of Mapungubwe (modern-day South Africa bordering Botswana and Zimbabwe), the Golden Rhino is a small artefact carved from wood but covered in thin sheets of gold. Discovered in 1932 and currently residing in a museum in Pretoria, the 800-year-old figurine that is small enough to sit in the palm of your hand is considered one of South Africa’s greatest artefacts, a defining symbol of pre-colonial civilisation in the country.

Zimbabwe Birds

The national emblem of Zimbabwe is a stone sculpture of an eagle that features on the national flag, banknotes as well as the country’s coat of arms. The symbolism comes from soapstone bird carvings from the medieval city of Great Zimbabwe. Believed to have originally sat on monoliths and walls in the city between the 11th and 14th centuries AD, eight bird statues were looted from the ruins of the city and scattered across Europe. Nearly all of the culturally significant statues have now been returned to Zimbabwe.

Nok Terracottas

South of the Sahara, the earliest known sculptures come from the Nok culture, a population that thrived for two thousand years from 1,500 BC to 500 AD in what is now modern-day Nigeria. Dating back to the early Iron Age, the Nok people were famous for their terracotta sculptures that have often been discovered in fragments due to erosion. The terracottas usually depict the head of a man or woman, with intricate detail given to their hair.

Djenné-Djenno Figurines

Djenné-Djenno is the oldest known city in sub-Saharan Africa and was famous for its terracotta figurines that often depicted humans and animals. The city flourished during the 9th century AD but declined and was abandoned by the 1400s. Many of the figurines in existence today were created over 700 years ago and they suggest that the ancient city of Djenné-Djenno was a rich, varied and highly sophisticated urban society.