By Adefoyeke Ajao
Esie is a town located in Kwara State, Nigeria and is largely populated by the Igbomina people. Esie initially became famous because of the stone figurines that were found in groves on the outskirts of the town. It would later, in 1945, house Nigeria’s first museum, the Esie Museum, which is described as the largest repository of soapstone sculptures on the continent: Official figures for existing artefacts range from 800 to 1700.

 

 

First discovered in 1775 by a hunter named Baragon, it is claimed that the sculptures were found “arranged in a circular position with one in the middle,” more like a king/chief holding court with his subjects (Ezenagu & Olatunji, 2014). Following this strange discovery, the villagers sought the advice of an oracle who proclaimed that the site is converted to a shrine where the figurines would be worshipped. This was the status quo until the site was brought to public attention in 1933, by Mr H.G. Ramshaw, a School Inspector with the Church Missionary Society. Ownership of the site (and sculptures) was subsequently taken over by a government, who transformed them into the star attractions of the Esie Museum which was built in 1945.
Esie sculptures are made from Stearite (soapstone) and come in various designs and sizes – depicting various social roles – but mostly feature men and women who are seated or kneeling while holding on to agricultural or musical instruments. They are also distinguished by their distinct facial marks which typically consists three horizontal lines located between their eyes and ears, and vertical lines on their chins (Bankole, 2013). Some of them are bejewelled and adorned with elaborate hairstyles.

 

Unlike some other indigenous Nigerian artworks with traceable origins, the history of the Esie sculptures has been a consistent mystery to archaeologists and art historians. Legend has it that these statuettes were once human beings who became ossified when they rebelled against the town’s leadership. This ‘myth’ is further rooted in the fact that no two sculptures look the same. Some archaeologists, alternatively, believe that these sculptures were carved by ancient craftsmen and someone managed to transport them to the site where they were found. The identities (and backgrounds) of the craftsmen and the transporters remain unknown till date.
Image Credits: National Commission for Museums and Monuments/Redlist
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