As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project we have been using art and creativity as methods of re-engaging with the anthropological archives assembled by Northcote Thomas in West Africa in the early twentieth century. This has involved developing many wonderfully rewarding collaborations with Nigerian and Sierra Leonean artists. Much of the resulting work has been displayed at exhibitions in Benin City, Lagos and Nsukka.
One of the artists we have been working with in Sierra Leone is Sheku Shakalearn Mansaray. Shakalearn grew up in a village in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, but came to Freetown in 1990. He comes from a family of artists and developed his skills as a carver partly through an apprenticeship and partly through formal training at Milton Margai College of Education and Technology. He is coordinator of an NGO called Peacelinks, which uses art and performance to promote peacebuilding and social mobilization especially among young people.
Shakalearn chose to engage with a series of photographs Northcote Thomas made in 1914 documenting pot-making in the town of Kamalo in present-day Sanda Loko chiefdom in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. Thomas created a number of these photographic series during his Nigerian and Sierra Leonean tours. Each image in a sequence recorded a different stage in a process: the stages in a manufacturing process, for example, or a ritual. From a sequence of 15 photographs showing stages in the production of earthenware pots in Kamalo, Shakalearn selected eight to reproduce in his carved panel.
Rather than carving on newly cut timber, Shakalearn salvaged planks from an old Creole ‘board house‘ that was being demolished in Freetown. These beautiful wooden houses, built during the 19th century, were once common in Freetown. Unfortunately, many have fallen into disrepair and they have gradually been knocked down to be replaced with modern concrete structures. When Northcote Thomas visited Freetown during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone, these houses would have predominated.
After rescuing the old timbers and cutting them to size, Shakalearn created a composite drawing of the eight different photographs on paper. He then chalked this onto the wooden panel and began to chisel out the work in relief. Normally Shakalearn’s carved works are given a much more fine finish. On this work, however, Shakalearn wanted to retain the aged patina of the salvaged boards. One inspiration was the work of the African-American artist Whitfield Lovell.
Clay pots were an everyday item used for storage and cooking, and were once made throughout Sierra Leone. Today, these sustainably-sourced and locally-manufactured pots have been displaced by imported plastic and metal utensils. There are, however, a few traditional potters still practicing in Sierra Leone. Most notable is the pot-making community at Mabettor near Lunsar in present-day Buya Romende chiefdom in the north of Sierra Leone.
In 2019, as part of our fieldwork for the [Re:]Entanglements project, we spent some time with the potters at Mabettor. We showed the community Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Sierra Leonean potters from 105 years before and left copies with them. A number of the potters, including Marie Sesay, Khadiatu Conteh, Adamsay Conteh, Isatu Koroma and Ya Abie Koroma demonstrated their pot-making techniques, which were exactly the same as those documented by Thomas in Kamalo. These day, however, their wares are mainly sold to visitors from overseas or Freetown who want them to decorate their homes.
We love the way Shakalearn uses traditional carving techniques to inscribe the archival documentation of another traditional craft form into wood salvaged from a building that would have stood at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys. Thank you Shakalearn!
A more detailed discussion of Northcote Thomas’s documentation of traditional pot-making and contemporary pot-making in Mabettor will be the subject of a future article.
Northcote Thomas visited the Esan (or Ishan) towns of Agbede, Irrua and Ubiaja in August 1909. At the royal palace in Ubiaja, Thomas photographed some remarkable carved doors and house-posts. 71 years later, in 1980, the art historian Carol Ann Lorenz conducted research in Esanland as part of her PhD project Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture (Columbia University, 1995). In this article, we revisit Lorenz’s unpublished notes about the Ubiaja carvings in the light of our own research as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project.
In 1980, Lorenz was able to document the remains of what she termed ‘figurated house-posts’ – or orẹ in the Esan language – in a number of towns, including 75 in Uromi, a short distance from Ubiaja. These sculptural posts supported the verandas of palaces and noble residences, providing a visual statement of the owner’s status and authority. At the time of Lorenz’s fieldwork, such posts were no longer made and those that survived were in a very poor state – some no more than mere stumps. Although the examples in Ubiaja were no longer in evidence, Lorenz noted the importance of Thomas’s photographs insofar as they provided a rare documentation of an assemblage of complete posts in situ.
