Nigeria's earliest artefacts are famous for their styles and aesthetic values all over the world. CHIKA OKEKE examines some of the ancient artworks and writes that due to their historic importance, it has contributed to national development especially in the arts and culture sector.
Apart from their aesthetic nature, the artefacts are priceless and that is why foreigners place much value on them than Nigerians. Some of the ancient traditional arts are Nok, Akwanshi, Igboukwu and Dufuna Canoe.
Though some of these historic artefacts were carted away by the colonial masters but the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) have engaged in dialogue with museums across Europe and France on possible ways of repatriating them to their home countries especially Nigeria.
The Director General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman said that three Nok objects of about 2000 years old were repatriated from Canada in early 2009, Two Ikom Monoliths were also repatriated from France in 2009 while the latest was 5 Nok artefacts of about 3000 years origin that were also repatriated from France and handed over to the commission this year.
The 8000 year old Dufuna that was excavated by Head of Excavation team in Nigeria, Prof Peter Breuning and his team was given a final resting place in Damaturu, Yobe state capital. The Dufuna canoe which would soon be exhibited to the public is currently situated along Maiduguri road, behind Yobe State cultural centre.
Due to its size, the building occupies an area of 792sqm while the canoe measures about 8.4 metres long, 0.5m width and 5m thick. It was discovered in May 1987 by a cattle rearer, Mallam Yau while digging a well to water his cattle in the dry valley of an affluent Komadugu Gana River which is one and half kilometers north of Dufuna settlement, close to Damagun headquarters in Fune local government, Yobe State.
Surprisingly, the excavation process started in 1992 and was completed in 1998. Then in 2001, the conservative process started and is still ongoing.
The DG who described the canoe as the masterpiece of arts noted that one of the greatest benefits of the discovery was that it helped archaeologists to draw a relationship between what was happening in Nigeria and elsewhere during that period.
According to him, the discovery of the canoe shows the ingenuity of pre-historic Nigeria and the level of its socio- cultural development. Conservators, curators and other professionals of the commission will soon begin the process of consolidating the canoe for final exhibition in conjunction with archaeologists from the University of Frankfurt, Germany as well as the Centre for Transaharan Studies who were involved in the excavation process.
On how the excavation process started, he added, "Three explorations and two major excavations were carried out on the site. The exploratory works were aimed at determining if they were dealing with a canoe. But in 1992, it was established that the canoe was lying at about 5 metres below the present landscape. A chip that fell off during the excavation was recovered for closer examination on the tensile capacity of the wood and its reaction to change in its micro-environment.
The chip was sent to Germany for dating with the assistance of Professor Peter Breuning. After thorough examination, the Kiel University dated it to 7, 700+ BP. It was the date that triggered the interest of the archaeological community while the project was brought under the umbrella of SFB 268 (Sonderforschungsbercichs 268).
Though the final excavation could not take place in 1997 due to non availability of conservative efforts, a conservative hall was constructed which made it possible for the excavation to take place in 1998. The funding for the excavation was sourced from abroad while the participation of NCMM was sponsored by Yobe State government.
To unearth an ancient canoe was a big task but the greatest challenge lies on the conservation of the art works, but was it actually challenging?
He said, "The conservation process commenced at Damaturu where it was enmeshed in a solution of formalin and poly ethylene glycol. The process was scheduled to take between 12 and 18 months aimed at consolidating the wood by filling in chemically the internal cells that had decayed over the millennia. A second batch of fresh solution of poly ethylene glycol was applied in the year 2001.
He stressed, "The creation of Igboukwu museum was a follow-up of the Igbo-Ukwu excavation work carried out by Thurstan Shaw, the archaeologist that excavated the Igbo Ukwu bronze heads and vessels. Further researches between 1960 and 1963 revealed more about beautifully made works of bronze, plastic beads, iron works which after carbon examination, were dated 9th century A.D. Most of the works depicted the culture of the local Igbo Ukwu people till this present time.
Meanwhile, the gallery of the museum was built by an indigene of Igbo-Ukwu, Chief Sir Timothy Umeweni who donated it to the town and was later commissioned in 1977. Some of the historical and cultural artefacts within the gallery remained a case study till date.
On Nok, the DG added, " With the discovery of the terracotta figurines in Nok village, it was christened Nok culture, which flourished in Nigeria during 1000 BC to 500 AD. The statues are in fragments because the discoveries were usually made from deposited mud and terrain washed by erosion.
"The Nok Culture civilization was discovered in 1929 in a rocky community in Jaba local government area of Southern Kaduna state. The first discovery was accidentally unearthed at a level of 24 feet during a tin mining operation at Nok.
As a result of natural erosion and deposition, Nok terracottas were scattered at various depths throughout the Sahel grasslands. It is said that about 60% of Nok terra-cotta figures are males, which are identified by their body decorations, beards and moustache. The objects are mainly used for rituals and as commemorative sculptures of local chiefs, dignitaries, kings, queens and priests. It also served as charms to prevent crop failure, illness and infertility.
Usman however stressed that, "Ikom Monoliths are more than 300 upright, carved stones that are situated at Ikom area of Cross River State. With different height, shapes and sizes, the monoliths were grouped in circles facing each other. The images and texts carved on the monoliths remains a mystery till date.