Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Forgotten Great Civilisations (Igbo-Ukwu Culture)

History and archaeology have made it possible for us to remain in touch with lost or ancient (great) civilisations the world over through excavations and documentations. Sometimes, archaeology and ethnography which is the study of modern people in their natural settings can provide evidence that forces scholars to rethink the nature of the past. This was exactly what happened in the case when a site in the forest region of (Onitsha) Eastern Nigeria, Igbo-Ukwu, was discovered in the 1930s and 1940s, to contain the remnants of a complex, settled, agricultural society dating back as far as the 9th century AD. 
Igbo Ukwu Bronze Vessel

This was the discovery – led by Thurstan Shaw, of a lost ancient culture/civilisation that was advanced in its days, and as such is very important historical evidence as regards the richness and contributions of this part that is today a part of modern Nigeria. Of particular interest is the source of the copper and lead used to make the sophisticated bronze wares, which may have been Tadmekka in the Sahara, and of the coloured glass beads, some of which may have come from Venice and India, the latter via trade routes through Egypt.

It is possible that the inhabitants of Igbo Ukwu were able to develop a metal working art over 1,000 years ago. Though the topic still remains controversial, what is known is that on this site have been revealed hundreds of ritual vessels and bronze casting that are among the most inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made. Igbo Ukwu craftsmen are believed to be the earliest copper smiths in West Africa; they also practiced the lost wax-casting method in their production of bronze artefacts. These casters were among the best the world has ever seen. Within discovery reactions were high, some scientists and historians suggest the Igbo Ukwu were taught these techniques by foreigners. However thus far, the metals were mined from nearby areas and the use of scarification show local origin and cultural continuity with modern day Igbo cultures.

Where have we missed it; what is the missing link? This is what we ought to be looking at today as a people in Nigeria.

In the past, scholars believed that such societies had been absent from African forest regions. They also believed that centralisation of some kind or another needed to accompany the development of complex societies. This segment uses Igbo-Ukwu to demonstrate that complex societies did not have to be centralised.

Indeed, a combination of archaeological evidence and the study of modern Ibo peoples in Nigeria led scholars to believe that the people of Igbo-Ukwu ordered their society through a well informed system of self-governing villages headed by family leaders. Instead of the highly stratified social hierarchy of centralised kingdoms or city-states, the social order of Igbo-Ukwu emphasised common goals and group achievements even in culture, administration, and technology, etc. The discovery of Igbo-Ukwu and its sophisticated art forms have provided yet another model by which scholars understand how ancient people ordered their worlds.

By Morgan Nwanguma

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