Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.

When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹ staffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.

Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,

When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.

The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.

Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.

Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹ staffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ (which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹ propped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.

In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹ of community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.

It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹ that had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹ from Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.

The story of how the ukhurhẹ were obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.

Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹ in the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021. Our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Sacred stone axes on Benin altars

Detail of ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City, showing stone axe head. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. NWT 160, RAI 400.17962.

During his anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking people of Nigeria in 1909-10, Northcote Thomas spent several months working in Benin City itself. His photographs of the City’s prominent chiefs, its architecture, shrines and markets provide an important record of the capital of the Benin Empire just 12 years after its fall at the hands of the British Punitive Expedition. Although accounts of the sacking of Benin City in 1897 suggest that little was left of Benin’s centuries-old civilization, it is clear from Thomas’s photographs that much escaped destruction and not everything was looted.

Ozomo shrine, Benin City, 1909
Ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. NWT 160, RAI 400.17962.

Thomas documented a number of Benin shrines in considerable detail. His photographs of the ancestral altar at Chief Ezomo‘s palace, for example, shows many of the classic Benin shrine objects such as rattle staffs (ukhurhẹ), memorial heads (uhunmwun) and altar bells (eroro). Of these ritual objects, Thomas seems to have been particularly intrigued by the presence of polished stone axes or celts in these assemblages.

Polished stone axe, Ozomo shrine, Benin City, 1909
Close up of stone axe head from the ancestral shrine at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Note that the axe head has been propped up against Thomas’s pith helmet to take the photograph. NWT 157, RAI 400.17960.

Thomas’s anthropological reports and other publications contain no information about these stone axes. Indeed, it is important to note that the vast majority of Thomas’s fieldwork findings remained unpublished. In a letter written in 1923 to his friend and colleague Bernhard Struck, Curator of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden, he notes that he published only 10 per cent of his material from his Edo tour – that deemed to be of relevance to members of the colonial service. Among the fragments of unpublished fieldnotes and manuscripts that survive, however, there are a few pages in which he discusses the celts.

Northcote Thomas, Edo manuscript, stone celts
Unpublished handwritten manuscript notes on ‘stone implements’ from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour. The hand-writing on these pages is not Thomas’s – possibly that of an assistant or his wife. University of Cambridge Library.

Thomas writes that ‘Aro [i.e. Chief Ero] told me that they were used with Osun [a deity] or put in the ancestral shrines to represent their fathers, and were also used in foretelling’. They could also be used as objects to swear by or curse: ‘Chief Ine of Edo said that when they have to reprove a wife or child or anyone, they take a stone implement and lick it and curse them. If a man is before them whom they wish to curse, they take a stone and an uxure [ukhurhẹ]. They knock the uxure on the ground, lick the stone and blow the spittle over the man and wish that he may not prosper’.

Northcote Thomas, Edo manuscript, stone celts
Unpublished handwritten manuscript notes on ‘stone implements’ from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 Edo tour. The hand-writing on these pages is Thomas’s. University of Cambridge Library.

It was not only in Benin City that Thomas encountered these stone implements. He also records examples in Irrua, Okpe, Otua and other locations in what is today Edo State. At Okpe he was shown a stone called ‘esax evalalox umu‘ [?] that was said to have fallen from the sky. Elsewhere he was told that ‘a stone axe is a “steward” of lightning’, and in Otua he explains that they are placed in the Osun shrine, and if they are given palm oil (as a sacrifice), then lightning will not strike the house.

The association between these axe heads and lightning is widespread, not only throughout West Africa, but also in Europe and elsewhere, where they are regarded as ‘thunderbolts’ or ‘thunderstones‘ – weapons wielded by gods of thunder, hurled to earth, and not of human manufacture. In 1903, Henry Balfour, Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, had written about such ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’ in the anthropological journal Man, which was then edited by Thomas. In a later article in Folklore, in which he surveyed the phenomenon of thunderbolts throughout the world, Balfour also discussed a number of small bronze pendants in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection made in the form of miniature stone axes, which had also been acquired in Benin City

Pitt Rivers Museum, bronze amulet representation of thunder stone
Left: excerpt and figures from Henry Balfour’s article ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’, originally read to the Folklore Society in 1929. Here Balfour describes and illustrates the miniature bronze reproductions of stone axes from Benin in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection. Right: a more recent photograph of one of these bronze pendants (Figure 11 in the 1929 article), PRM 1909.61.1.

In addition to the examples he photographed at Chief Ezomo’s palace, Thomas also photographed an assemblage of stone axes from an ancestral shrine at Chief Ogiame’s palace in Benin City, and another set at a shrine dedicated to the deity Oxwahe at Eviakoi, in the north-west outskirts of Benin City. Thomas also appears to have collected a number of examples, including one evidently dug up during forestry operations, although we have been unable to trace any of them during our research at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores.