Ubiaja palace complex
Lorenz was unable to find any oral traditions about the carvings in Ubiaja. She did, however, learn from the ruling Onojie (king) of Ubiaja, HRH Abumhenre Ebhojie II, that a fire had destroyed the palace in 1902. Evidently unaware that Thomas visited Ubiaja seven years later, in 1909, Lorenz made the incorrect assumption that he had photographed the palace sculptures prior to their destruction in the conflagration. It appears, rather, that the house-posts that Thomas photographed were part of a new palace, built after 1902, or of buildings that had not been affected by the fire. Indeed, we know from Thomas’s photograph register that he photographed at least two different buildings within the palace complex.
When we visited Ubiaja as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a brand new palace had recently been constructed for the reigning Onojie, HRH Curtis Idedia Eidenojie. Adjacent to this impressive new concrete structure are various generations of earlier earthen-walled palace buildings, many in a ruinous state. It was not possible to say with certainty if any of these were the remains of the palace that Thomas photographed in 1909.
Thomas visited Ubiaja during the rule of Elabor, who reigned between 1876 and 1921. By 1909, however, Elabor was elderly and suffering from ill-health. In these circumstances, a power struggle existed between a senior member of the royal household, Prince Obiyan, and Elabor’s eldest son, Prince Ugbesia, over who should act as the Onojie’s regent. Thomas photographed Elabor alongside a man he labelled ‘Obiria’. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name Obiria was not recognised and it was felt that this was an incorrect transcription of Ugbesia. Some of the doorposts photographed by Thomas and discussed by Lorenz are, according to Thomas’s photo register, from ‘Obiria’s house’.
Lorenz provided descriptions of each of the house-posts photographed by Thomas. Regarding the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1000), the sculpture on the left depicts two kneeling figures, one above the other with a platform between them. Lorenz reported that this configuration was unique in her survey of Esan sculptures, although it was common in Yorubaland. The sculpture on the right depicts a figure carrying a fowl or bird on a head tray, possibly representing an intended sacrifice.
The house-post in the photograph above left (NWT 1002) is described as ‘depicting a female figure touching her breast with one hand and her full belly with the other. Her abdomen is decorated with incised patterns’. Lorenz described the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) as ‘depicting a painted snake image on a plank post, and a three-dimensional trumpet blower’. While Lorenz identified all these sculptures as belonging simply to ‘the palace in Ubiaja’, those in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) can be identified in the photograph below, which Thomas’s labelled ‘Obiria’s house’. Although not the main palace, it is likely that this was located in the palace complex.
Lorenz described the sculptures in the photograph of what we now know to be ‘Obiria’s house’ (NWT 1007) as depicting (from left to right): ‘a naked male figure, a swordsman carrying a severed head, a warrior with a shield and spear, a man with a pith helmet, a trumpet player, and a seated king’. There is a strong formal consistency in the four central carvings (the swordsman, warrior, man in pith helmet and trumpet player), suggesting they were made together and were the work of a single artist or workshop. They also appear to be relatively recently carved, due to the lack of weathering or insect damage.
Although Lorenz did not comment on it, the post on extreme left of this photograph – that depicting ‘a naked male figure’ – is perhaps more interesting than it at first appears. Firstly, it has no head. Instead of a head, the post continues merely as a flat ‘plank’ to the roof joists. Could its head possibly be that held by the swordsman sculpted from the adjacent pillar? Secondly, the figure appears to be shackled around its neck and left leg to a pillar beside it. Pure speculation, but perhaps this figure represents the body of a vanquished enemy? Stripped, shackled and finally beheaded?
Although we cannot be absolutely sure that Obiria is the king’s son, Ugbesia, it is interesting to note that Ugbesia was known to be despotic and tyrannical. The Esan historian, Christopher Okojie, writes that with the decline in Elabor’s powers, ‘the light of the Ruling House of Ubiaja went out’ and was ‘replaced with darkness in which hatred, confusion, suspicion and bipartisan warfare’ reigned. As noted above, at the time of Thomas’s visit, there was conflict between Ugbesia and his competitor for the regentship, Prince Obinyan. This quarrel evidently split Eguare (the palace quarter) into two warring factions, which had a profound effect on the wider Ubiaja community. In 1914 Ugbesia was formally recognized as regent, but the following years were also spent embroiled in conflict until, in 1919, he died in ‘mysterious circumstances’, predeceasing his incapacitated father by two years.
