Benin Kingdom

By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Nigeria; Benin Kingdom peoples

Head

Clay

H. 21 cm (8 ¼”)

National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria, 60.3.2

Photo by Dirk Bakker

 

Benin art became well-known to the West in 1897, after the British Punitive Expedition sacked the city of Benin and brought thousands of objects back to Europe as war booty. The origins of the kingdom probably go back more than 500 years. According to oral history the people of Benin were first ruled by the Ogiso kings, but the people revolted and asked the King of Ife to send a prince to rule them. He sent Oranmiyan, whose first son Eweka became the first Oba or king of the new dynasty. Terracotta heads, such as this one dated to the late 15th or 16th century, were used by the Ogiso rulers on altars to their paternal ancestors (Girshik Ben-Amos 1995: 22). Other clay heads were used more recently by the royal guild of brass casters on an altar to Igueghae, who some assert introduced brass casting from Ife (Eyo and Willett 1980:130).