Bronze figure of a man wearing a helmet, carrying an antelope around his shoulders.

Research project

The Lower Niger Bronzes: scientific research

Supported by

Mellon Foundation

Key project information

Duration

1 July 2021 – 30 June 2024

Contact details

Email: science@britishmuseum.org

Supported by

Mellon Foundation

Grant number

G-40900619

This project focuses on improving the understanding of a group of copper-alloy objects from southern Nigeria, known as the 'Lower Niger Bronzes'.

The Lower Niger Bronzes is an umbrella term used to classify a variety of copper-alloy objects that are distinct from the three major known metal casting centres of southern Nigeria, namely Benin, Ife and Igbo-Ukwu, which developed from the 9–15th century. These objects have previously seen little analysis and there is only limited information relating to their collection history and provenance.

This project combines archaeological science and curatorial expertise to investigate the complexity and diversity of the Lower Niger Bronzes. It aims to identify which technological processes were employed in the production and decoration of these objects. In addition, the project will look at how they were used, re-used and discarded in relation to societal cultural practices, including beliefs and values. 

Find out about the latest project news.

About the project

There are a significant number of copper-alloy objects classified as Lower Niger Bronzes in various museums and private collections globally. Within the collection cared for by the British Museum, there are 135 objects which have been identified as Lower Niger Bronzes making it the largest collection in the world. They vary widely in style, composition and function and include bells, manillas, masks and pendants.

The programme of scientific investigation undertaken in this project builds on an earlier intensive research project in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas which focused on provenance and collection histories. Thanks to this work, there is now systematic documentation and an inventory of these collections and their histories. This provides a significant foundation for further research, including for this Lower Niger Bronzes project, situated within wider Museum collaborations focusing on West Africa and associated collections.

This project will scientifically study these objects to understand differences and similarities among the Lower Niger Bronzes. It will explore technologies that were used in all regions (on most of the objects) and others that are region-specific. It will also examine how these copper-alloy objects were used in different contexts throughout their lifecycle. 

Some of the scientific techniques employed in the project – for example, X-ray fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy – are described in a short British Museum film.

Aims

This project aims to:

  • Reconstruct the technological processes involved in producing the objects categorised as Lower Niger Bronzes.
  • Document the manufacturing techniques used (casting and/or hand working), post-casting work and/or surface treatments applied.
  • Investigate potential correlations between metal compositions and types of object.
  • Examine marks on the objects to get an idea of their potential use(s).

The findings from this project will be used to create new groups for classification based upon:

  • Their potential production centre(s)
  • Metal compositions
  • Manufacturing techniques

This research will provide insights into pre-colonial southern Nigerian and West African copper-alloy casting technology and the associated broader history of the region where these industries were based.
 

Meet the team

Tunde Babalola.

Tunde Babalola

Research Fellow
Department of Scientific Research
British Museum

Laura Perucchetti.

Laura Perucchetti

Researcher
Department of Scientific Research
British Museum

Aude Mongiatti.

Aude Mongiatti

Researcher
Department of Scientific Research
British Museum