Study Shows Benin Bronzes Are Made from German Metal
A new study of famous 16th-19th century works of art found in abundance in West Africa has revealed something surprising about their composition. According to the results of a comprehensive and detailed chemical analysis, the metal used to make the so-called Benin Bronzes was sourced from very far away, specifically from Germany’s Rhineland. Africa’s western coast and the Rhineland are separated by more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) as the crow flies, which means the metal used to create these skillfully crafted bronze objects was transported across a vast distance before arriving at its final destination.
A Shock for the Benin Bronze Origins
The Kingdom of Benin was one of the most developed and enduring empires to ever arise in West Africa , and its incredible artistic achievements testify to the sophistication of its culture. But until this enlightening new discovery, archaeologists and historians who study the Edo and their beautiful works of art had no idea the Kingdom was sourcing materials from Germany, a country located far, far away from the remote shores of modern-day Nigeria.
The Benin Bronzes are comprised of thousands of pieces of African artwork, including engraved plaques, figurines, sculpted heads and other items produced by the Edo people between the 1500s and the 1800s. Living in the area of what is now southern Nigeria (the nation known as Benin is located just to the west), the Edo craftspeople and artists responsible for these astonishing artifacts were subjects of the Kingdom of Benin , which ruled the region from the 11th century through the end of the 19th century.
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From Germany to West Africa: Precious Metals for Precious Objects
For a long time, archaeologists have suspected that the metal used to create the Benin Bronzes had been salvaged from small, open-horseshoe-shaped brass rings, known as manillas. First manufactured by the Portuguese just before the turn of the 16th century, these brass objects were used as a form of currency by European merchants who traded along the West African coast. The manillas were sometimes used to acquire slaves, as the Portuguese were active in the slave trade , but they were often exchanged for material goods as well.
Detail of a manilla (bracelet) concreted to part of a pot from a Flemish trader excavated by the Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi off Getaria, Basque Country, northern Spain. The ship, lost in 1524, had been chartered by Portuguese merchants from Lisbon. ( Ana Maria Benito-Dominguez/CC-BY 4.0/ PLoS ONE )
To prove the thesis that the Benin Bronzes were made from these brass rings, a team of experts used techniques of advanced chemical analysis to trace the origins of the metals used to make the Portuguese manillas. The international group of scientists, led by engineering and material science post-doc trainee Tobias Skowronek from the Technische Hochschule Georg Agricola in Bochum, Germany, performed their tests on 67 manillas recovered from Atlantic shipwrecks and land sites in Europe and Africa. All of these currency pieces were manufactured between the 16th and 19th centuries, making them contemporary with the acclaimed Kingdom of Benin art objects.
It was not necessary to perform any tests on the Benin Bronzes. They have already been analyzed hundreds of times in other studies, and the researchers had access to all the available data on their chemical characteristics.
As they explain in a paper about their study just published in the journal PLOS ONE , the German scientists were able to identify lead isotope signatures and trace element compositions of the metal used to manufacture manillas. As they’d hoped and expected, the researchers found clear similarities between the metal composition of the manillas and the bronze art objects (they were all made from brass, leaded brass and tin). This proved that the artworks had indeed been manufactured, at least in part, from manillas that had been melted down and reused.
The material overlap between the two was not perfect, as the repurposed manillas had apparently been added to pieces of scrap brass or bronze to make the figurines, sculpted heads and engraved plaques. Previous archaeological searches had uncovered bronze items manufactured by the Igbo-Ukwe people, who lived in the area in the 9th and 10th centuries, so it is clear that West Africans were producing bronze long before the opening of the Atlantic trade routes that connected the region with Europe.
Notably, the metals used in the Portuguese manillas were comprised of ores that matched the characteristics of ores mined in the German Rhineland. This is how the researchers know that metals from Germany were used to manufacture this unique form of currency, and it was this metal that was ultimately used to create the Benin Bronzes.
A Benin Bronze depicts a, 16th century, Portuguese soldier with manillas in the background (I, Sailko/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
“The Benin Bronzes are the most famous ancient works of art in all West Africa,” Tobias Skowronek explained in a news release discussing the results of the new study.
“Where their brass came from has long been a mystery. Finally, we can prove the totally unexpected: the brass used for the Benin masterpieces, long thought to come from Britain or Flanders, was mined in western Germany. The Rhineland manillas were then shipped more than 6,300 kilometers to Benin. This is the first time a scientific link has been made.”
When they started their research, the scientists expected to find a relationship between the manillas and the African artifacts . But they had no idea that the metal used to make the manillas had been sourced from such a distant location.
One Culture Loved Money, the Other Loved Art
The chemical analysis of the Benin Bronzes found a remarkable consistency in the type of metal used to make these precious objects. This suggests that 15th-17th century Kingdom of Benin metalsmiths were extremely demanding when selecting metals to process, and that they coveted the Portuguese manillas because they possessed the precise qualities necessary to produce durable and attractive works of art.
The manillas were manufactured exclusively by the Portuguese for use in the Atlantic-based African trade, and thus were never transported to other parts of the world. Their chemical composition was clearly designed to meet the special needs of the Western African peoples—specifically the Edo—who accepted them as items of value in exchanges. The exact metal formula used to create the manillas was chosen not by the profit-minded traders who carried them and viewed them as currency, but by the people who reused them for what they believed was a higher and more noble purpose.
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Tragically, the Benin Bronzes were not recovered during sanctioned archaeological expeditions. They were instead stolen by British forces who invaded the region and destroyed the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Most of these items ended up in museums in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, where many remain to this day.
Efforts to have these pilfered artifacts returned to Nigeria are ongoing (some have been sent back already). When this repatriation campaign achieves its ultimate goal, as it undoubtedly will, the descendants of the artists who actually created these remarkable pieces will finally be able to celebrate a long-lost part of their amazing cultural legacy.
Top image: Some of the 313 manillas (brass rings) excavated by the Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi from a Flemish trader lost in 1524 off Getaria in Basque Country, northern Spain which prove the source of the Benin Bronze metal. Source: Ana Maria Benito-Dominguez/CC-BY 4.0/ PLoS ONE
By Nathan Falde