In her notes on the above photograph of a palace courtyard (NWT 994a), Lorenz describes the house-post figures as depicting, from left to right, ‘a seated king, an ekpokin box bearer, an ujie group, two swordbearers, and a female figure nursing a child’. An ekpokin is a box used to carry gifts or tributes to the king. Ujie is music/dance genre in Esanland associated with royalty. According to Lorenz, these were common motifs in Esan sculpture.
In addition to house-posts, Thomas photographed other sculptural forms in Ubiaja, including a number of carved doors and an agbala stool. The door carvings are quite distinct from the styles either of Benin or Igboland, of which Thomas photographed many examples. Lorenz argues that they are strongly influenced by Nupe door carving styles from the north, with discrete relief figures arranged in vertical rows. The Nupe had invaded the region to the north of Esanland earlier in the 19th century, and their influence extended to the Esan towns such as Irrua, Agbede and Ubiaja that Thomas visited. Unlike Nupe doors, however, the Esan examples include many representations of human figures, as well as the more typical representations of animals and inanimate objects.
Lorenz interprets the figure at the top right of the photograph above left (NWT 1025) as being a male noble (okpia) holding a segmented ukhurhestaff. He is positioned above a female figure (okhuo), below whose feet a horizontal female figure lies. Lorenz observes that this door appears to have been repaired. The centre panel featuring a human figure, profile of a monkey and a lizard, has, she suggests, been carved in a different style to the two panels that flank it. She also observed that this and the left-hand panel were placed upside down when the door was reassembled. The larger male figure at bottom left should be at the top, holding the royal symbols of ada and eben aloft.
Thomas’s photograph above right (NWT 1027) features scenes of violence, which Lorenz argues is a common theme in Esan carving. At the bottom right is an equestrian figure (ohenakasi), depicted in profile, wielding a double-edged sword (agbada). The male figure at top left, interpreted by Lorenz as a warrior, carries a grid-like shield, known as asa in Benin. The shield was made of sticks or palm ribs, which, as Lorenz argues, ‘would not offer much physical defence’. They were, however, ‘fortified with protective medicine (ukhumun), which enabled it to repel or catch enemy weapons’. This door also features a leopard (bottom left, recognizable from its tail which arches over its back), a crocodile eating another animal (top right), and a ceremonial eben sword – all three emblems are associated with royalty.
Lorenz devoted a whole chapter of her thesis to a discussion of a type of courtly furniture, the agbala or stool of office. Like other items of regalia, such stools illustrate both similarities and differences between Esan and Benin City, where the equivalent type of stool is known as agba. Lorenz argues that Esan elites ‘appear to have required a locally carved stool of office which was similar enough to the Benin agba to retain its association with prestige and authority, but divergent enough to be a distinctively Esan product’.
These stools were used exclusively by the Onojie or other hereditary chiefs on ceremonial and ritual occasions. Lorenz notes that it was particularly forbidden for the owner’s senior son and heir to sit upon them. The stools were kept in the ancestral shrine room and often served as a focus of offering to the ancestors. Thomas photographed one of these agbala stools in Ubiaja, and noted that they were equivalent to ukhurhe rattle-staffs, used to commemorate and honour the paternal ancestors.
Lorenz was able to locate nearly 30 examples of Esan agbala stools and identified three distinct styles. The example photographed by Thomas in Ubiaja is typical of what she terms the ‘ridged figural’ style, which feature highly-geometricized caryatid figures, carved in relief on the stretchers, often – as in this case – with arms upraised. The side panels also feature relief carvings, with a semi-circle cut away at the base to form two legs. Unfortunately, the design on the seat of the stool is not clear in the photograph.
Thomas did not photograph examples of wood carving in the other Esan towns he visited. He did, however, collect the side panel of another agbala stool in Irrua (see above right). This is an example of what Lorenz defines as an ‘openwork’ style, associated with the town of Uromi. Indeed, by comparing this panel with other complete stools, she argues that it was likely made in Uromi, even though it was collected in Irrua.
