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African Archaeological Review

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 49–62 | Cite as

Igbo-Ukwu and the Nile

  • J. E. G. Sutton
Article

Abstract

The external connections of Igbo-Ukwu, in the forest belt of south-eastern Nigeria, around the ninth century AD, are demonstrated by the large numbers of glass beads, apparently of Egyptian manufacture, and are implicit in the rich collection of bronze artwork that lacks known prototypes. Although the metals were mined locally, the labor and the expert alloying and casting of numerous ritual or ornamental objects indicate an accumulation of wealth derived from distant trade of special commodities. The identification of these commodities, however, and the routes by which they—and in the reverse direction the beads—would have traveled, remain unsatisfactorily resolved. A preference is repeated here for an eastern Sahelian routing from Lake Chad to the Middle Nile kingdoms (Alwa and Makuria/Dongola), then at their height, thus avoiding the Sahara. The alternative direction suggested recently (Insoll, T., and Shaw, T. (1997) Gao and Igbo-Ukwu: Beads, interregional trade and beyond. African Archaeological Review, 14:9–23), through Gao on the Niger bend and across the west-central Sahara, seems less likely on grounds of geography and chronology. The essential items of merchandise deriving from Igbo-Ukwu are unlikely to be those commonly assumed for sub-Saharan Africa, notably ivory and slaves, but would have been more local and precious, presumably metals. The bronzes stored and buried at Igbo-Ukwu might be regarded as by-products of this export activity. Demands in the Nile Valley for tin (for bronze alloying) and for silver, both of which occur in the ores exploited, deserve consideration. A call is made for comparative study of metals and their uses between the Middle Nile and West Africa in the first millennium AD—a neglected subject owing to the intellectual gulf that persists between Africanists and Egyptologists.

Les contacts extérieurs d'Igbo-Ukwu, dans la région forestière du sud-est du Nigéria, vers le 9e siècle après J. C., sont indiqués par les très nombreuses perles de verre, apparemment de fabrication Égyptienne. Ils sont aussi suggérés par un ensemble remarquable d'objects en bronze dont on ne connaît aucun prototype. Bien que les métaux proviennent de la région, le travail, et aussi l'alliage et la fonte très spécialisés de nombreux objects rituels ou décoratifs, indiquent une accumulation de richesse résultant du commerce à longues distances de produits recherchés. Pourtant, l'identification de ceux-ci, et les itinéraires pour leur transport—et, en sens inverse, ceux des perles—restent hypothétique. Nous réiterons une préférence pour une route est-Sahelien, de Lac Tchad jusqu'aux royaumes du Nil Moyen (Alwa et Makouria/Dongola), à leur apogée à cette époque, et donc évitant le Sahara. L'autre direction, proposée récemment (dans cette revue par Insoll et Shaw), via Gao sur la boucle du Niger et à travers le Sahara ouest-central, semble moins probable pour les raisons géographiques et chronologiques. Les objets principaux de ce commerce qui provenaient d'Igbo-Ukwu ne seraient pas ceux qui sont normalement imaginés pour l'Afrique Sub-saharienne, notamment l'ivoire et les esclaves; ce seraient des produits plus locaux et précieux, vraisemblablement des métaux. Les bronzes enterrés à Igbo-Ukwu pourraient être les sous-produits de cette activité destinée à l'exportation. La demande dans la vallée du Nil pour l'étain (pour l'alliage du bronze) et pour l'argent, qui existent tous les deux dans les minerais du sud-est du Nigéria, mérite considération. Il faut qu'on fasse des recherches comparatives sur les métaux et leurs emplois entre le Nil Moyen et l'Afrique de l'Ouest durant le premier millénaire après J. C.—un sujet négligé à cause du fossé intellectuel qui persiste entre les études Africanistes et Égyptologiques.

Igbo-Ukwu African Iron Age non-ferrous metals trade routes bronze casting glass beads 

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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. E. G. Sutton
    • 1
  1. 1.British Institute in Eastern Africa and Pitt Rivers MuseumOxfordUnited Kingdom

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