Lesson 10: Ancestor Sculptures of the Eastern Gongola Valley

Background Information

Although most sacred objects in the Upper Benue are made of clay, a tradition of making ancestral representations in wood also existed. Large and imposing male figures (figs. 10.1–3) may have functioned as effigies of dead chiefs, erected during the post-burial funerary rites held by a cluster of related Eastern Gongola peoples—the ‘Bəna, Yungur, and Mboi. These rituals were held before the planting season so that the blessings of the deceased could be conferred. Although we know that these rituals were held, nothing resembling these rare and highly muscular male sculptures has been photographed in the Upper Benue region (nor is anything comparable known from the entire Benue River Valley).

The most compelling evidence for the identities of these figures survives in the ceramic vessels (fig. 10.4) made by the Yungur to contain the spirits of deceased chiefs. Notice the similarities in the contours of their heads, facial features, caps, and thick elongated necks. These wooden sculptures may constitute a remnant of an abandoned memorial tradition that was preserved in the more enduring medium of ceramic. While it is difficult to ascribe a specific ethnic attribution to the wooden figures, it seems plausible that the idea for such effigies circulated in the Eastern Gongola Valley where communities of speakers of closely related languages shared cultural practices and material symbols.


This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the first section of the exhibition called The Upper Benue: Expressive and Ritual Capacities of Clay


In this unit the topics and lessons are

Lesson 8: Figurative Vessels of Tranformation

Lesson 9: Spirit Identities in Clay

Lesson 10: Ancestor Sculptures of the Eastern Gongola Valley


Related Exhibition