Esanland at a crossroads of culture
Through her analysis of Esan sculpture, including the examples documented by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909, Lorenz’s main thesis was that Esan culture was essentially hybrid in nature. It was the mixture of Benin, Nupe, Yoruba and Igbo traditions that gave Esan art its unique character, as evidenced in these remarkable sculptural house-posts, carved doors and stools of office. Alas, these arts are no longer practised, and, due to the ephemeral nature of the materials, susceptible to decay and insect damage, and to collectors (Northcote Thomas included), very little of this sculpture has survived. We found not even a memory of it at the palace in Ubiaja.
Perhaps a new generation of contemporary Esan artists will one day discover Thomas’s photographs of these amazing sculptures and revive – or reinterpret – the tradition?
Lorenz, C. A. 1995. Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture, Unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University.
Okojie, C. G. 1960. Ishan Native Laws and Customs (Yaba: Okwesa)
Ukpan, J. A. 2010. History and Culture of Ubiaja (Benin City: Obhio)
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 ukhurhẹstaffs 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 ukhurhẹstaffs 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.
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 ukhurhẹis a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹto 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.
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 ukhurhẹpropped 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 ukhurhẹof 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 ukhurhẹof Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹhas the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.
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’.
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 ukhurhẹthat 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 ukhurhẹwe encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.
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’.
Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹstaffs, 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’.
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 ukhurhẹfrom 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 ukhurhẹwere 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 ukhurhẹand in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.
Carvers still produce ukhurhẹin Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.
As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹto 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 ukhurhẹin 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.
The finished ukhurhẹis on display alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (June 2021 to April 2022). The exhibition uses contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions to disrupt conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoke 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?
We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.
In her latest blog post from UCL’s Conservation Lab, Carmen Vida discusses how Northcote Thomas’s historical field photographs inform the work of reassembling ‘composite’ objects from the collection and help conservators’ make decisions about appropriate conservation treatments.
It often comes as a bit of a surprise to people when they first get to know about museum conservation to learn that conservators do not necessarily always do everything that can be done to an object, or try to make it complete, new, or ‘like it was’. Out of many possibilities, conservators decide on what is an appropriate treatment for each object in dialogue with experts, curators and other stakeholders. As a conservator, I am very aware that every conservation intervention is a new event in the life of an object, an event that can be ‘life-changing’ – though, hopefully, a change for the better by extending the object’s life and making it more meaningful to others. It is the conservator’s job to ensure that the conservation intervention always fits with and helps reveal what the ‘life’ of the object was and is, and that it never obscures its significance, values and stories, but rather helps to reveal them.
For conservators, damage is not always bad. It can, rather, be an interesting thing: it can, for example, tell us about the way an object was used, help us to understand its ‘biography’, inform us about the conditions in which it has be stored, and so forth. For this reason, conservation always starts with research and investigation. We seek to get to know an object as closely as possible through documentation, through comparison with similar or related objects, and through the signs left on the object by its previous history. This helps us to design conservation treatments that fit with the object’s past history as well as its present and future use. In a way, conservation is a bit of a time machine, moving between the object’s past, present and future!
As discussed in a previous post, Giving Objects a Voice, many objects appear to be ‘mute’. That is, they have no accompanying information, and conservators must rely entirely on what they can discover from their analysis of the object itself. But working with the collections assembled by Northcote Thomas is providing me with a unique opportunity because the archive itself is so rich and varied: not only objects, but written records, sound recordings and, very importantly for the conservator, historic photographs. These different elements in the archive can sometimes be brought together to shed light on each other. So just as the historic photographs of people have been affording their descendants in West Africa the possibility of reconnecting with their ancestors (see for instance the blog Ancestral Reconnections), the historic photographs of the objects are affording conservators the possibility of reconnecting with the earlier life of some of the objects we are treating. This information is vital to guide our conservation treatment choices because it allows us to compare two different moments in the life of the object, and it helps us decide what the treatment should achieve and how. It ultimately helps us make ethical treatment decisions.
