Benin Kingdom

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

Nigeria; Edo artist (Benin Kingdom Court Style)

Commemorative trophy head

Late 15th-early 16th century

Copper alloy, iron inlay

H x W x D: 23.2 x 15.9 x 20 cm (9 1/8 x 6 1/4 x 7 7/8 in.)

Purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program


Photograph by Franko Khoury

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution

Benin history is focused primarily on the thirty-eight Obas (“kings”), who have ruled since the founding of the dynasty. At the death of an Oba, one of his successor's first responsibilities is to establish an altar to his memory. Commoners and chiefs also do this for their predecessors with rectangular altars and wooden commemorative heads. Only the royalty are allowed to have semicircular altars, and the use of brass to cast commemorative heads is an exclusive royal prerogative. William Fagg argued that this type of brass head with a short, tight collar represented the very earliest type of memorial head after brass casting was introduced from Ife. Paula Girshick Ben-Amos, however, feels they are not kings at all because they do not wear crowns. She claims they are trophy heads of decapitated enemy rulers (Girshick Ben-Amos 1995: 26).