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The Benin Bronze Head: Secrets of a Classic Piece

Aug 28, 2022 03:00PM ● By Obianuju Nwagu

Head of an Oba of Benin. Source - Flickr

When it comes to art, there are certain pieces that become iconic over time. The Benin Bronze Head is one of those pieces. For centuries, this head has been shrouded in mystery, with historians and art experts unable to determine its true origin. But now, new research has shed some light on the matter – and it turns out the Benin Bronze Head may be even more mysterious than we thought.

The Benin Bronze Head was created by an unknown artist during the reign of King Esigie (1504-1550), who was the first Oba (king) of the Kingdom of Benin. The head is made of solid brass and depicts a man wearing earrings with an aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and a solemn expression. It is believed to be a portrait of King Esigie, although this has not been confirmed.

The head is a powerful symbol of wealth and power. It was created by the Edo people of the Benin Kingdom, in what is now modern Nigeria. The head is made of cast bronze, and it measures just over 18 inches tall. It also has intricate details such as facial scars, and hair styled in traditional Edo fashion. In the center of the bronze heads are holes. These holes were filled with ivory. Significant events from the Oba's reign were inscribed on these pieces of ivory.

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Benin Bronze Plaques. Source - Wikimedia Commons 

In the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a lot of trade and commerce between the Portuguese and the people of Benin. Thus, it's possible that this is where the bronze and copper for the Benin people's famous sculptures came from. It's also worth noting that Benin arts also included depictions of the Portuguese.

The head was probably displayed in a prominent place in the royal palace, where it would have been seen by everyone who entered. It is a reminder of the wealth and power of the Edo people, and still revered today as an important cultural artifact.

It is believed that bronze heads were created to honor the deceased. The occupational and political status of the deceased determined the material that was used in making it. The medium used varied from wood, terracotta to bronze which was introduced in the second dynasty. There is no generally accepted origin of bronze casting in Benin. Bronze is an alloy of copper and zinc.

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Benin Bronzes. Source - Wikimedia Commons 

The Benin Bronze Head was discovered by British soldiers in 1897 during a military expedition to Benin City, which was then part of the British Empire. The head was brought back to Britain and has been on display at the British Museum since 1899. The Benin Bronze Head is one of the most famous works of art from Africa and is considered to be a masterpiece of the Bronze Age art. Now, there is a growing movement to have the Benin Bronzes returned to Nigeria. As more and more people become aware of the history of these objects, it is becoming increasingly difficult for European museums to justify keeping them.

There are a number of reasons why the Benin Bronzes should be returned to Nigeria. First, they are an important part of Nigerian history and culture. Second, the Benin people never gave their consent for the Bronzes to be taken away. And third, the conditions under which the Bronzes are being kept in European museums are not ideal. They are often displayed without any context, which can lead to misconceptions about their meaning and significance.


 Obianuju Nwagu is a data analyst and content creator at FunTimes Magazine. She is in charge of creating comics along with producing videos and other materials  used for content marketing. Obianuju currently resides in Lagos, Nigeria. She has a Master's degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Ibadan. Her passion is music. She is a faithful chorister, belonging to a few choral groups (her alumni group inclusive).You can connect with her on Instagram @juby_lindas.