Ile Ife (Nigeria)

Yoruba Capital of Ile Ife

Yoruba Crown Representing Ile-Ife Leader Oduduwa
Early 20th century crown of the Yoruba people, with a frontal piece representing the Ile-Ife leader Oduduwa. cliff1066™

Ile-Ife (pronounced EE-lay EE-fay), and known as Ife or Ife-Lodun is an ancient urban center, a Yoruba city in Osun state in southwestern Nigeria, about 135 northeast of Lagos. First occupied at least as early as the 1st millennium CE, it was most populous and important to the Ife culture during the 14th and 15th centuries CE, and it is considered the traditional birthplace of the Yoruba civilization, of the latter part of the African Iron Age. Today it is a thriving metropolis, with a population of about 350,000 people.

Key Takeaways: Ile-Ife

  • Ile-Ife is a Medieval period site in Nigeria, occupied between the 11th and 15th centuries CE. 
  • It is considered the ancestral home of the Yoruba people. 
  • Residents made naturalistic Benin bronzes, terracotta and copper allow sculptures. 
  • Evidence at the site shows local manufacture of glass beads, adobe brick houses, and potsherd pavements. 

Prehistoric Chronology

  • Pre-Classical (also known as Pre-Pavement), ?–11th centuries
  • Classical (Pavement), 12th–15th centuries
  • Post-Classic (Post-Pavement), 15th–17th centuries

During its heyday of the 12th–15th centuries CE, Ile-Ife experienced a fluorescence in bronze and iron arts. Beautiful naturalistic terracotta and copper alloy sculptures made during the early periods have been found at Ife; later sculptures are of the lost-wax brass technique known as Benin bronzes. The bronzes are thought to represent rulers, priests, and other notable people during the city's florescence as a regional power.

It was also during Classic period Ile Ife that construction of decorative pavements, open-air courtyards paved with pottery sherds. The sherds were set on edge, sometimes in decorative patterns, such as herringbone with embedded ritual pots. The pavements are unique to the Yoruba and believed to have been first commissioned by Ile-Ife's only female king.

The Ife period buildings at Ile-Ife were constructed primarily of sun-dried adobe brick and so only a few remnants have survived. During the medieval period, two earthen rampart walls were erected around the city center, making Ile-Ife what archaeologists call a fortified settlement. The royal center had a circumference of about 2.5 miles, and its inner-most wall encircles an area of some three square miles. A second medieval period wall encircles an area of some five sq mi; both medieval walls are ~15 feet tall and 6.5 ft thick.

Glass Works

In 2010, excavations were undertaken in the northeastern part of the site by Abidemi Babatunde Babalola and colleagues who identified evidence that Ile Ife was making glass beads for its own consumption and for trade. The city had long been associated with glass processing and glass beads, but the excavations recovered almost 13,000 glass beads and several pounds of glassworking debris. The beads here have a unique chemical makeup, of contrasting levels of soda and potassium and high levels of alumina.

The beads were made by drawing a long tube of glass and cutting it into lengths, mostly under two-tenths of an inch. Most of the finished beads were cylinders or oblates, the rest are tubes. Bead colors are primarily blue or blue-green, with a smaller percentage of colorless, green, yellow, or multicolored. A few are opaque, in yellow, dark red or dark gray.

Bead-making manufacturing is indicated by pounds of glass waste and cullet, 14,000 potsherds. and fragments of several pottery crucibles. The vitrified ceramic crucibles are between 6 and 13 inches tall, with a mouth diameter of between 3–4 inches, which would have held between 5-40 pounds of molten glass.  The production site was used between the 11th and 15th centuries and represents rare evidence of early West African crafts.

Archaeology at Ile-Ife

Excavations at Ile Ife have been conducted by F. Willett, E. Ekpo and P.S. Garlake. Historical records also exist and have been used to study migration patterns of the Yoruba civilization.

Sources and Further Information