Creating Information

Inside the small tent isolated from the world I feel the warmth of the early morning sun heat the air. Absentmindedly I listen to the sounds of birds chirping outside. Huddled over the earth slowly searching within my designated square I look for clues to piece together the past history of this space. I am participating in the systematic study of past humans and culture by the examination of remaining material evidence[1], otherwise known as Archaeology. Like an ever-complex puzzle the archaeologist attempts to create new insights into the mystery of the past. There are many different ways in which information can be extracted from the earth. Perhaps one of the most interesting locations for the archaeologist is Africa, most specifically the City if Ile Ife in the Yoruba kingdom.

The city of Ile Ife is located in western Africa in present day Nigeria. The Yoruba people inhabit this area and have a long history there. The belief is that the high god Olodumare sent 16 lesser gods to start life. He gave Orishanala a calabash of sand and a five-toed chicken to make the world. But Orishanala drank palm wine on the way down from heaven, and fell asleep. So another god named Oduduwa took the chance to steal the items and be first to arrive on the primordial ocean. To create the world he emptied the calabash on the water and set the chicken upon it, where it scratched at the sand and scattered it across the face of the deep, making land[2]. Ile Ife is believed to be the place where Oduduwa placed the sand. According to Willett, evidence of this could be seen in the Grove of Olose. Unfortunately the grove was destroyed years ago. It’s easy to see why excavating artifacts that are believed to be proof of such divine origin would be, and is, fascinating. It is as if archaeologists could discover artifacts of Christ or Noah’s Arch.

Historically there are several different ways that archaeologists have systematically gone about probing in the dirt. For the classic archaeologist[3], the goals are historical in orientation, focusing on details of architecture, recovery of art objects, the tracing of art and architectural themes, and the development of written language. But studying Ile Ife also includes history from a time when there was no writing language, back to the origin of the world. The archaeological study of these sites is called prehistoric archaeology[4]; “It is an awkward term usually defined as the study of societies and remains without the benefit of the written record. Prehistoric, meaning quite literally “before recorded history,” includes the entire depth (ca. 2-3 million years) and breadth of human culture before recorded history. Because recorded history began 6,000 or so years ago in some parts of the world but not until the twentieth century in other parts, the term prehistory is awkward. Because the greatest block of human culture history occurred before the invention of writing, however, most archaeology is concerned with the study of the human past prior to historic witnesses. The basic methods and techniques applied to prehistoric archaeology are the same as those used in historical and nautical archaeology because they all three share the problems of establishing and maintaining contextual integrity.” (Shafer 1997 P.7)

Mitra Cline – Tent excavation project 2003ish

A video posted by Mitra (@foreverbird) on Jun 11, 2015 at 4:06pm PDT

In a way it’s obvious that to determine the meaning or significance of any archaeological find, be it a figure made in terracotta or a tool, involves an anthropologist’s attitude of researching the origin, culture, and development of humans[5]. This is why today the goals of the archaeologist have changed. According to Shafer they are “1 to consider the form of archaeological evidence and its distribution in time and space. 2. To determine past function and thereby construct models of ancient behavior. 3. To delimit the processes of culture and determine how and why cultures change. 4. To understand cultural meaning through the context of symbols, values, and worldview.”[6]

Archaeologists who have worked in Ile Ife have not only learned about the past, but also have been active participants in the contemporary Yoruba life. If it were not for the acceptance of the local people nothing would be possible. From finding artifacts to preserving them the people of Ile Ife are essential. For example in one case, Willett, “began an excavation at a site known as Odo Ogbe Street. This was undertaken after a head had been washed out by rainwater and found by two boys on their way to school early one morning.[7]” According to Eyo and Willett almost every day some new artifact is found simply because the ground is saturated after years of being populated[8]. Perhaps the city of Ile Ife could be compared to such ancient cities as Rome, also saturated with layers of historical artifacts. In Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, Eyo and Willett say they have radiocarbon dates for the fully developed art ranging between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries[9].

In a different situation “Two hundred yards from the Palace of the Oni (king) of Ife, a man was digging the foundation of a house in a compound called Wunmonije, and two feet below ground a hoard consisting of eighteen extraordinary bronzes was encountered. No one studied the site at the time but most of the heads were kept by the Oni (king).[10]

The politics of the region have an effect on the archaeologist. Because the items being retrieved have strong religious meaning permission must be granted in order to proceed. In the case of a dig in 1969 the excavation by Willett had to be canceled because the Oni or king discovered that the graves uncovered were not his direct ancestors. He was unable to give permission for their graves to be disturbed, and the excavation was ended[11]. King of the Yoruba, or Oni, has taken an active interest in the preservation of the art and artifacts found at Ile Ife and other Yoruba sites. From 1938 on the Oni showed an active interest in the artworks found. When artifacts were found people were told to take them to the palace where the Museum now exists[12].

Yoruba Copper mask for King Obalufon, Ife, Nigeria c. 1300 C.E.
Yoruba Copper mask for King Obalufon, Ife, Nigeria c. 1300 C.E.

The presence of a Museum is perplexing for me. The Oni has according to Eyo and Willett gone into shrines to retrieve some sculptures, not just taking them from forgotten locations under the earth[13]. To me this seems curious. In the contemporary Ile Ife the context in which the art was originally seen is being removed. Perhaps the presence of western science has reoriented the value of Yoruba art. Once seen as spiritual in nature and used in religious practices it has become a valuable artifact belonging to the Oni (king). I believe the scientific study of anything changes the subject in question because of its nature. It creates doubt in the believer, by existing above or separate from the belief, offering a contrasting point of view. By imposing our value system on the people of Ile Ife we have changed it, and they have changed us. Despite the detached view from a book where I experience Yoruba art, I am still moved by its presence.

Creating information by translation is what I feel archaeologists are doing. By examining Ile- Ife and obtaining data they are free to arrange it within books and organize it to convey meaning to the foreign reader. I’m reluctant to trust the interpretations. I find the words on the page seem infinitely inferior to the story within the art of Ile Ife, which speaks for itself.


[1] (American Heritage 2001 P.45)

[2] (Willett, 1967 p.121)

[3] (Shafer 1997 p.6)

[4] (Shafer 1997 P.7)

[5] (American Heritage 2001 P.36)

[6] (Shafer 1997 P.18)

[7] (Eyo and Willett, 1980, P 12)

[8] (Eyo and Willett, 1980, P 17)

[9] (Eyo and Willett, 1980, P10.)

[10] (Eyo and Willett, 1980, P.11)

[11] (Eyo and Willett, 1980, P 13-14)

[12] (Eyo and Willett, 1980, P.12)

[13] (Eyo and Willett, 1980, P.12)


Adkins    1989, An Introduction to Archaeology, New Jersey Cartwell Books

Eyo and Willett            1980, Treasures of ancient Nigeria, New York: Knppf: in association with the Detroit Institute of Arts: distrib Random House

Hester, Shafer and Feder 1997, Field Methods in Archaeology, Mayfield Publishing

Pickett 2001, The American Heritage Dictionary, New York: Dell Publishing

Willett  1967, Ife in the History of West African sculpture, New York: McGraw-Hill