André Burmann | Project | Publications | Vita 


Form, context and function of prehistoric sculptures in Nigeria and other cultural complexes in West Africa

Prehistory of Africa
Supervision: Prof. Dr. Peter Breunig

Large-scale figurines have a long history in Africa. The oldest sculptures so far discovered on the sub-Saharan continent are those from Central Nigeria made out of burnt clay (terracotta). They are generally attributed to an archaeological complex called Nok Culture, which extended from approximately 1500 BC to the beginning of the current era.

Since 2005 and nearly eighty years after the first discovery of a terracotta figurine, the Nok Culture has been investigated by an interdisciplinary research team directed by Prof. Dr. Peter Breunig from the Institute of Archaeological Sciences at the Goethe-University in Frankfurt (and since 2009 within the scope of a long-term project funded by the German Research Foundation, DFG). The new investigations have, amongst other findings, allowed the figurines to be placed within a narrower time frame of 900 to 400 BC. Along with the standardized production of terracotta sculptures, the early iron-smelting and iron-working also represent characteristic technological achievements of the aforementioned cultural complex. Both the figurines and the iron-production are, by virtue of the lack of antecedents, considered as a result of autochthonous developments.

The impacts of the Nok Culture on younger archaeological complexes, which also yield figural art, are currently under controversial discussion: several traditions of figurine production out of clay, stone and later also of bronze or brass are known in the region of modern Nigeria alone. Thus, and departing from insights of the Frankfurt project on the Nok figurines, those sculptural assemblages are to be analyzed via a comparative study – including both a spatial and chronological perspective. The lead question is, to what extent the societies with figurine traditions impacted on each other or perhaps even conditioned one another?

The comparative analyses build upon figurine finds from well documented archaeological contexts. The hard facts, which constitute the data basis of the comparisons, comprise the feature properties (i.e. size, depths, position, sediment and associations) as well as the characteristics of the finds (i.e. material, technique of production, form, style, ornamentation, and fragmentation degree).

While the data concerning the Nok Culture finds is already available thanks to the Frankfurt project, the comparison must yet be completed bringing in the equivalents of the other figural traditions, based on the existing literature and on own documentation work in collections and archives.

The general aim of the project is to generate an overview of the West African prehistoric traditions producing figurines made of terracotta or other materials and by comparing the latter particularly within their archaeological contexts to finally work out (potentially) common and distinct traits. The objects´ social meaning and function are further to be explored along the line of theoretical approaches, including e.g. Chapman´s “enchained relations” (2000). The figurines have hitherto often been linked to rituals and ancestor worship; these interpretations, however, remain hypothetical and mostly speculative. Recently excavated features have delivered new insights on this matter.

Taking into account the theoretical approaches, the identification of the figurines’ respective social value is attempted according to following questions: has the value of the sculptures derived from their daily use or were the figurines explicitly made for religious-ritual acts, for instance in the context of burials? Have their function and value changed throughout time? And were traditions passed on? Or did new systems of value arise?