Igbo-Ukwu is a town of the Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria. It is notable for three archaeological sites, where excavations have found bronze artifacts from a highly sophisticated bronze metal-working culture dating perhaps to the 9th or 10th century. This was centuries before other known bronzes of the region, making the Igbo culture the earliest known example of a bronze casting society in the region. The first of the sites, Igbo Isaiah, is a shrine that was uncovered in 1938 by Isaiah Anozie, a local villager who stumbled upon the bronze works while digging beside his home. Subsequent excavations by Thurston Shaw in 1959 resulted in the discovery of two other sites: Igbo Richard, a burial chamber, and Igbo Jonah, thought to be a cache.
Igbo Bronze Art
The bronze sculptures (Figure 1) were made in stages using the lost wax technique, an ancient casting process commonly using wax. Many of the castings integrated small decorative items and designs, showing the artisans' high level of skill. It is believed that some of the bronzes were part of the furniture in the burial chamber of a highly important person or king. In addition to a variety of ritual vessels, bronze items include pendants, crowns and breastplates, staff ornaments, swords, and fly-whisk handles (Figure 2).
Other artifacts discovered in the sites include jewelry, ceramics, a corpse adorned in what appears to be regalia, and many assorted copper and iron objects. Tens of thousands of glass beads were also discovered, suggesting a long-distance trading system with places as far away as Egypt, Venice or India.
Other examples of Igbo art
Prior to British colonialism, the Igbo people were a fragmented and diverse group, resulting in artistic styles that are widely varied. Besides the bronze artifacts discovered in the 20th century, Igbo art is generally known for various types of masquerade masks and outfits symbolizing people, animals or abstract images. Igbo art is also famous for Mbari houses, which are large open-sided square planned shelters containing life-sized mud sculptures. These painted sculptural figures are made to appease the earth goddess, and are sculpted in the form of deities, animals, legendary creatures, ancestors, officials, craftsmen, and foreigners. The process of building Mbari houses, which often takes years, is regarded as sacred; therefore new ones are regularly constructed and old ones are left to decay.
A unique structure of Igbo culture is the Nsude Pyramids, a group of ten pyramidal structures built of clay and mud. The structures were built as temples for the god Ala/Uto, who was believed to reside at the top. Everyday houses were made of mud and thatched roofs with bare earth floors with carved design doors. Some houses had elaborate designs both in the interior and exterior, including Uli art designed by Igbo women.