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

Ife uncovered

Professor John Picton and metallurgist Paul Craddock discuss the meaning and the making of the sculptures in the exhibition Kingdom of Ife sculptures from West Africa. © Trustees of the British Museum. Created by British Museum.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

the reason that people should come and see this show is that it represents an African civilization at the height of its powers between the 11th and 15th century of which almost nothing was known about to the world beyond until the discovery of the works of art a goodly the VFA art has been found by accident in the dry season 3839 they were digging out the foundations for a house in the area behind the king's palace and they found 17 cast brass heads and a half figure and at that point the king of FA himself said well I've got two of these in my palace and he produced a terracotta large or head which is in the show and the mask of a buffoon and early king V thing and the person who is credited with introducing brass casting / - III this is a very firing Brahms head very similar to those that are on display in the exhibition of the EFA heads this is a made by a process known as hollow lost wax casting in that the first stage is to make a core of clay that will occupy the space inside when that has been done and molded what one does then is coat it with wax so put on wax to the thickness that you require then what the next stage is to add is to actually do the important bitch the artwork in other words to carve the wax to the face so in other words you wind up with a wax looking exactly like this with the clay core solid clay core inside there are two kinds of holes there are quite big holes in the neck and they may have been for fitting the heads on to some kind of wooden body which might be dressed you then get small holes around the hairline and almost certainly that's for the addition of a beard made out of small glass beads and then you get holes around the top of the head and that's fairly obviously for the attachment of some kind of crowd the heads must have been representing some kind of chiefly or royal person some of the heads both in cast brass and in terracotta have very close parallel marks down the faces across the eyelids and even on the lip and so forth and they could be some form of scarification possibly indicating status ritual status political state political status it could be to create a different kind of visual effect or it could be because of some reason of which we know nothing at this stage you then add pouring channels down which the metal will flow and you have some other channels once again in wax the next stage then is to actually apply the very fine clay very carefully to the outside to the thing to create a negative mold one of the qualities that people often mention is that serenity that sense of repose and one of the things that we know from modern your acculturate the ideal way for a man of it or woman of importance to present themselves is calm and dignified with your mouth shut the next day sensibly invert it and put it in the furnace so that the wax can run out so you've now got a hollow space where the wax was through then put that at a higher temperature and run in the molten brass and let the whole thing come down take away the mold casing and there is your head the overwhelming visual quality of those heads is their naturalism and idealized and untrue some lowered FA has made us expand our view of what is truly African you you