Bell in the form of a head

Lower Niger Bronze Industry
16th–19th century
more object details

General Description

Rendered in a naturalistic style, this face has humanlike eyes, a mouth, ears, and a broad nose. The relief imagery of horns rising from behind the ears, serpents issuing from the nostrils, and a knot at the bridge of the nose are, however, unnatural. In the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms and other Lower Niger cultures, these symbolic motifs evoke supernatural and physical powers.

Horns, for example, symbolize the extraordinary power that emanates from the head of a deity and, as such, appear on multiple depictions of Eshu, the god of uncertainty and chaos, and on Yoruba Ifa divination trays. Snakes are associated with the worship of Oshun, the deity who rules the ocean and other bodies of water, and are depicted in artworks from the ancient Yoruba kingdom at Ile-Ife and especially in the art of the Benin kingdom. Knots represent the powerful, magical medicine that is usually found on warrior gear worn by figures on Benin and Lower Niger Bronze Industry sculptures.

Cast using the lost-wax process, this bell is similar to others attributed to the style of the "Lower Niger Bronze Industry," a designation coined by William Fagg in 1959 as a catchall attribution for a hoard of bronze castings excavated around 1909 on the Forcados River in the western Niger Delta southwest of Benin city. The castings are diverse in terms of formal qualities, iconography, and technical sophistication and do not fit within the canons of copper alloy casting in the major centers (i.e. the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms and at Igbo Ukwu). Similar mysterious castings, none of which has been precisely dated, have since been found in numerous locations in southern Nigeria and have been attributed likewise.

The precise function of effigy bells is unknown. Many have been found in or on shrines, where they were used to summon ancestors and divinities. That the bells are made of a durable material, are technically sophisticated, and depict complex imagery suggest they were made for leaders or persons of high sociopolitical rank, perhaps kings or chiefs on whose behalf they were used on the occasion of the transfer of power or as part of the royal regalia.

During the late 19th century, when Nigeria was a British colony, effigy bells were made in England and traded in the Niger Delta. They were made in molds and display a seam where the two halves are joined. This one is seamless, indicating it was not imported.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 144-145.