Nigeria - Uncovering the country’s hidden history for its people
Cultural Dialogues and Heritage
Committed to promoting cultural dialogue
Believed to be the birthplace of humankind by the Yoruba civilization, Ile-Ife(1) was once the capital of a well-established kingdom. Though there have been various attempts to uncover this Nigerian city’s intriguing past, there’s still much we do not know – but now a international team of archeologists is revealing its hidden history. Gérard Chouin, Professor of West African History, and Doctor Adisa Ogunfolakan, Director of Natural History museum in Ile-Ife, are the Directors of Ife-Sungbo’s Archaeological Mission. With Total’s support, they are bringing to light an incredible cultural heritage for the country and its people.
Documenting a lost world
In 2009, Professor Chouin, a specialist in 12th to 18th century West African History, came to live in southwest Nigeria – a place he describes as “a mecca of archeology.” Here, various 20th century archeologists had already attempted excavations. But Prof. Chouin was determined to provide a more comprehensive study. “I wanted to revisit the chronology,” he says “and understand what had gone before.” So he conceived an archeological project based around Ile-Ife, an ancient city in Nigeria’s Osun state. His goal? To document the medieval earth walls, and place these forgotten sites in their correct historical context. Through this mission, Professor Chouin aims to show that great civilizations existed in the region long before the Atlantic Trade(2).
The first phase of the project was planned to last four years and across a number of sites. Work began in summer 2015 at Ita Yemoo. At this site, part of the ancient embankment system of Ile-Ife, remarkable bronze objects had been discovered in 1957. “What’s exciting is building an understanding around these objects and a context.” says Professor Chouin. The entire project was about getting a broader sense of history.
At Ita Yemoo, the team dug a series of trenches, which at first revealed 18th and 19th century walls. However, Professor Chouin and his team soon realised that they covered older medieval features. “It was a unique opportunity to understand layers of occupation,” says Professor Chouin. “We had a wonderful chance to look at earlier material.”
Ife-Sungbo’s archeological mission
The archeological mission was built on research carried in the sixties by a British archeologist named Frank Willets. Excavations are taking place at Ita Yemoo, Sungbo’s Eredo, and Oke Atan.
- Ile-Ife was originally a centre of Yoruban civilization.
- Artefacts found in the area include copper masks, bronze pieces and terracotta heads.
- Ife was once a major centre of glass production.
- Today, Ile-Ife is a large city in southwestern Nigeria with a population of 500,000 people.
Professor of West African History
In 2016, excavations shifted to Sungbo, closer to the coast. One of the largest monuments in West Africa, Sungbo’s Eredo is a massive embankment covering 1,000 square kilometres right in the centre of the rainforest. “We wanted to try and understand the chronology of the monument, which has never been excavated or dated. We believe it is late 14th or early 15th century. This shows people were building very large defensive walls around their territories,” says Professor Chouin.
In 2017, work moved to Oke Atan within the city of Ile-Ife. Here, the excavations gave a good idea of occupation pre-20th century. The team discovered more evidence of the massive Ife earthworks as well as pottery sherds: fragments of stone and pottery that would have originally formed paved paths. “We could see that Ife was de-populated sometime in the 14th century and only re-populated in the 17th century,” says Prof. Chouin. This gap is intriguing – and Professor Chouin’s theory is that the plague, which also ravaged populations in Europe, may well have been a factor.
For Professor Chouin and his team, these discoveries have huge significance. “We’re making a breakthrough in West African history; really making an interesting contribution. It’s clear that the forests were a dynamic place for society to develop, long before the Atlantic Trade. I’m driven by the idea that we are filling blank pages of history and creating a larger context. We’re showing Africa’s story in a longer-term perspective.” An international team As Prof. Chouin admits, the Ife-Sungbo project is too much for one person. So at every stage, he’s had the support of a 30-strong team – and enjoys working with them tremendously. With experts drawn from universities in Nigeria, France, the USA and the UK, he has been able to draw on a wealth of knowledge. The team also included two Nigerian Doctoral students and another Nigerian student studying for his Master’s Degree. All three were able to participate thanks to a collaboration with the University of Ile-Ife, and sponsors including Total. These organisations share Professor Chouin’s need to preserve Ife’s rich history and fascinating cultural heritage. Total also assists with travel, security and logistics, giving the team the support to carry out their work. Meanwhile, local people have also been drawn into the project. As Professor Chouin explains, most are completely unaware of the history beneath their feet. “We have organised visits to sites and explain what we’re doing,” says Professor Chouin, “I was surprised by how much help we got once people understood what was going on.”
An amazing past – and an exciting future
To preserve this amazing history, local collaboration is imperative. “We want to convince everyone this is important. They don’t connect the past to present at the moment. This history matters – especially when taking into account urban development and making policies. Architects and planners aren’t always trained to see what’s there. “Therefore, we are discovering together the Nigerian heritage.” says Professor Chouin. While 2018 will see a further season of work in Ile-Ife, Prof. Chouin believes his current archeological mission could be “a bridge to other projects”. His vision is “to create similar missions in other countries and share these ideas across boundaries”. He would like neighboring nations to get involved and be part of what he’s doing. It’s a dream that has the potential to help Africa and its people reconstruct a fascinating history. For Professor Chouin, this is extremely important: “I want to change perspectives on the past. It’s difficult to move forward if you don’t reflect on what’s gone before.”
- Sungbo’s Eredo is a system of rammed-earth defensive walls which dates back to at least the 14th century.
- The wall is over 150 kilometers long and can sometime reach 20 meters high in some places.