Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500)

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This group of seven fired earthenware heads is named after the site where they were discovered in the eastern Transvaal of South Africa. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples from the excavation site has established that the heads were buried there around 500 A.D., making them the oldest known African Iron Age artworks from below the equator.


The reconstructed heads are not identical, but do share a number of characteristics. Modeled strips of clay form the thinly opened oval eyes, slightly projecting mouths, noses, and ears, and raised bands decorating the faces, while the backs of the heads are adorned with incised linear patterns. The columnar necks are defined by large furrowed rings. Necks ringed with fat have been and continue to be viewed as a sign of prosperity by many African peoples. However, it is currently impossible to know whether the rings on the Lydenburg heads were intended to be read in this way due to the scant information available on the ancient culture that produced them.


For a variety of reasons it has been speculated that the heads were used in initiation rites, perhaps even worn.


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Two of the largest heads could have been worn like helmet masks. They are differentiated from the smaller heads by the animal figures poised on their peaks and the small clay spheres that articulate what appears to be raised hairlines. The animals, once covered by a heavy slip, are now difficult to identify but have disk-shaped faces reminiscent of a lion's mane.


The five smaller heads are similar to one another, with the exception of one that has an animal visage with a projecting snout. Too small to have been worn as helmets, these heads all have small holes on either side of their lowest neck rings that may have been used to attach them to something else.


For a variety of reasons it has been speculated that the heads were used in initiation rites, perhaps even worn. Specularite, a variety of hematite whose crystals glisten when rotated, was placed strategically on the masks in incisions and raised areas such as the eyebrows. This has been cited as a possible indication that the heads were used in public ceremonies, as they would have shimmered impressively when moved in the light. The holes in the five smaller heads and the helmet size of the two larger ones could also indicate that these earthenware heads were masks worn for various ceremonies. None of this can be known for certain, however, and the use and meaning of the heads remain a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, it is clear from the deliberate manner in which the heads were buried that whatever significance they may have held, they were respected enough to be interred with care.


Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lydenburg Head
Courtesy of Iziko Museums of Cape Town


This head is one of the largest of seven terracotta heads found at a site in Lydenburg, South Africa. It bears a small animal statue that may represent a lion.


Excavation site, northeast of Pretoria.