Stone implements from Ogiame shrine, Benin City,1909
Stone axe heads from an ancestral shrine at Chief Ogiame’s palace, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Clockwise from top left: NWT 80, RAI 400.17889; NWT 83, RAI 400.17893; NWT 82, RAI 400.17893; NWT 81b, RAI 400.17891.
Face of Ochwaihe, Eviakoi, Benin City, 1909
Oxwahe shrine, Eviakoi, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. In addition to the stone celts placed on the altar, the assemblage in the recess includes lozenge-shaped shaped blocks of kaolin clay/chalk (orhue), also a ritual substance. On the envelope in which the negative was stored, Thomas has written ‘Face of Ochwaihe [Oxwahe]’. NWT 1206. RAI 400.18311.
Stone implements from Ochwaihe, Benin City,1909
Stone axe heads/implements from the Oxwahe shrine, Eviakoi, Benin City. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1909. Clockwise from top left: NWT 1208, RAI 400.18313; NWT 1209, RAI 400.18313; NWT 1210b, RAI 400.18316; NWT 1210, RAI 400.18315.

It was not until Graham Connah‘s Polished Stone Axes in Benin, published in Nigeria in 1964, that a more substantial study of these stones became available. A British archaeologist, Connah had been appointed by the Federal Department of Antiquities to conduct a programme of archaeological excavation in Benin City in 1961. Connah was interested in these prehistoric stone axes since they represented the earliest evidence of ‘human industry’ in the region. During his research, Connah was able to consult authorities such as the well-known historian and curator of the Benin Museum, Chief Jacob Egharevba, as well as the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II, himself.

Connah, Polished Stone Axes in Benin
Front cover and illustration from Graham Connah’s Polished Stone Axes in Benin publication. The photograph (top right) is a detail of a brass altar group thought to depict Oba Ohen at the Agwe festival, holding a stone axe head in his left hand. The line drawing is of an axe head obtained from Chief Osuabor of Benin City. Both were/are in the collection of the National Museum, Benin.

Connah provided a review of the existing, though scant, literature on the celts and drew attention to the depiction of such axes in some of the famous Benin bronze artworks. With Egharevba, he also acquired over 20 examples for the Benin Museum, the close examination of which formed the focus of his publication. It is evident that Connah had no knowledge of Northcote Thomas’s unpublished photographs and notes, which would have otherwise made an important contribution to his study.

Connah, Polished Stone Axes in Benin
Plate 5 from Graham Connah’s Polished Stone Axes in Benin. ‘Group of polished stone axes etc. on Oba Akenzua II’s shrine to Eweka II. (Note matchbox positioned for scale.)

In the present context, perhaps the most interesting section of Connah’s publication is that on ‘Bini beliefs about stone axes’. Connah notes that the Bini call the axes ughavan, a contraction of ughamwan (axe) prefixed to avan (thunder), and meaning ‘thunder-axe’ or ‘thunderbolt’. In the early 1960s they were evidently not uncommonly found on household shrines throughout Benin City, and Connah states that they could be seen on Oba Akenzua II’s shrines to his predecessors, Eweka II, Overamwen and Adolo. In historical bronzes, obas are sometimes depicted holding an ughavan in their left hand. Here, its function is ‘to increase the potency of a cursing or blessing’.

Altar pieces Benin from Plankensteiner, Benin Kings and Rituals
Two 18th-century altar groups depicting obas holding thunder-axes in their left hands. Left: Oba Akenzua I (ascended throne c. 1711-15); right: Oba Ewuakpe (ascended throne c.1685-1700), both in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin. Reproduced from Benin Kings and Rituals exhibition catalogue, ed. Barbara Plankensteiner.

Connah further notes that there was no realisation in Benin that these prehistoric stone tools had a functional origin. ‘To the Bini’, he writes, ‘they are “thunderbolts”, and “thunderbolts” they remain. Any suggestion that they could be stone tools made at a time before the availability of iron in West Africa is met by polite misbelief’. He also doubts that they have been made in more recent centuries for ‘cult purposes’, having recorded stories about how they were found during farming or embedded in trees that have been struck by lightning.

In her recent book, Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre, Kathy Curnow provides a succinct summary of these fascinating objects:

Prehistoric stone axe heads antedate metal tools. Easily damaged, they were tossed away and replaced, and readily turn up today when land is farmed. In Benin, as in many other parts of the world, they are not always recognized as man-made objects. Instead, they are considered thunderstones (ughavan), the product of lightning strikes. The Edo believe Ogiuwu, the god of death, hurls them to the ground as manifestations of his power and anger. The Oba likewise has the right to kill, and gripped thunderstones or celts to magnify his curses. Still kept on altars, they call the ancestors into service as witnesses and supporters.

References

  • Balfour, H. 1903. ‘”Thunderbolt” Celts from Benin’, Man, vol.3, pp.182-3.
  • Balfour, H. 1929. ‘Concerning Thunderbolts’, Folklore, vol.40, pp.37-49, 168-173.
  • Connah, G. 1964. Polished Stone Axes in Benin. Nigerian National Press.
  • Curnow, K. 2016. Iyare! Splendor and Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  • Plankensteiner, B. (ed.) 2007. Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. Snoeck Publishers, Ghent.

All Northcote Thomas photographs reproduced here have been scanned from the glass plate negatives in the collection of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and are reproduced courtesy of the Institute.