If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:03

Lost History: the terracotta sculpture of Djenné Djenno

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their African galleries looking at this extraordinary terracotta figure we have a seated figure who's pulling one knee up and wraps his upper body around that knee turning his head in this uncomfortable way to the side on his knee and the way that the clay was shaped creates this snake-like quality that allows the body to turn and move in a way that seems to defy any kind of internal skeletal structure I think that this object could represent somebody who is ill when I first started studying these objects I was very drawn to frankly how weird they are an expressive there's something fantastical about them what I saw is very highly imaginative but the longer that I've studied them the more questions I've developed around what exactly is being represented here we should say the outset that we know very little about these figures this is one of approximately a thousand objects that have been found most have been looted and so we have very little firm archaeological context for these objects they are perplexing group of objects we have a very wide date range for them because we have very few objects that were found in context but they pose a tough question to us because lacking context we can never really fully understand how they were used however they constitute an incredible resource for us because they're one of the few large corpuses we have of objects before the colonial period so they absolutely demand study if these are figures with a kind of affliction if this is an expression of pain or perhaps sorrow it stands in such contrast to so much sculpture where the ideal figure is represented and even within this corpus of a thousand objects there are objects that are very strong there are horse and riders for example the paragon of strength during this period of the transferrin trade and by trans-saharan trade you're talking about kingdoms that develop trade networks that cross the desert that moved from sub-saharan Africa through to the Mediterranean coast we think that these figures emerge in the context of the collapse of the first major Empire empire of Ghana we know that there was a big population movement into the Inland Niger Delta and that there was a lot of population pressure around this period when these objects seemed to emerge in the historical record the next Empire to emerge is the Empire of Mali and the founder of that Empire Sujata kata is born lame and has to learn to walk and overcome this in order to become this powerful leader who unites the kingdom of Mali this is such a complicated moment because you have the introduction of Islam you have older traditional religions you have the building and collapsing of empires and you also have an incredible movement of goods and people you have traders coming down to Timbuktu you have another group of traders coming up to a city of Jenny and you have the Niger River which is the superhighway of the trans-saharan trade I would argue it's also a disease vector and so these could be representations of disease either those that have contracted disease or perhaps those that are trying to ward it off in this particular sculpture we have the most elaborate back we see these forms that stand off the back that almost look like soft buttons and we also see these circles that have been incised in rows in between the button forms and it's also regular and decorative that they could be pustules perhaps a kind of abstract representation of the pus Trull or of a Bubo of a blister of some sort but they also could be some kind of score ofin they could be deliberate are we seeing a number of symptoms loaded onto a figure that kind of representation of illness and a big sense is this a depiction of various particular symptoms have a particular illness and could this kind of stylization on the back could that be a kind of response an attempt to ward off illness it's almost impossible to know but people who overcome illness we can imagine might also be seen as very spiritually powerful if we look at the torso there is this flaring from the narrowness of the neck into this very large belly and very strong legs I think other scholars might even argue that they don't see illness here and that they just see a very expressive and very creative representation of the he and potty but I would go back to the point that you're making about looking at the body swelling and the way that the torso swells and we move down into these very substantial eyes but as you move down the rest of the leg you really see a kind of shrinking in the calf and then these very tiny feet this is the value of having put together a very large corpus we have a lot of comparative material and I frequently see this kind of shriveled lower limb and even have seen it to the point of great elasticity where the limb becomes very plastic and even thrown over the shoulders which to me looks like something very much akin to polio again raising the question are we seeing a representation of arrival of particular diseases that may have come through the trans-saharan trade the fact that we have so few fine spots that we have so little archaeological evidence to go with these figures makes interpretation difficult in and of itself so this is a real conundrum when these figures were first discovered they're being excavated using scientific archaeological methods but very soon looters took over and the vast majority of objects in museums today are coming from looted sites which means we don't have a fine spot and we don't have archaeological evidence there's another layer though which is that in order to reduce further eluding there's been a kind of a moratorium on scholarship about these objects to help reduce their attractiveness to the market and to private collectors it's an understandable position and as you say rightly it's a conundrum however the objects that are out are out and I would argue that we must find a way to make these objects eeeek we have to ask them different kinds of questions than the kinds of questions we would ask if they are in an archaeological context we can't pretend that they don't exist you