African Iron Age

Through the course of this essay, I will respond to the essay called “Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500 A.D.)” by reporting on all the possible theories as to why the Lydenburg heads were made and what they were possibly used for by the people who made them and this will reveal characteristics of the society they were made in. I, however, will first start off by giving a broad context of the society around this time. I will also do a formal analysis of the two larger heads that were found as well as compare and contrast them. Then what will be done is that I will link the purpose of the Lydenburg Heads back to what the “Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500 A.D.)” essay says the purposes are and to the society in which they were produced and then explain how my reading of the Lydenburg Heads support what the author of the “Lydenburg Heads (ca 500 A.D.)” essay says about the purpose of the Lydenburg Heads. I will then explain if this information can be of use to me, as the viewer, and if so, how it is useful as a resource for thinking critically about what the relationship is between artefacts and the society in which they were made.

The Lydenburg Heads are seven terracotta heads that were found in a place called Lydenburg which is in Mpumalanga, South Africa. They are believed to have been produced during the African Iron Age and are currently among the oldest of artworks produced during the African Iron Age to be found South of the Equator. Two of the seven heads are big enough to fit over the head of a child and they are characterised by the animal-like creatures, which look like they may be lions, which are placed on the top of the heads as well the small spheres which create what looks like a raised hairline as well as having an open mouth with no teeth.

Very little is known about the people or civilisation who made these heads however as I mentioned above, it is believed that they were produced during the African Iron Age, most likely before 500 A.D. as they are believed to have been buried in 500 A.D. The African Iron age was the time when people starting smelting iron and using metals of all kinds to produce weapons and tools. They also lived in villages which were semi-permanent instead of moving around a lot. This allowed them to be able to plant and grow crops as well as domesticate animals to keep.

In the essay “Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500 A.D.)” (2000, para 2) it is mentioned that these seven heads are not exactly the same but do share some similarities such as how the strips of clay were modelled in order to create the thin eyes, mouths, noses and ears as well as the linear patterns which occur on the back of the heads. The author then goes on to explain what the neck rings could maybe have represented and that two of the heads are in fact bigger than the other five, big enough to fit over the head of a child, and these two are differentiated by the animal-like structure on the top of the head and what appears to be raised hairlines. The five smaller heads are then explained to be similar to each other except for one which looks like an animal’s head because of its protruding snout area. They then mention a few of the speculated theories which revolve around what these heads could have been used for by the people who made them, which I will be discussing later in this essay.

I will now do an analysis of the two larger heads. I will start off with head number 1, which is the most intact head of the two, and I will start with the line and shape. There is a curve line which creates scar-like structures on the face: between the eyes; on the temples and on the forehead. The head is made in an inverted ‘U’ shape in order to fit over a person’s head. The rims create a circular shape, and circles can sometimes represent power, and therefore this could represent the power associated with a boy becoming a man which, as I discuss later in the essay, is one of the speculated theories on what these heads were used for at the time. The circular shape of the rims create wide rings which could have been rings with fat, as this is seen as a sign of being well-off or affluent in many African cultures, however this is also a theory mentioned in the “Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500 A.D.)” (2000, para 2) essay so no one is sure what they actually meant as of yet.

The colour of these heads are monochromatic orange or red colour and this is because they are made of terracotta clay which is an earthenware which is orange-red in colour after it has been fired, however, some parts are grey or black in colour. The texture is smooth along the flat two-dimensional parts of the head but becomes uneven in the hairline area; scar areas; neck rings area and the rest of the face that is three dimensional.

Next, I will analyse the balance of the head. Most of the facial features on this head are quite symmetrical except for when it comes to the one ear, which is sitting slightly lower than the other. This leads to the head feeling off balance because it looks as if it is heavier on the one side and therefore it seems unbalanced in that aspect.

Now I will analyse head two, which is very incomplete. First of all, there are lines which are found on this head, they are curved lines which create the scarification as well as what looks to be an eye. The colour is the same as head one, an orange-red colour and is monochromatic, with the exception of the specularite which was also placed on the heads for an impressive glisten whilst in the sun. The texture would also be uneven especially in the places where the scars are found. Within these scars, there is also pattern found with the small repeating lines that make up the scars.