Some of the objects we have been working with in the UCL Conservation Lab illustrate this well. I have recently been revisiting the treatment of a figure that Thomas collected in Fugar in present-day Edo State, Nigeria, in 1909, which was conserved by one of our students last summer. In Thomas’s catalogue, the figure is labelled with the single word ‘akosi’, with no further information. The object is a ‘composite’ insofar as it consists of several elements and materials: (1) a carved wooden figurine with a feather, (2) a red glass bead ‘necklace’ or ‘bracelet’, and (3) a ‘headdress’ consisting of strings of cowrie shells threaded though cane and plant material. At the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, these three elements have been accessioned and stored separately. Bringing together the [Re:]Entanglements project’s archival research, collections-based research and fieldwork, it has, however, been possible to re-associate the elements that make up this assemblage with reference to a photograph that Thomas made of the figure at the time of collection. This, we assume, shows the assemblage as Thomas initially encountered it in its original context.
This ‘akosi’ figure will form part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in April 2021. As such, one of the conservation treatment aims was to ensure that, after 111 years, all three elements could once again be put back together for display.
An initial condition assessment of the object revealed several instances of damage:
The wooden figure was covered in surface dirt and dust, and debris from insect activity.
There was a through crack in the left wrist that severed it completely from the rest of the arm.
The left foot had suffered extensive insect damage and was largely missing.
The feather had also suffered extensive insect damage and was dirty, broken and misshapen. There is a corresponding hole on the right side of the figure where presumably a second feather used to be, but this is totally missing now.
The cane and plant fibres in the cowrie shell headdress had become brittle, inflexible and unable to support the weight of the cowries. The headdress was made up of five tendrils. Of these, one was very short and another slightly shorter than the other three. There were also loose cowries bagged separately, indicating that perhaps originally there were only four strands and that when one had broken, the broken end had been reattached at the top.
We had to decide what level of treatment would be appropriate for each of these issues, and we were able to do so thanks to the possibility of referring to the historic photograph.
Close examination of the photograph revealed:
That the surface dirt present was most likely museum dirt, although there were areas of dirt in the original figure the ghost of which could still be seen in the object. For this reason, it was decided to sensitively clean the wooden elements with only dry cleaning methods and to avoid the use of any solvent which may have removed more than simple surface dirt. In this way we could guarantee the cleaning of recent dirt but leave behind any deposits that may be related to the use or beliefs associated with the figure.
The through crack on the wrist can already be seen in the historic photograph. Wood is anisotropic and moves in different directions in reaction to changes in humidity and temperature. Cracks of this type often occur through movement tensions in green wood that has not been properly allowed to dry before being carved. That the crack can already be seen in the historic photograph suggests that the object may have already been in existence for some time before Thomas acquired it. This information clarified that it would be totally inappropriate to fill that crack because it has been there for over 100 years and allowed the wood to move in response to environmental changes without further stresses, but also because a fill would have obscured important information about the object history.
The insect damage caused to the left foot can also be seen in the historic photograph, although perhaps it was not as extensive then. Because of this, only minimal intervention fills were done to support any areas at risk. The fills were done with long fibre Japanese tissue paper (a very thin but strong paper) and a cellulose based adhesive that was sympathetic to the nature of wood. Watercolours were used to tint the Japanese tissue paper to blend the fills with the surrounding wood. The insect damage visible in the historic photograph again seems to indicate that the object was not new when it was acquired by Thomas.
Two feathers are visible in the historic photo, one on either side. The remaining feather was repaired with fills done in the vane to strengthen it and realign it back to its original shape. The feather was also dry surface cleaned and also cleaned with solvents to restore its shape as much as possible.
It was clear from the historic photos that only four strands of similar length were originally present as part of the cowries headdress, confirming that the two shorter strands were originally one and that the loose cowries were probably part of this broken strand. That information, together with the need to strengthen the cane so that it would be able to support the weight, allowed us to take quite an interventive approach: the fourth strand was lengthened with the lose cowries, and all the strands were stabilized by threading them with nylon fishing wire, to support the weight instead of the fragile cane threading. Tinted epoxy buttons were made matching the colour of the cowries to serve as stoppers for each of the cowrie strands. Three nylon lengths were braided to create a stronger wire that was used at the top of the object to connect the nylon fishing wire used on the cowrie strands, and to allow the headdress to sit again on top of the figure during exhibition.
