A Brief Example of Archaeology in Historical Studies. Ile-Ife, the Cradle of Yoruba civilization

Elaboration, 2020

5 Pages, Grade: 3.1



Archaeology as a discipline, as distinct from history but complementary to it, has played a facilitative role in historical reconstruction of pre-literate societies overtime. The thrust of this piece is on the contributions of this all important venture to the historical reconstruction of Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba civilization. The fact that history deals with the past in time perspective, understandably makes it pre-emptory for the historical researcher to approach its study from a multidisciplinary perspective: Hence, Archaeology.

Archaeology: A Conceptualization

Originally, a coinage from the Greek words “Archaia”, i.e, ‘Ancient things and “Ologus” i.e the study or discussion of” 1 It may thus, as odunbaku2 suggest, be put as the study of ancient things”.

Though there is no single universal acceptable definition for it, as it were but several scholars have attempted its conceptualization. Stuart and McManamon define it as “the study of past ways of life”.3 Fagan sees it as a distinct discipline, combining a battery of field, laboratory and quantitative research methods oriented towards the study of man in the past using interpretative techniques and theoretical concept that are specifically designed for this task.4 Odunbaku conceives it as a means of getting to the thoughts and feelings of the people of the past on the basis of relics and monuments. 5 White Shaw takes to mean a method of finding out about the past from the material remains left behind by former inhabitants.6 In the light are archeology may be conceptualized as the remains of past ways available in the present

Archeology and the History of Ile-Ife

Ile-Ife is situated in central Yorubaland, in a rain forest ecosystem. 7 Ife regarded in some Yoruba traditions as the origin of life on earth is also especially regarded as the father kingdom of Yoruba peoples. 8 As regards the role which archeology plays in reconstructing the past of Ife, it is important to note that of all the past phases of their history little is known about the stone-age Ife people and society. 9 This does not however mean that the knowledge’s of this period in Ife history remain in shadows as shall be demonstrated shortly.

The first Ife works of art to be known to the outside the world comprised glass beads seen by john and Richard Lander at old Oyo. Ife first attracted the attention of mother scholars in 1910-1911 when the German ethnographer, Leo Frobenius, discovered there evidence of an ancient artistic tradition in terracotta and bronze. He collected artifacts in Ife both by purchase and very crude excavation. 10 Among recently excavated sites in Ife are Lafogido, Odo Ogbe, Obalara and Wumonije to mention a few. Both Lafogido and Odo Ogbe demonstrated classical Ife terracotta sculptures/ but in different context. 11 The finds were find in primary and secondary context. The excavation carried out at Odo Ogbe revealed a burial spot which was interpreted by Ekpo Eyo as evidence of a “pit and pot” burial practice. This is a process whereby a body is lowered into a pit and the corps is covered with earth in a pot will be used to mark the spot. This practice has not been confirmed ethnographically in Ife or any other Yoruba settlement but example of burial pot mark with circular stones have been discovered in modern Yoruba settlements and also in some extinct ones such as old Oyo.12 According to Ooni Aderemi Lafogido reigned in the late nineteenth century. Excavation was not completed there because Ekpo Eyo in excitement called the university community when he began to uncover skeletal remains and the Ife people rose up in anger and accused him of mutilating the resting place of their former Ooni. From what he saw before he was stopped, there is no doubt that it was a royal tomb.13

In 1938, a house builder in his compound on a street not very far from Ife palace was digging a trench for the foundation of his house and by accident unearthed thirteen bronze heads. This caused a lot of sensation in the area. Although the site was not studied by an archeologist, the hoard formed parts of a royal alter. In Ife oral traditions, the site was set to be the one time palace of Ooni Lafogido one of the past Ife rulers. William Fagg thought in 1953 that this compound could have been the real traditional burial grave of past Ife kings. After this discovery, the district officer heard about it and instructed K.C Murray to investigate it. As a result of his report, he was appointed survey of antiquities in 1943. He went back to Ife and collected all other artworks to be kept in one place which later became ‘The museum of Ife Antiquities’ established in 1948.14

Osangangan Obamakin grove on the Modakeke side of Ife was excavated on John Goodwill, Bernard Fagg and Kenneth Murray. They discovered a small terracotta figure of a gorilla or chimpanzee. They also recovered a terracotta head said to represent Obamakin himself and an incomplete figure of a man suffering from “elephantiasis croton”15

Bernard Fagg also excavated at Iwinrin grove. He lent through oral tradition that Iwinrin was one of the ancient settlement in Ife. He, therefore, assumed that by excavating the site, he may be able to arrive at a date when settlement took place in Ife. He recovered fragment of life-size terracotta figurines, part of a sculpture consisting of a seated figure with feet resting on a stool and flanked by attendant and a terracotta tussle of a man. Other archeologist to have works in Ife included Oliver Myers and Frank Willet. Myers was the first archeologist in Ife University. In 1964, he excavated obameri shrine were he recovered terracotta heads which he dated 1380AD. The same year he also excavated at the Oduduwa college site near the fish pond. There, he collected terracotta heads, potsherd and blue glass beads.16

Frank Willet joined the department of Antiquites in Lagos in 1952.17 He was transferred to Ife as the curator of the museum. He excavated Orun-Oba-Ado, a place believed to be the final burial place for the past Benin rulers. He sets about his excavation to know the number of heads that had been brought to ife for burial but he only recovered potsherds. He also excavated at Ita Yemoo. The site was discovered accidentally when fine terracotta and bronze sculptures were discovered during a building operation. He believed the site was a shrine and the artifacts were discovered in situ. It consisted of a complete bronze head of an Ooni, two bronze staffs with jagged human heads, terracotta heads.etc.

In spite of the contribution of archeological data, there are obvious limitations to its usage. Admittedly, what the archeologist can unearth is a direct function of the material left behind by the people that lived in a particular site. The durability of such material could influence outcome of such excavation. For example, baked clay, bones and skeletons tend to stand the text of time better than flesh. More than anything else, the ability of the archeologist to stumble upon artifacts is “based on the chemical composition on which material remains are deposited”18


There are limitations to what archaeology can contribute to the knowledge of West African history in general and Ile-Ife in particular. Experts make contrasting claims about their finds. What an individual claims an objects was used for may be different from the claim of another archeologist.19 Chronology got from archaeology is often imprecise hence, objects and events cannot be dated chronologically.No matter how elaborate our knowledge of the past is through archeology, it can only give us a blurred picture of the past since it deal with objects that survived the ravage of time.20

Dating methods used in dating the past are not completely reliable. Professor Shaw admitted this:


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A Brief Example of Archaeology in Historical Studies. Ile-Ife, the Cradle of Yoruba civilization
Adekunle Ajasin University  (History and International Studies)
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Ile-Ife, Archaeology, History
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Afeez Tope Raji (Author), 2020, A Brief Example of Archaeology in Historical Studies. Ile-Ife, the Cradle of Yoruba civilization, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/515157


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