Gallery 2

SAAM Interactive Experience

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Bronze Snail

Date: 19th-20th century

Culture: Igbo

Geography: Nigeria

Medium: Metal (bronze)

(Click image for high resolution photo)

This work of art is as mysterious as it is visually fascinating. It is an example of a long-standing tradition of bronze casting in Igbo culture that goes back to the height of the Igbo-Ukwu Kingdom with a city of the same name at its center that, according to current sources, dates back to the ninth century. This example is most likely from a much later date, but exhibits the characteristics of earlier examples.

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The designs found on this work of art are characteristic of other examples of Igbo lost-wax bronze-work found in that region. This is clearly seen in the raised ridges and other patterns found over much of the piece. These designs are very similar to, and are thought to be based on, scarification patterns found on the faces of high-ranking Igbo men. This type of scarification pattern is known as ichi and it represents someone with a high degree of learning and status. This would link this object with the artwork of the aristocracy of Igbo-Ukwu. This would make sense since very similar bronze representations of snail shells have been found in the burial chambers of high-ranking men found in the city. What can also be found on the surface of the shell are representations of insects and frogs. It is plausible that these insects and amphibians represented on this shell serve some sort of symbolic function, but the meaning of these symbols is currently unknown. When it comes to the portrayal of flies that are found on this piece, it is inconclusive as to whether it is connected with an Igbo proverb that compares flies feasting on meat with the benefits a citizen enjoys when he is loyal to his ruler.

"These designs are very similar to and are thought to be based on, scarification patterns found on the faces of high-ranking Igbo men. This type of scarification pattern is known as ichi and it represents someone with a high degree of learning and status."

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Igbo man with Ichi via Wikicommons

The variety of snail represented in this work has also been a mystery, but presently it has been identified as being a Triton snail, which is a variety of snail that comes from the Atlantic Ocean. While there are portions of the Igbo world that are close to the sea, Igbo-Ukwu is about a hundred miles from the coast. The representation of such a snail could feasibly represent the networks of trade that converged at Igbo-Ukwu in a similar manner that the Igbo city of Nri was a center of commerce.

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Sources:

 

“Igbo Ukwu - Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Museum of Art.” , Page 4 - Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.   
             Accessed June 22, 2021. https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/chapters/ancient-africa/igbo-ukwu/?start=3. 

 

metmuseum.org. Accessed June 23, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/igbo/hd_igbo.htm. 

 

Pritchett, Frances. 065_072. Accessed June 24, 2021. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00fwp/igbo/proverbs/065_072.html. 

 

Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art. Artwork Information Sheet 02. Accessessed June 24, 2021

              https://museum.pau.edu.ng/images/AIS-2.pdf