Igbo Ukwu (Nigeria): West African Burial and Shrine

Where did all those glass beads come from?

Cast bronze vessel with animal motif from Igbo Ukwu
Cast bronze vessel with animal motif from Igbo Ukwu. Ukabia

Igbo Ukwu is an African Iron Age archaeological site located near the modern town of Onitsha, in the forest zone of southeastern Nigeria. Although it is unclear what kind of a site it is—settlement, residence, or burial—we know that the Igbo Ukwu was used during the late 10th century A.D.

Igbo-Ukwu was discovered in 1938 by workmen who were digging a cistern and professionally excavated by Thurston Shaw in 1959/60 and 1974.

Eventually, three localities were identified: Igbo-Isaiah, an underground storage chamber; Igbo-Richard, a burial chamber once lined with wooden planks and floor matting and containing the remains of six individuals; and Igbo-Jonah, an underground cache of ritual and ceremonial objects thought to have been collected during the dismantling of a shrine.

Igbo-Ukwu Burials

The Igbo-Richard locality was clearly a burial place for an elite (wealthy) person, buried with a large array of grave goods, but it is unknown whether this person was a ruler or had some other religious or secular role in his or her community. The principal interment is an adult seated on a wooden stool, dressed in fine clothing and with rich grave effects including over 150,000 glass beads. The remains of five attendants were found alongside.

The burial included a number of elaborate cast bronze vases, bowls, and ornaments, made with the lost wax (or lost latex) technique.

Elephant tusks and bronze and silver objects illustrated with elephants were found. The bronze pommel of a sword hilt in the form of a horse and rider was also found in this burial, as were wooden objects and vegetable textiles preserved by their proximity to bronze artifacts.

Artifacts at Igbo-Ukwu

Over 165,000 glass and carnelian beads were found at Igbo-Ukwu, as were objects of copper, bronze, and iron, broken and complete pottery and burned animal bone.

The vast majority of the beads were made of monochrome glass, of yellow, grayish blue, dark blue, dark green, peacock blue, and reddish brown colors. There were also striped beads and multicolored eye beads, as well as stone beads and a few polished and dull quartz beads. Some of the beads and brasses include the portrayal of elephants, coiled snakes, large felines and rams with curving horns.

To date, no bead-making workshop has been found at Igbo-Ukwu, and for decades, the array and variety of glass beads found there has been the source of a great debate. If there is no workshop, where did the beads come from? Scholars suggested trade connections with Indian, Egyptian, Near Eastern, Islamic and Venetian bead makers. That fueled another debate about what kind of trade network Igbo Ukwu was a part of. Was the trade with the Nile Valley, or with the East African Swahili coast, and what did that trans-Saharan trade network look like? Further, did the Igbo-Ukwu people trade slaves, ivory, or silver for beads?

Analysis of the Beads

In 2001, JEG Sutton argued that the glass beads might have been manufactured in Fustat (Old Cairo) and the carnelian might have come from Egyptian or Saharan sources, along trans-Saharan trade routes.

In West Africa, the early second millennium saw increasing reliance on imports of ready-made brass from North Africa, which was then reworked into the famed lost-wax Ife heads.

In 2016, Marilee Wood published her chemical analysis of pre-European contact beads from sites all over sub-Saharan Africa, including 124 from Igbo-Ukwu, including 97 from Igbo-Richard and 37 from Igbo-Isaiah. The majority of the monochrome glass beads were found to have been made in West Africa, from a mixture of plant ash, soda lime, and silica, from drawn tubes of glass that were cut into segments. She found that the decorated polychrome beads, segmented beads, and thin tubular beads with diamond or triangular cross-sections were likely imported in finished form from Egypt or elsewhere.

What Was Igbo-Ukwu?

The main question of the three localities at Igbo-Ukwu persists as the function of the site.

Was the site simply the shrine and burial place of a ruler or important ritual personage? Another possibility is that it may have been part of a town with a resident population—and given, the West African source of the glass beads, there may well have been an industrial/metal-workers quarter. If not, there is likely some sort of industrial and artistic center between Igbo-Ukwu and the mines where the glass elements and other materials were quarried, but that hasn't been identified yet.

Haour and colleagues (2015) have reported work at Birnin Lafiya, a large settlement on the eastern arc of the Niger river in Benin, that promises to shed light on several late first millennium-early second millennium sites in West Africa such as Igbo-Ukwu, Gao, Bura, Kissi, Oursi, and Kainji. The five-year interdisciplinary and international research called Crossroads of Empires may well assist in understanding the context of Igbo-Ukwu.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Igbo Ukwu (Nigeria): West African Burial and Shrine." ThoughtCo, Mar. 9, 2018, thoughtco.com/igbo-ukwu-nigeria-site-171378. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, March 9). Igbo Ukwu (Nigeria): West African Burial and Shrine. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/igbo-ukwu-nigeria-site-171378 Hirst, K. Kris. "Igbo Ukwu (Nigeria): West African Burial and Shrine." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/igbo-ukwu-nigeria-site-171378 (accessed March 20, 2018).