The Ife head probably represents an Ooni which means "king". Such sculptures such as this was very unqiue to the culture of African art. Seventeen of these life-like heads were accidentally found in the Wunmonije Coumpound in Southwestern Nigeria by several archaeologists during the time of more housing construction in that area. The style of these natuarlistic sculptures probably originated over two thousand years ago. Today these bronze heads are displayed in the British Museum in London for onlookers to understand how these works of art represented the great Kingdom of Ife in politics, culture, spirituality, and economics.


The Ife heads were made from a technique called lost-wax. What that means is that the the casting consisted of making a wax model with a core from some other substance enclosing the model in a mould, melting away the way, and pouring molten metal or glass into the void, then allowing the material to harden, and finally polishing the finished prodecut to give it that smooth finish [See, The British Museum]. The face here is enlongated with striations around the mouth, earlobes, and neck of the sculpture. In addition, a more interesting naturalistic feature is the ridges around the front of the neck to represent skin creases [The British Museum]. However, the most complex construction of the scultpure was the crown. The crown consisted of three main layers. The lower layer was the basuc foundation of the crown. The central layer was designed with tubular, rectangular figures to represent the inclusion of beads into an actual crown that the Ooni may have actually been wearing. The top layer, which is the most distinctive, is the long tubular, beaded structure which the big tassel sitting at the top of the tube. On the central layer of the crown, there is a conical round crest-like figure with seven coencentric rings that represented the use of more beads into the crown [See, The British Museum]. The sculpture was indeed painted. When the heads were found in the Wunmonije Coumpound, there were traces of black paint and furthermore, there were rossettes that outlined the sides and bottom of the crown which were painted red [See, The British Museum]. These human heads were designed with great style and vigour necessitating distortion of shapes and proportions [See, Willett 1967, p.30].


Leo Frobenius, a German archaeologist, proposed the theory that the Kingdom of Ife was the "African Atlantis" due to the unique stylized and descriptive artwork. He suggested that people were already in existence before the Europeans began to colonize Africa in the 19th century [See,Welsh 2010].

The kingdom of Ife first emerged around 800 CE [See, Ardouin 2010, curator, British Museum]. The civilization of these Yoruba peoples probably lived in a tin-mining village of Nok, in the Zaria Province of northern Virginia [See, Willett 1967, p.30]. The culture of the Kingdom of Ife encouraged the works of arts and crafts mainly for ceremonial purposes. This wealthy city-state also flourished because of its easy access to the many trade routes along the Niger River where certain commodities such as woven and dyed cloths, kola nuts, gold, iron, slaves, beads, copper and copper alloys, ivory, embroidered cloths, and imported luxury cloths between their civilization and the civilizations of the Sahara [See, Ardouin 2010, curator, British Museum]. The heads were brought back to Europe in 1911 by whom was believed to be W.R. Bascom who was said to have taken two or three Ife heads without telling the Ooni at that time and later, when he returned the heads in 1950, he issued a letter clarifying why he chose to return them [Ottenberg 1994, p.561-3].

Furthermore, the creation of these heads were used for ritualistic purposes for the death of a ruler. In the Yoruba culture, there were two burials for people who passed on from the civilization; and for people of important stature and even more special burial which included great offerings [See, Willett 1967, p.78]. The effigy of these sculptures were merely lifeless symbols of furniture for alters to commemorate the lost ones [See, Willett 1967, p.34]. The Yoruba peoples created these stattues purely out of respect for thier leaders; even though a ruler may have died, the Ife head was used to show continuity of the office, despite the death of the mortal holder: "The king dies, but the Crown endures" [See, Willett 1967, p.30]


The civilization of the Ife mysteriously decayed, however, and that is why is was unknown to the rest of the medieval world that art was made here; it had not been realized until 1910 [See, Januszczak 2010]. However, the artowork of Ife was more revolutionary than that of the Greek/European tradition of sculpture [See, Willett 1967, p.33]. Unlike the Greeks who relied on measurement and accurate proportion, the Ife heads were sculpted in a more conventional as one can see with the treatment of the eyes and the ears [See, Willett 1967, p.33] However, the Ife heads sense of style and natuarilitic depiction seemed to be closely related to the Buddhist artwork that was found in India and Southeast Asia although there is no actual evidence that seems to prove this theory other than hypothesizing and observation [See,Honour; Fleming 2005, p.593].

These heads represented the social aspect of the Kingdom of Ife due to the ideology of a social heirarchy that was implemented among the people. It was a part of politics and religion for the Nok culture to make a practice of constant scultping out of respect and commemoration for their rulers. Due to the trans-Saharan trade along the Niger River, commodities that were used to make the actual crown that sat on the head on the real king, such as the beads, provided the significance of the Mediterranean trade in a sense of these are the items they need, they will get them no matter what the cost. The Kingdom of Ife in Nigeria was rich in gold as well which served as a great assett for the gold trade along the Niger River which most rulers of Ife sought to control.


"The Ife Head," accessed April 18, 2011,

"A History of the World: Ife Head, " accessed April 18, 2011,

Frank Willett, "IFE in Nigerian Art," UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center (1967): 30-5 +78, accessed April 17, 2011,

Simon Ottenberg, "Further Light on W.R. Bascom and the Ife Bronzes," Cambridge University Press (1994): 561-8, accessed April 17, 2011,

Hugh Honour and John Fleming. "The Americas, Africa, and Asia," in A World History of Art, ed.Fleming-Honour. (London: Lawrence-King Publishing Ltd., 2005), 519-24

Stephen Welsh,"Inspired by the Ife Head," Creative Tourist Manchester, January 18, 2010,

Waldemar Januszczak, "This African Art Is Heads Above the Rest," The Sunday Times, March 14, 2010. Accessed April 18, 2011.


Ife Head (Nigeria 1400-1500 CE). Ooni, the ruler of the west African kingdom of Ife between 1100 to 1500 CE. Bronze with black paint using the lost wax technique with striations around the mouth. From the collection of the British Museum, London (UK).


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