I will now compare and contrast these two heads. Both of these heads have an animal-like creature on the top of the head which is speculated to be a lion. Lions are very strong animals, often called “The King of the Jungle” and so if these heads were used during initiation rites, for example, the lions could represent the power that comes from a boy becoming a man. Both heads have an open mouth which does not include any teeth, the reason for this could be that maybe once the head was on like a helmet, it was easier to speak or sing or chant when there was no teeth included in the mouth. They also both have a raised hairline, which maybe was a symbol of beauty within this society. Both of the mouths were made in the same way according to Inskeep and Maggs (1975:125)“two crescent-shaped plates of clay are applied to form the upper and lower lips, and are joined at the corners where they taper to the cheeks.” Also, both sets of eyes were made by cutting into the actual face of the terracotta head. Both have three rings on the necks area, and as I previously mentioned in this essay, these rings may have been of the same representation as what it is in many African cultures, which is that it represents someone who is prosperous and therefore would have been put on the necks of the heads to show the importance of either the person wearing it or the importance of the occasion they were wearing it for.

In contrast, head one is mostly intact whereas head two is largely incomplete. Head one has both ears still on the head whereas head two only has the left ear still, which means that the right ear is most likely lost somewhere near where they were buried or where the community, who made them, lived. Another difference is that the scars occur in different places on the two faces. On head one, it occurs on the forehead, temples as well as between the eyes whereas on head two, the scar occurs on what looks to be the cheek area, above what looks like a nose.

As I mentioned earlier in this essay, where I provided a summary of what some of the key points that were spoken about in the essay called “Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500 A.D.) were, it is mentioned that it is speculated that these heads were used for initiation rites or some sort of public ceremonies. The reason for this thought is that the two larger heads could have been worn over someone’s head like a helmet. Another reason that these are thought to have been used in ceremonies or initiation rites is because Specularite, which is a type of hematite, was placed around the heads on different areas, as it would glisten in the sun. The reason that this leads us to believe that they were indeed used for something important such as a ceremony or being initiated is because such thought and care was gone into making these heads that they had to have been used for something that held great importance to the people who made them.

This obviously leads me to link these heads back to the possible beliefs of the society who made them. In many African cultures, when a boy is nearing the age of becoming a man, he goes through an initiation process and is a very crucial part of a boy/man’s life as well as an important part of the community traditions. However, as the “Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500 A.D.) also says, not much is known about the people who produced them, so no one can be sure as to what they were actually used for.

When I look at the Lydenburg Heads, I can see that they were used as some sort of mask and by looking at the intricate details that were put into making these heads, it definitely shows that they would have been used for some sort of special occasion because I do not think people would put so much effort into making these heads, as they clearly did, for something that would not be of utmost importance to their society and community. The details like the scarring also leads me to think this because scarring was, according to Kleiner (2004: 544) “intentionally created to form patterns on the flesh” because this was a sign of beauty and strength and it would only make sense to include this on a terracotta head that would be used for something that was just as important as the real-life scarification was to the people who made the heads.

So is this knowledge useful to us as the viewer in helping us to think critically about how the Lydenburg Heads relate back to the society in which they were made? I think it is because by looking at the heads and then thinking about the theories which revolve around their purpose, we can get an idea of what that society may have been like at the time and allows us to relate that back to what their traditions and beliefs may have been which allows us to have somewhat of an understanding of the people who made these spectacular heads.

In conclusion, these Lydenburg Heads, which were produced in the African Iron Age and buried around 500 A.D., can be read and analysed to reveal aspects of the society who made them.

Through the theories, which are spoken about in the essay called “Lydenburg Heads (ca. 500 A.D.) and which I reported on, and by looking at the structure of the heads and how they were created and with what they were created, we can see that they were most likely used for an event of great importance to the society such as the possible uses of these heads, such as a helmet for initiation rites or ceremonies of some sort.