Benin Bronzes: Chronicles of the Warrior Kings – Spectrum of Science

When van Nyendael was in Benin City in 1701, he did not say anything about the reliefs. Apparently they had been dismantled in the meantime and stored in a depot. For this reason, too, hardly any of the square metal plates are more than 400 years old. Regardless of this, the kings and dignitaries of the palace probably continued to use it as a state archive. The pieces were probably stored in a meaningful arrangement for this purpose. The British had irretrievably destroyed this division through their looting and with it the only records of the otherwise oral history.

To bolster their war chests, the British sold many of the stolen works of art to collectors and museums between 1897 and 1900. What none of the buyers considered at the time was the cultural and religious-historical context of the pieces. In contrast to the objects from ancient Egypt or the ancient Mediterranean cultures, to which the local population had hardly any original reference, most of the pieces from Benin had and still have a cultural function.

The famous bronze heads, whether they represented specific rulers of earlier times or the kingship itself, were part of ancestral altars on which ritual acts were performed. Sculptures of roosters, for example, which were also sacrificed as living animals, depicted the queen or queen mother. The mother of the heir to the throne was named “the rooster that crows the loudest”, probably as an allusion to the influence she had on the politics of the Country could take. In addition, the ancestral altars were decorated with carved elephant tusks, which, according to Leonhard Harding, “can be read as a book of the culture of Benin”. “They served to commemorate a ruler and were mounted on a commemorative head cast in bronze,” explains the historian.

Ornaments that were worn as part of clothing should also have a magical-religious effect – such as the queen masks made of ivory. At certain ceremonies of the ancestor cult they were attached to the hips. They show the face of the legendary Queen Idia, the deputy regent for Oba Esigie, who was initially a minor in the 16th century. Only five copies of such masks are known, and all five are now in Europe or America. For a piece that was auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 1960 and soon after went to the Seattle Art Museum, the exact “circumstances of the find” have been handed down: “By Dr. Robert Allman, the chief doctor of the British punitive expedition, taken from a box in the bedroom of the Oba in the royal palace of Benin City on February 16, 1897. “The four parallel pieces also came into the possession of the British invaders in a not essentially different way. After all, the auction house Sotheby’s withdrew the auction of the only ivory mask still on the free art market in December 2010.

Metal – an important import commodity

There are now numerous research projects that are dedicated to the objects, for example an ongoing cooperation between the Museum of Five Continents in Munich and the Faculty for Material Analysis at the University of Barcelona. The scientists want to determine the metal alloys of the Benin bronzes in order to determine their age. For dating, they use a radiometric method based on the decay of the lead isotope 210Pb is based. The experts try to determine any differences between the old pieces before the conquest and those from the 20th century. Because the production of metalwork according to the old specifications continued after the Oba was dismissed.

The guild of royal bronze foundries has always made the sculptures using the lost wax technique. To put it simply, the craftsman forms the image in wax, covers it with clay, burns the structure and thus gains a hollow shape, which he then pours out with metal. When the casting has cooled down, the mold is smashed and the sculpture is reworked. This means that every work of art is unique, even if the reliefs and memorial heads have a similar motif.

© Werner Forman / akg-images / picture alliance (excerpt)

Palace | Two warriors and servants guard an entrance to a palace building. Reliefs hang on the pillars. A tower rises on the shingle roof from which a snake sculpture hangs. The scholar Olfert Dapper used these details to describe Oba’s palace in the 17th century. Relief in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

If bronzes are always mentioned when it comes to metalwork from Benin, that is not entirely true. The reliefs and portrait heads actually consist of a mixture of different metals. The alloys changed over time – depending on the sources from which the kings obtained their raw materials. The craftsmen have also melted the pieces down again, thus remixing the components. In fact, the works contain very little tin or zinc – too little to be real bronze (copper-tin alloy) or brass (copper-zinc alloy). That is why scientists also refer to the objects as brass works.

Scientific analyzes have also shown that the proportions of the various metals varied over time. In the beginning the foundry guild seemed to have only few raw materials, namely almost only copper from the South Sahara with natural additions of zinc and lead. By trading with the Portuguese, the artists opened up new sources of raw materials. The alloys of the brass works now had a continuously increasing zinc content. The Europeans traded the metal as standardized bars or in the form of so-called manillas (Portuguese: “manilha”, bracelets or anklets), rings bent in the shape of a horseshoe. The Portuguese trading base Elmina in present-day Ghana is said to have booked 302,920 Manillas between 1511 and 1522. Until the British expedition of 1897, only the royal court was allowed to import the metal, after which it was used in parts of Benin as a means of payment and an object of exchange until well into the 20th century.

The exact dating of the Benin bronzes is still a headache for many experts. The commemorative heads in particular cannot be dated either stylistically or scientifically, let alone assigned to individual rulers, whose names and precise government dates are often uncertain due to oral tradition. What is certain, however, is that the works of art from Benin that are in European and American collections have clearly identifiable previous owners. It is the state of Nigeria and the ruling family of the Oba. For them it is understandably an intolerable state of affairs that practically all of the national heritage is distributed in museums outside the country.

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