Igbo Ukwu

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

Nigeria; Igbo Ukwu artist


Leaded bronze

L. 30.5 cm (12")

National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria, 39.1.12

Photo by Dirk Bakker


This beautiful vessel is also presumed to be from Igbo Isaiah, the regalia storehouse. The shell was at first thought to depict an African land snail, but experts have identified it as a triton shell from the sea (Shaw 1977: 29). The coast is approximately 100 miles away, and it is intriguing to wonder whether the sea was a source of trade or had a ritual association. The pointed end of the shell is decorated with four frogs being swallowed by four snake heads. The rest of the shell surface has a network of parallel lines, crosshatchings, and granulations typical of Igbo Ukwu. Scattered across this are relief sculptures of crickets and flies. These insects, along with beetles and spiders, are often depicted on the bronzes of Igbo Ukwu. Perhaps they reflected the importance of controlling such insects on the yam crop or illustrated a now-forgotten metaphor.