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date: 05 December 2023

The Archaeology of Soapstone Figurines in West Africalocked

The Archaeology of Soapstone Figurines in West Africalocked

  • Kola AdekolaKola AdekolaDeparment of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Ibadan


Stone working technology is very rare in West Africa. Unlike other artistic techniques, stone working even in ancient times was limited to certain locations. This could be a result of the fact that not all stones can be worked even by those who have the skills to do so. The raw material for stone working—steatite—must be present in a locality or nearby where it can easily be harvested. A second requirement is the presence of highly skilled individuals who have knowledge of stone carving. Also fundamental, perhaps, is a social environment that enables stone working technology to thrive: for a society or group to engage in carving stones, the group must be administratively stable—that is, the organs of government (whether sophisticated or elementary) must have the capacity to cater to the artisans, or groups of artisans. Such a society must have a stable food supply.

Outside Nigeria, among the Mende people of Sierra Leone, stone carvings called “Nomoli” are found in caves and earthen mounds and are mostly discovered by farmers. The Mende believe in the spiritual potency of the carved objects. Hence, they place them in shrines and by their rice fields to increase the fertility of the crops. If the crops do not fare well, the little figures are whipped so that they will do better the following year.

The Esie figrines which were over a thousand pieces have been subject of study by scholars who have used the lenses of their different disciplines to have insights into what the soapstone represents as well as the identity of their makers. The makers of the soapstone figurines were agrarian people who organized themselves as a mini state. This enabled them to mobilize the necessary labor force that was required for the manufacture of the Esie soapstone figures.


  • Archaeology

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