In 1775, a group of refugees from Old Oyo arrived in Esie, an Igbomina town in the present-day Kwara State. On a hunting trip, one of them, a man named Baragbon, found something odd: in a grove of Peregun trees, arranged in a semi-circle, were hundreds of soapstone figures, of men, women, children, and animals in different postures, and in their centre, a chief figure, surrounded by guards and servants. Numbering up to 1,700 at the time, they are considered to be one of the largest collections of stone carvings in Africa.
The story of the figures, which have been dated to between the 12th and 15th centuries, is still unravelled. While scholars suggest that they were carved by Yoruba artists, local tradition explains them to be petrified people. Those people are said to have been rebellious settlers who were not received by the Esie people, and in retaliation became rebellious and a security threat. To stop them, the local deity turned them into stones.
Most of the figures are male, with identical facial marks said to be the ancient mark of the Nupe, outlined eyes, and nostrils; bare-bodied, with protruding navels and sagging pectorals and breasts; and adorned with necklaces and bracelets and seated on one-legged stools. They are mostly 30 to 65 cm in height. The female, in different headdresses, have four marks on the nape of their necks. There are figures of male soldiers with quivers and arrows, female soldiers with curved swords, and of a musician playing a pipe.
In 1945, the Esie Museum was built to house the figures—about 800 of them. A few figures were moved to the National Museum in Lagos and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
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.