The rulers of the ancient Benin Kingdom exercised a monopoly over the use of copper alloy, and the majority of sculptures made of it once were displayed within the palace--atop altars, attached to piers or as regalia. Coral beads were a similar royal prerogative, worn as crown jewels and allocated to others in the court. This representation of a male head with beads totally covering the neck would seem to have a royal association, but the tight-fitting collar differs from the looser style shown on images of Benin kings. The substitution of an elaborate but unadorned hairstyle for a beaded crown also separates this individual from Benin royals. This style of head is probably a trophy head representing a powerful defeated enemy. A foreigner is suggested by the four raised scars over each eye, which are generally explained as denoting someone who is not Edo; most depictions of Edo men show three scars over each eye. This identification is in keeping with present oral tradition maintained by a chief of the Benin casters' guild, who avows that his guild cast trophy heads of the most stubborn defeated enemies. Iron inlay in the eyes and forehead signifies strength of character, just as the English cliché "steely eyes" denotes determination or a "furrowed brow" signifies deep thought. The depiction of a worthy, yet beaten, enemy reinforces belief in the awesome magical and military powers of the Benin king. He triumphs where ordinary beings would fail.
This piece displays the caster's technical skill in the lost-wax method as shown by its uniform thickness, the clear detailing of the hair and beads, and a general absence of casting flaws such as cracks, holes or flanges. The maker not only was adept in modeling the original form but ably constructed a mold over it that yielded a sculpture that did not require filing or post-casting repairs. This is particularly remarkable because of the high copper content of the head (tested at 94.4 percent). Copper lends itself to hammering in its pure form, but to pour and mold it easily requires alloying it with other metals.