The conservation treatment given to this object is a good illustration of the decision making processes we conservators go through as part of our work. Ethical treatment decisions were made in this case because we were seeking to stabilise the object and bring it to the condition that best reflected its values and affordances. This meant different approaches to different areas of the object: minimal intervention was adopted for most elements whereas the headdress required a far more interventive solution to allow the object to be displayed back together and have its integrity restored.
In 2018 we photographed many of the artefacts collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and now held at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This allowed us glimpse into the artistic skills of the various communities in which Thomas worked. This included metal working such as bronze casting and blacksmithing, wood carving, pottery, basketry, weaving and leather working. Our engagement with these collections has led us to pursue certain lines of inquiry in our fieldwork: for instance, we are interested in who made these objects, why and how they were made, to what uses were they put, and whether these artistic practices have survived.
In some place, such as Benin City, we have found that traditional arts continue to flourish, as can be seen in the metal working guilds in Igun Street or the nearby wood carvers who produce works not dissimilar to those collected by Thomas over 100 years ago. In many places, however, it appears that these skills are being lost or have died out.
In Amansea, Anambra State, Nigeria, which Thomas visited in 1911 during his first tour among Igbo-speaking communities, we met a carver – Chief Raphael Anaemena – who also holds the Ozo title. We did not see him work; he is advanced in age and has not carved in a couple of years, but he shared interesting insight into the art. He is from the Ibe family in Amansea, historically known across the region for the art of carving.
Although we do not have record of any wooden artefacts collected by Thomas from Amansea, Chief Anaemena’s father or grandfather may well have carved the doors or shrine figures that Thomas photographed in the town. He and other carvers from the Ibe family also received commissions from neighbouring towns such as Ebenebe, Ugwuoba and Awka where Thomas did collect. There were carvers in these places too, but the works of the Ibe of Amansea were particularly sought after due to the high quality of their craftsmanship.
down with Chief Anaemena to look over some of the photographs of the wooden
objects Thomas collected in the area and benefitted from his insight into production
techniques. Consider, for example, how carvers joined pieces of wood.
Looking at the above elegant wood carving to which a thumb piano (ubo) is attached, and which was acquired by Thomas in Awgbu, Chief Anaemena explained that some parts such as the leopard and the animal heads with horns were carved separately and then joined together. While other carvers would use glue, such as the type made of wax from a certain insect in the bee family, to join the various parts, the Ibe would achieve a better result by creating a protrusion on one piece of wood and a groove on the other wood into which the protuberance would be fitted. Another joinery technique is ‘nailing’ with thorns such as those from orange trees, palm branches or pieces of wood given nail-like shape. However, this technique only works with soft woods such as the type used in the production of the box for keeping eagle feathers which Thomas collected from Nise.
Generally, the kind of wood used for carving is determined by the object the carver intends to create. Masks for instance would be produced from light wood so that they could easily be carried by the masker. Other production specifications such as size and design are largely determined by the one who commissioned the carving. Carvers do not usually produce carvings to be kept for sale. The work is driven by demand, where the carver could even be employed for some time in his client’s home. One who wishes to have an ikenga figure made, for example, would give the carver specifications about size and the objects it would carry in its hands. However, clients could at times ask the carver to make design decisions for them. According to Chief Anaemena, it was once common to see the ikenga figure with a knife in one hand and a human head in the other as exemplified by the one Thomas collected from Awgbu.
is suggestive of the malevolent side of ikenga’s power. At some point, people
began to find that too fierce. Ozo Chief Anaemena explained that, in the 1970s,
he began to put the ofo stick in one of the ikenga’s hands and a knife in the
other to suggest ‘okpegbuo ogbuo’ (it can only kill justly). This was well
received and it soon became fashionable.
Today, Ozo Chief Anaemena does not carve anymore but he still has some of his works. An example is the stool he carved in 2013 for his Ozo title taking ceremony the following year. He also showed us some of his carving tools including nkori oshishi (for creating effects on the wood), muma (for shaping), ugama (for cutting), and mma oge (for cutting). We hope that in the course of our fieldwork we will meet some traditional carvers who still practice their art and look forward to learning more from them.