Date: 16th–17th century
Geography: Nigeria, Court of Benin
Culture: Edo peoples
Medium: Terracotta, sacrificial materials
Dimensions: H. 6 1/2 x W. 4 3/8 x D. 4 7/8 in. (16.5 x 11.1 x 12.4 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991
Accession Number: 1991.17.7
This Benin terracotta head, with its full rounded cheeks and eyes, neatly arranged rows of hair, and series of three parallel scarification marks above each eye, is a commemorative depiction. Oral histories recount that the earliest such works were primarily associated with the ancestral altars of the first kings of Benin. However, over time, royal altars came to feature works in the more prestigious material of brass. In contemporary Edo society, terracotta heads are located on the ancestral altars of the brass casters' guild and are believed to memorialize Benin brass casters. Historically, the extent of the use of terracotta may have been more widespread.
Edo terracotta heads differ from comparable works cast in brass in their greater simplicity, both stylistically and in the incorporation of less regalia. Generally, they are less delicate or refined, with thicker, fuller facial features, and reflect the relative speed with which they were made. It has also been suggested that the king's coral regalia might have been stored on terracotta heads, or that they were used as molds from which to cast brass heads.