In 1939, in Igbo-Ukwu, present-day Anambra State, a man named Isaiah Anozie was digging a well in his compound when, eight feet deep, he struck metal objects.
His was the first of four sites of archaeological discoveries in Igbo-Ukwu, bringing to light over 700 high quality artifacts of bronze, copper, and iron, including ritual vessels, crowns, staff ornaments, fly-whisk handles, pendants, breastplates, swords, spears, and razors, and up to 165,000 pieces of pottery, glass, ivory, textiles, and carnelian and stone beads.
The findings, dating back to a millennium, are recognized as the oldest in West Africa, manufactured centuries before the Ife and Benin bronzes.
When Anozie first dug up the bronze artifacts, he did not know what they were. He gave some to his friends and neighbours and used the vessels to keep water for his goats. Six months later, the British colonial officer J.O. Field heard of the discovery and bought many of the artifacts from Anozie, his neighbours, and his friends. Although he did not believe that the Igbo ever had the skill level required for such intricate metal casting, Field, in 1940, published the discovery in the anthropology journal Man and eventually handed the artifacts to the Nigerian Department of Antiquity.
It took 20 years for more progress to be made. In 1959, the English archaeologist Thurstan Shaw led a team from the Antiquity Department to Igbo-Ukwu, and by 1964, working for the University of Ibadan, they had excavated three more sites around Anozie’s compound.
Three of the sites were named after the compound owners: Igbo Isaiah, Igbo Richard, and Igbo Jonah. Each became synonymous with what was found there: a shrine in Igbo Isaiah, a burial chamber in Igbo Richard, and a cache in Igbo Jonah.
The artifacts are refined and detailed. Many, for example, have decorative insects and spirals on them. The decorative items were cast first and later placed on the artifacts. The most recognizable artifact is the roped water pot, produced from lost wax casting.
The discoveries—the high levels of expertise and artistic sophistication and their superiority to European bronze casting of its time—changed the perception of not only Igbo culture but of West African art. It dispelled suggestions that the lack of prototypes could only mean that their creation was influenced by European contact. Further research and isotope analyses proved that the metals were produced locally, and radiocarbon dating pegged their origin in the 9th century. These findings were further supported by subsequent discoveries of metal ore in Abakiliki, present-day Ebonyi State, and of smelting furnaces and slag in the Nsukka region, in present-day Enugu State—in the towns of Lejja, dating to 2000 BC, and Opi, dating to 750 BC.
The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art, the 2008 anthology edited by Gerald Ward, describes the Igbo-Ukwu bronze as “among the most inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.