Clay figures are missing link in history of Africa

16 Feb 2010

Eighty ancient clay figures have been discovered by archaeologists at The Universities of Manchester and Ghana, showing that a sophisticated society - now forgotten - once existed in West Africa.

One of the figures excavated in Ghana
One of the figures excavated in Ghana

They are the latest - and most impressive - batch of the beautifully sculpted human and animal figures, between 1400 and 800 years old, unearthed from a series of mysterious mounds in a remote region of Northern Ghana.

The mounds, which also contain human skulls, are thought by Ghana's Dr Benjamin Kankpeyeng and Manchester's Professor Tim Insoll to be the sites of ancient shrines.

Using state of the art analysis of the number, context and arrangement of the figurines, Dr Kankpeyeng and Professor Insoll hope to gain insight into the past ritual practices and beliefs of this sophisticated society - filling in a gap in our knowledge of that period in Africa.

Hundreds of mounds are densely packed in an area only 30km square: it took just two weeks to excavate the 80 figures in January.

But illegal excavation of the treasures means the archaeologists are in a race against time to ensure they are safely removed.

"These finds will help to fill a significant gap in our scant knowledge of this period before the Islamic empires developed in West Africa ," said Prof Insoll.

"They were a sophisticated and technically advanced society: for example some of the figurines were built in sections and slotted together.”

Dr Kankpeyeng said: "The relative position of the figurines surrounded by human skulls means the mounds were the location of an ancient shrine.

"The skulls had their jaw bones removed with teeth placed nearby - an act of religious significance."

Prof Insoll is to carry out analysis funded by the Wellcome Trust of the residues of material which were packed into holes within the figurines to provide more clues about the society.

He said: "We are certain these people filled the holes with something - but the question is was it medicinal substances, or blood or other material from a sacrifice?

"It's the first time such analysis is being done, with the help of colleagues from the University's School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences."

The first excavation of the burial sites took place in 1985 with others in 2007, 2008 and 2009 carried out by The University of Ghana.

Some of the figures have been taken out of Ghana - with permission of the authorities  - for analysis in Manchester by Prof Insoll who joined the project this year.

He said: "There are still many questions remaining: some of the figurines were deliberately broken and placed besides body parts. Why?"

Dr Kankpeyeng said: "What is interesting is that the people now living in this area seem to have no connection with the makers of the figurines".

"That would suggest that that they have more in common with peoples living in other parts of West Africa - but we need to do more work before we can be certain".

Notes for editors

Dr Insoll is available for comment in the UK and Dr Kankpeyeng in Ghana

Images of the figurines are available

For  media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567