Significance of cultural artefacts to national identity

Culture consists of activities such as art and philosophy, considered important for the development of civilisation and people’s mind. Culture is embodied in a particular society or civilisation, its beliefs, way of life or art. It is also the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action. Culture is an inevitable part of mankind and this is expressed in language, dance, music and art.

Artefacts are arts which represent the cultural identity of a group of people; they are often time-linked with the history and culture of any nation and are part of its cultural heritage.

Artefacts such as an archaeological item, a tool or a vessel are man-made objects which reveal valuable information about the society that made or used it. An artefact reminds us of our great march from history into posterity. It describes the identity, culture and heritage of a particular people. Anything that evidences the social, political, economic or religious organisation of the people to whom it belongs is qualified as an artefact. Thus, an artefact may be defined as an object that has been intentionally made for some purpose.

Nigeria’s rich and diverse artistic heritage dates back to the pre-colonial era. The earliest noteworthy art pieces are finely produced terracotta sculptures by the Nok culture in the neighbourhoods of Jos, Plateau, between 500 BC and AD 200. These, together with bronze heads from Ife since the 13th century, and bronze plaques, bronze statues, and ivory carvings from Benin from the 11th century are generally considered Nigeria’s most important artistic legacy and over the years, represent the culture and value of the people that made them.

Artefacts, according to The United Nation’s Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO (2005), comprise both movable and immovable objects relating to historical and ethnographic objects and documents, including manuscripts, decorative arts, archaeological objects, zoological and botanical specimen.

There are different categories of artefacts, which include Nok terracotta pieces.

The Nok culture in Nigeria covers an extensive area about 500 km long and 170 km wide in modern-day Bauchi and Plateau states. Terracotta statuettes with common characteristics have been found in more than 20 different sites. Nok was where the first head was discovered in 1928.

There are also Ife sculptures. Ife, the religious centre of the Yorùbá of South-West Nigeria, was one of the first cities to emerge at this latitude at the end of the first millennium AD. Substantial numbers of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic sculptures, mainly in terracotta but also in brass, were produced in the region between the 11th and 15th centuries. Human and animal representations with the same characteristics were also added in high-relief on spherical pottery. All these items are known in the market as Ife art.

These brass objects are strikingly realistic. Even though they are almost idealised portraits of dead kings of Ife (that is Ooni), in most cases, they are isolated life-sized heads and exceptionally full-length figurines.

We also have the Benin Bronze, which is one of the earliest masterpieces of bronze casting in Nigeria. It still exists to date in Benin Kingdom. It comes in various sizes and forms. The items were produced because of one event or the other, commemorating particular ceremonies.

We also have the Igbo Ukwu, situated in the modern day homeland of Igbo people of southern Nigeria on an archaeological site near the modern town of Onitsha. The site was part of the Nri Kingdom, and it was used in the 10th century AD.

Other categories of artefacts include the Esie soap stones, Oron monoliths, among others.

Artefacts represent a culture and a history of a people. Just as language and dance depict different cultures, so do artefacts depict the group of people it represents as well as those who made and used them, and this is important in national identity.

Ogunsusi is principal ethnographer at the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Ibadan, Oyo State.