Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu

Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu

Intricate bronze ceremonial pot, 9th century, Igbo-Ukwu
Intricate bronze ceremonial pot, 9th century, Igbo-Ukwu
Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu is located in Nigeria
Shown within Nigeria
Location Igbo-Ukwu, Anambra State, Nigeria
Builder Kingdom of Nri
Founded Unknown, but prior to 1000 AD
Cultures Igbo culture
Associated with Igbo people
Site notes
Excavation dates 1959, 1964
Archaeologists Thurstan Shaw

The archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu revealed bronze artifacts dated to the 9th century A.D. which were initially discovered by Isiah Anozie in 1939 while digging a well in his compound in Igbo-Ukwu, an Igbo town in Anambra State, Nigeria. As a result of these finds, three archaeological sites were excavated in 1959 and 1964 by Thurstan Shaw which revealed more than 700 high quality artifacts of copper, bronze and iron, as well as about 165000 glass, carnelian and stone beads, pottery, textiles and ivory. They are the oldest bronze artifacts known in West African and were manufactured centuries before the emergence of other known bronze producing centers such as those of Ife and Benin. The bronzes include numerous ritual vessels, pendants, crowns, breastplates, staff ornaments, swords, and fly-whisk handles.[1]

The Igbo-Ukwu bronzes amazed the world with a very high level of technical and artistic proficiency and sophistication which was at this time distinctly more advanced than bronze casting in Europe.[2] Peter Garlake compares the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes "to the finest jewelry of rococo Europe or of Carl Faberge,"[3] and William Buller Fagg states they were created with "a strange rococo almost Faberge type virtuosity."[4] Frank Willett says that the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes portray a standard that is comparable to that established by Benvenuto Cellini five hundred years later in Europe.[5] Denis Williams calls them "an exquisite explosion without antecedent or issue."[6] One of the objects found, a water pot set in a mesh of simulated rope is described by Hugh Honour and John Fleming as

A virtuoso feat of cire perdue (lost wax) casting. Its elegant design and refined detailing are matched by a level of technical accomplishment that is notably more advanced than European bronze casting of this period.[2]

The high technical proficiency and lack of known prototypes of the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes led to initial speculation in the academic community that they must have been created after European contact and phantom voyagers were postulated. However research and isotope analysis has established that the source of the metals is of local origin and radio carbon dating has confirmed a 9th-century date, long before the earliest contact with Europe. The Igbo-Ukwu artifacts did away with the hitherto existing colonial era opinions in archeological circles that such magnificent works of art and technical proficiency could only originate in areas with contact to the outside world, or that they could not be crafted in an acephalous or egalitarian society such as that of the Igbo.[3] Some of the glass and carnelian beads have been found to be produced in Old Cairo at the workshops of Fustat thus establishing that trade contacts did exist between Igbo-Ukwu and ancient Egypt.[7][8][9][10] Archaeological sites containing iron smelting furnaces and slag have been excavated dating to 2000BC in Lejja and 750BC in Opi both in Nsukka region about 100 Kilometers east of Igbo-Ukwu.[11][12]


The initial finds were made by Isiah Anozie while digging in his compound in 1939. He was not aware of the significance of the objects he had found and gave away some of them to friends and neighbors, as well as using some of the vessels to water his goats. J.O. Field, the British colonial district officer of the area later learned of the finds and was able to purchase many of them, publishing the find in an anthropological journal.[13] He later handed over the artefacts to the Nigerian department of antiquity. Curiously Mr. Field noted at the time that

Although the Awka people are known to have done a little metal casting, it is practically certain that they [Igbo] never reached the degree of skill required to fashion any of the objects here descibed. (...) The Igbo people are not themselves metal workers, and as far as is known they never have been (...) it is improbable that it has lain buried for more than a century at the most.[13]

Subsequent research was to prove him wrong. Twenty years later, in 1959 and again in 1964 Thurstan Shaw and his team excavated three sites around the original find for the Nigerian department of antiquity and later for the University of Ibadan. The archaeological digs revealed hundreds of copper and bronze ritual vessels as well as iron swords, iron spear heads, iron razors and other artifacts dated a millennium earlier.[14][15]


