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The Lydenburg Heads: The Earliest  Iron Age Art South of the Equator

The Lydenburg Heads: The Earliest Iron Age Art South of the Equator


The Lydenburg Heads are a set of terracotta heads discovered in the eastern Transvaal of South Africa. One of the heads has been dated to around 500 AD, and it is believed that the rest of the heads also originate from the same time period. One of the most impressive aspects of the Lydenburg Heads is that they are, at present, the earliest known examples of Iron Age art south of the equator. They are considered a national treasure by South Africa and are now on display at the National Museum in Cape Town.

Ludwig von Bezing, the Boy with an Archaeological Discovery

The story of the Lydenburg Heads begins in 1957. This was the year when fragments of the heads were first seen. This discovery was not made by archaeologists, but by a ten-year-old boy, Ludwig von Bezing, who was playing in the veldt on his father’s farm near Lydenburg. It was only five years later that von Bezing developed an interest in archaeology and re-visited the site where he first saw the terracotta fragments. Between 1962 and 1966, von Bezing’s frequent visits to the Sterkspruit valley resulted in the collection of pieces of the Lydenburg Heads, though at that time, he was not aware of his great find.

When von Bezing went to the University of Cape Town to study medicine he joined the university’s archaeological club. At the insistence of the club, von Bezing took his finds to the university. At this time, his collection contained not only fragments of the terracotta heads and pottery, but also iron beads, copper beads, and pieces of bones. These finds piqued the interest of the university’s archaeologist, and an excavation of the site was carried out by the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand.

Fragments of domestic pottery with similar decoration to the Lydenburg Heads, Lydenburg, South Africa

Fragments of domestic pottery with similar decoration to the Lydenburg Heads, Lydenburg, South Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the discoveries of this excavation was what we now call the Lydenburg Heads. Upon reconstruction of the terracotta fragments it was discovered that there are seven of these heads. Two heads are said to be large enough to fit over the head of a child, while the other five heads are about half that size. All of the heads are hollow, and are roughly an inverted U in shape. Although there are certain differences amongst the heads, there are also a number of common attributes that justify their categorization as a group.

Categorizing the Lydenburg Heads

The formation of features on the Lydenburg Heads may be divided into two main categories: those created by the application of pieces of clay to the basic clay form, and those produced by incision. The lips of the heads, for instance, were made by two crescent-shaped pieces of clay joined at the corners when they taper to the cheeks. Although the application of the lips is consistent, there was some variation. In the large heads, for instance, a slit was made in the clay wall so that the mouth was open, but the small heads had teeth, represented by small pieces of clay inserted between the lips. The nose, eyes and ears were also applied using the same technique.

One of the smaller Lydenburg Heads, with visible teeth, Lydenburg, South Africa

One of the smaller Lydenburg Heads, with visible teeth, Lydenburg, South Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

The use of incision to produce decorations on the Lydenburg Heads can be seen on their backs. Additionally, this can also been observed in the columnar necks of the heads. Each neck is encircled by bands with incised diagonal hatchings. It has been noted that the grooves between the bands on the large heads were modeled and those on the small heads were boldly incised.

Interpreting the Lydenburg Heads

One possible interpretation of these neck rings is that they are a representation of prosperity. This is based on the view held by many African peoples that necks ringed with fat are a sign of beauty and prosperity. Although this is plausible, it would be impossible to know if the makers of the Lydenburg Heads were of the same opinion.

It is also unclear how these heads were used. As mentioned previously, the two large heads are big enough to fit on the head of a child. It has been speculated that these heads may have been worn as helmet masks, and used during initiation and other religious ceremonies. On either side of the lowest neck ring of the five smaller heads is a small hole. For that reason, it has been suggested that these holes were used to attach the heads to something else, perhaps to poles and costumes. Once again, this suggests use within a ritual context.

These artifacts of Iron Age art are treasured and with time and technology, one hopes that more details of their use and meaning will be discovered.

Featured image: Two of the Lydenburg Heads (University of Cape Town)

By Ḏḥwty


BBC, 2005. Treasuring South Africa's history. [Online]
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Kleiner, F. S., 2013. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History, Volume 1. 14 ed. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing.

Lydenburg Museum, 2008. Lydenburg Heads. [Online]
Available at:

Maggs, T. & Davison, P., 1981. The Lydenburg Heads. African Arts, 14(2), pp. 28-33, 88.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500). [Online]
Available at:

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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