Chemical analysis of metal sculptures made in West Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries provides evidence that may reshape the understanding of Germany’s involvement with the Benin Bronzes
The world-famous Benin Bronze artworks created by African metalsmiths between the 16th and 19th centuries were made of brass rings produced in Germany’s Rhineland region. These rings were used as currency in the transatlantic slave trade.
The Edo people in what is now modern-day Nigeria created the Benin Bronzes in the shape of heads, plaques, figurines and other objects by combining metal components with carved ivory or wood. Researchers had previously suspected that Edo metalsmiths used metals from manillas – horseshoe-shaped brass rings produced by Europeans specifically for trade in Africa – but had no definitive proof until now.
Tobias Skowronek at the Georg Agricola University of Applied Sciences in Germany and his colleagues performed a chemical analysis of 67 manillas discovered in five Atlantic shipwreck sites – including those off Cape Cod near Massachusetts and the English Channel – along with several land-based archaeological sources in Sweden, Ghana and Sierra Leona.
The researchers measured the amount of trace elements and the ratio of lead isotopes in the manillas and compared them with those of the Benin Bronzes and the ores used by the German Rhineland’s brass industry. They found a strong similarity between all the metals, indicating that African metalsmiths probably used manillas obtained from European traders as a key source of material for the Benin Bronzes.
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The findings align with historical sources, such as a 1548 contract between a German merchant family and the Portuguese king relating to the production of manillas for trade in West Africa. Other written sources have documented contracts between slave-trading countries of the time, including Portugal and the Netherlands, and the German brass industry located between the cities of Cologne and Aachen.
This new evidence could reshape the story of Germany’s involvement with the Benin Bronzes, says Cresa Pugh at The New School in New York. Much of the focus has typically been on the later colonial period and the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885, when European powers convened to divide up Africa into so-called spheres of influence for colonisation and exploitation.
Thousands of Benin Bronzes were looted by a British military expedition in 1897 and distributed or sold to various European museums, with many ending up in German museums.
“We understand Germany’s role during the colonial period as these artifacts were being looted and circulated following the Berlin Conference, but we really didn’t have a sense of what was happening before the colonial period during the period of slavery,” says Pugh. “And so I think this really does provide a kind of missing link between those periods.”
Starting in 2022, Germany began returning some of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria as part of a broader international discussion about cultural restitution and decolonisation.
Journal reference: PLOS OneDOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0283415