This ring, cast by the lost-wax process and weighing nearly eight pounds, is embellished with images in relief. Most prominent is a human figure dressed in full regalia and with opposed crescent-form scarification on the forehead. Three nude human bodies, bound at the elbows and lying on their stomachs, are depicted with their severed and rope-gagged heads turned in opposition to the bodies. A bird modeled in full relief pecks at the neck of the body placed directly opposite the major figure. On the outer side of the ring (but not visible in the photograph) are a tortoise and a pair of looped pins joined by a cord. This imagery is repeated with variations on the other rings in the corpus of 10 known examples.
The figures can be identified and interpreted by reference to Yoruba oral traditions, religious beliefs and kingship rituals. The decapitated bodies are sacrificial victims. In the distant past, the Yoruba practiced human sacrifice on occasions of great importance to the entire community such as festivals honoring Ogun, the god of iron, or rites connected with the crowning of a new king. The victims were gagged to prevent them from cursing the priests who executed them. The bird is a vulture, which in Yoruba cosmology is a messenger of the gods charged with carrying sacrifices to them. Thus the presence of vultures on the ring indicates that the sacrifice was acceptable to the god.
The prominent figure represents an individual of elevated status as indicated by the elaborate regalia: a conical crown or headdress with raised V-shaped motifs; the necklaces, crossed baldrics, armlets and bangles; a scepter or staff carried in the right hand; and the two-tiered wrapper made of textured material. The scarification on the figure's forehead is like that found only in connection with the Oshugbo association of the Ijebu-Yoruba kingdom (now a town in southwestern Nigeria). The pattern is seen on male and female association members and on Oshugbo paraphernalia. That the figure may relate to the Oshugbo association seems to be supported by the looped pins on the outer edge of the ring which resemble Oshugbo ritual objects. The figure's gender is ambiguous; the protrusions at either side of the crossed baldrics may represent feminine breasts or masculine pectorals.
Under what conditions could the imagery of human sacrifice, death (represented by a tortoise), the Oshugbo society, and royalty or high status appear in the same composition? It has been suggested that the iconography of the rings symbolizes the successful transfer of rule in satellite Yoruba kingdoms. Following a new king's installation, a cast metal ring would have been sent to the paramount Yoruba king, the Oni, at the ancient capital of Ile-Ife, as proof that the prescribed rituals, including human sacrifice, had been accomplished.
It has been observed that the headdress on the prominent figure is unlike those used in depictions of Ife royalty from the Classical period (14th to 15th century), suggesting that the ring may date from a later period or that it was not made at Ile-Ife. The figure wearing the headdress may represent a newly crowned oba or queen, or a female representative of the Oshugbo society, each of whom played an important role in Yoruba kingship rituals.
Cast copper-alloy rings with high relief decoration reportedly were found in an undocumented excavation at Ile-Ife, Nigeria. When the rings were cast is not known; however, their greenish patination suggests they may have been buried.
It is possible that the ring in the museum's collection was made to commemorate the installation of a king in a satellite Yoruba kingdom. Alternatively, it may have been part of a satellite kingdom's treasury or belonged to the Oshugbo society.
Cast copper alloy ring with figures in relief. The largest figure holds a staff or snake in his proper right arm. There is a plant motif on the exterior circumference adjacent to the large figure. Adjacent to the figure's head also on the outer circumference there is a turtle. On the opposite side of the ring there is a bird pecking at the neck of one of three decapitated bodies. The three decapitated bodies are all face down and have their arms bound behind their backs. There are also three human heads on the rim of the ring, their mouths gagged with rope. The copper alloy is dark green/black with red over most of the surface. The crevices and undercuts are lighter in color--green, blue and white.
K. John Hewett, London, ca. 1970 to 1975
F. Rolin & Co., New York, 1975 to 1983
Steve Kossak, New York, 1983 to 1986
Entwistle, London, 1986
IYARE!: Splendor and Tension in Benin's Palace Theater, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, November 1, 2008-February 28, 2009
Africa: The Art of a Continent, Royal Academy of Arts, London, September 25, 1995-February 28, 1996; Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, February 29-May 1, 1996
Between Man and the Gods: Sacrifice and Ceremony on a Cast Metal Ring, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., February 5-September 9, 1992
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 64-65, no. 40.
Phillips, Tom (ed). 1995. Africa: The Art of a Continent. Munich: Prestel; London: Royal Academy of London, p. 428, no. 5.89.
Rolin, F. 1977. Traditional African Metal Works. New York: F. Rolin and Co., p. 30.
Vogel, Susan. 1983. "Rapacious Birds and Severed Heads: Early Bronze Rings from Nigeria." The Art Institute of Chicago Centennial Lectures, Museum Studies no. 10.
Chicago: Contemportary Books, pp. 331-357.