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

Nigeria; Yoruba (Ife) artist

Head of an Oni


H. 24 cm (9 7/16")

National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria, 19 (79.R.11)

Photo by Dirk Bakker


This smaller-than-life-size head, also from the Wunmonije compound, has helped us determine what the purpose of the holes around the hairline of the life-size brass heads was. The shape of the crown matches the hairline, and so the holes on life-sized heads must have been for the attachment of an actual beaded crown. No crowns have survived, but ancient beads are plentiful, and crucibles for melting glass are frequently found. We don’t yet know the source of Ife’s brass but glass beads were by this time manufactured in West Africa, and Ife was an important center of bead production (Lankton 2006). The parallel striations on the face probably represent facial scarification.  Not all of the brass heads have these markings (although some figures also have them on the lower lip and/or abdomen area). Scars until recently signified ethnic identity in the Yoruba areas. In the past perhaps different royal lineages identified themselves with different scarification patterns.