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The Ife Head

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • The Ife Head
  • Description

    Brass (heavily leaded zinc-brass) head cast using the lost wax (cire perdue) technique. The head is a little under life size and is made in a naturalistic style. It has a headdress, suggesting a crown, of complex construction. The main tubular section of the crown runs around the head in a three-layer composition. The upper layer has a band of four horizontal rectangles representing flat, discoidal beads surmounted by a red-painted tubular bead and a tasssel. The central layer has a row of vertical rectangles representing tubular beads with tassels. The lower layer has a row of rosettes painted in red. The main tubular section of the crown also has a projecting arc around the forehead comprising small tubular beads edged with a row of red-painted feathers. At the back of the crown is a neck cover. The central part of the cover has eighteen vertical elements incised to indicate plaitwork with traces of black paint. The bottom and sides have a row of red-painted rosettes. A crest rises above the central crown at the front. It comprises a conical roundel with central boss surrounded by seven concentric rings, problably representing beads. A plaitwork element rises behind the roundel, it terminates in a pointed ovoid tip; both elements bear traces of black paint.

    The face is slightly elongated and has vertical incised markings (striations). Two lines of holes run between the lobes of the ears, one going through the angle of the neck and the jaw, the second crossing the jaw below the lower lip. A double line of holes runs across the upper lip. The almond-shaped eyes are small in proportion to the head and the eyebrow-ridge is sharply defined. The lips are not striated.

    There are grooves round the front of the neck representing skin creases. There are holes pierced through the neck at the front and at both sides. There is a large irregular hole on the right proper side of the jaw.


  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 14thC-15thC(early) (probably)
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 35 centimetres
    • Width: 12.5 centimetres
    • Depth: 15 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    This free-standing brass head cast in the lost wax technique was discovered in 1938 at Wunmonije Compound in Ife, Nigeria. It was found by accident during house building works together with sixteen other brass and copper heads and the upper half of a brass figure.

    The identification and function of the head, in common with the others discovered at this site, remain uncertain. Its elaborate beaded headdress, possibly representing a crown, suggest that it was associated with an Ooni, a ruler of Ife.

    According to the oral traditions of the Yoruba people, Ife is the place where life and civilisation began. Ife is regarded as the legendary homeland of theYoruba-speaking peoples and its sacred ruler, the Ooni, is still revered as the descendant of the original creator gods. Ife is located in Osun State in modern south-western Nigeria.

    Ife began to develop as a city-state in the late first millennium, around AD 800 and became a leading political, economic and spiritual centre in the lower Niger region. Between 1100 and 1400 it floursihed as a commercial centre with access to the lucrative trade networks along the Niger River.

    The art of Ife has produced a large corpus of sculptural works in terracotta, stone, brass and copper which were found at different sites in the city. Among these artworks the representations of humans are striking for their naturalistic style. This life-like modelling is unique in Africa and when objects from Ife were first presented to the western world they were compared with the classical traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome. It was even suggested that such heads were evidence that Ife was the site of the lost civilization of Atlantis. In fact the sculpture of Ife is today rightly seen as one of the highest achievements of African art and culture.

    E. Platte, 2010, Head of a Ruler, London, British Museum Company
    E. Eyo and F. Willett, 1980, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, London, Royal Academy of Arts
    J. W. Langton, O. Akin Ige & T. Rehren "Early Primary Glass Production in Southern Nigeria" in Journal of African Archaeology, Vol. 4 (1), 2006


  • Bibliography

    • MacGregor 2010 63 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G25/dc4

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited: 1991 Feb-Apr, Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Man and Metal in Ancient Nigeria 1995-96, London, Museum of Mankind, Made in Africa: Africa and the National Art Collection Fund 2003-2004 Oct-Jan, London, Hayward Gallery, 'Saved!100 Years of the National Art Collections Fund', no.59 2009 5 Dec- 2010 7 Feb, Manchester Museum, 'Made in Africa: portrait of an Ife ruler' 2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' 2011 22 Oct-2012 22 Feb, Perth, Western Australia Museum, Commonwealth Exhibition
    2015 18 Apr–28 Jun, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2015 14 Jul–6 Sep, Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2015-2016 20 Sep-11 Jan, Kobe City Museum, Kobe, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    The head was purchased in Ife by Mr Bate, editor of the Nigerian Daily Times. It was subsequently bought for the British Museum by Sir (later Lord) Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, acting on behalf of the National Art Collections Fund.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


Head representing ruler (with elaborate head-dress) made of brass.

Head representing ruler (with elaborate head-dress) made of brass.

Image description



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Object reference number: EAF18043

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