Bronze ornamental staff head, 9th century, Igbo-Ukwu

Apparently the metal workers of ancient Igbo-Ukwu were not aware of commonly used techniques such as wire making, soldering or riveting which suggests an independent development and long isolation of their metal working tradition.[16] It is therefore perplexing that they were able to create objects with such fine surface detail that they depict, for example small insects which seem to have landed on the surface. Though these appear to have been riveted or soldered on to the artifacts, they were actually cast in one piece.[3] The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art describes them as being "among the most inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made."[16] Although the lost wax casting process was used to produce the bronzes, latex was probably used in Igbo-Ukwu instead of beeswax which would explain how the artists were able to produce such fine and filigrann surface detail. Some of the techniques used by the ancient smiths are not known to have been used outside Igbo-Ukwu such as the production of complex objects in stages with the different parts later fixed together by brazing or by casting linking sections to join them.[3][17] However the complexity of some of the Igbo-Ukwu objects has led to considerable altercation between various metallurgic experts and debates regarding the actual production process which is an affidavit for the highly developed and intricate work of the ancient artists.[18]

The composition of the metal alloys used in the production of the bronze is unique, with an unusually high silver content and is distinct from alloys used in Europe, the Mediterranean or other African bronze centers.[19] The origin of the metal ore used to produce the bronze has been located to old mines in Abakiliki about 100 kilometers from Igbo-Ukwu.[7][20]


  1. ^ Apley, Alice (October 2001). "Igbo–Ukwu (ca. 9th century)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  
  2. ^ a b Honour, Hugh; Fleming, John (2005). A world history of art (7th ed.). London: Laurence King.  
  3. ^ a b c d Garlake, Peter (2002). Early art and architecture of Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 120.  
  4. ^ Herbert, Eugenia W. (1984). Red gold of Africa : copper in precolonial history and culture. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 89.  
  5. ^ Willett, Frank (14 April 1983). "Who taught the smiths of Igbo Ukwu?" (PDF). New Scientist. Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  6. ^ Williams, Denis (1974). Icon and Image: A Study of Sacred and Secular Forms in African Classical Ar. Allen lane London. p. 211. 
  8. ^ Insoll, Timothy; Shaw, Thurstan (March 1997). "Gao and Igbo-Ukwu: Beads, interregional trade, and beyond". African Archaeological Review 14 (1): 9–23.  
  9. ^ Sutton, J. E. G. (1991). "The international factor at Igbo-Ukwu". The African Archaeological Review 9 (1): 145–160.  
  10. ^ Sutton, J. E. G. (2001). African Archaeological Review 18 (1): 49–62.  
  11. ^ Eze–Uzomaka, Pamela. "Iron and its influence on the prehistoric site of Lejja". University of Nigeria,Nsukka, Nigeria. Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  12. ^ Holl, Augustin F. C. (6 November 2009). "Early West African Metallurgies: New Data and Old Orthodoxy". Journal of World Prehistory 22 (4): 415–438.  
  13. ^ a b Field, J. O. (January 1940). "1. Bronze Castings Found at Igbo, Southern Nigeria". Man 40: 1.  
  14. ^ Shaw, Thurstan (November 1960). "210. Excavations at Igbo-Ukwu, Eastern Nigeria: An Interim Report". Man 60: 161.  
  15. ^ Shaw, Thurstan (November 1965). "217. Further Excavations at Igbo-Ukwu, Eastern Nigeria: An Interim Report". Man 65: 181.  
  16. ^ a b Ward, edited by Gerald W.R. (2008). The Grove encyclopedia of materials and techniques in art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 71.  
  17. ^ Willet, Frank (1972). "The Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu". The Journal of African History 13 (3): 514–516.  
  18. ^ Berns, Marla; Shaw, Thurstan (July 1978). "Unearthing Igbo-Ukwu: Archaeological Discoveries in Eastern Nigeria". African Arts 11 (4): 14.  
  19. ^ Bunney, Sarah (10 June 1989). "West African metalworking predates European contact" (122; 1668). New Scientist. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  20. ^ Craddock, Paul T.; Ambers, Janet; Hook, Duncan R.; Farquhar, Ronald M.; Chikwendu, Vincent E.; Umeji, Alphonse C.; Shaw, Thurstan (January 1997). "Metal Sources and the Bronzes From Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria". Journal of Field Archaeology 24 (4): 405–429.