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Figurines from Koma Land, Ghana

Fragmentary Ancestors Timothy Insoll, Benjamin Kankpeyeng, Samuel Nkumbaan and Malik Saako

Ghana, West Africa

1 Introduction

Entering Koma Land, known colloquially as ‘overseas’ (photo. B. Kankpeyeng)

Koma Land, named after the current people living in the region, is in northern Ghana and covers an area of approximately 100 km by 100 km. It is located 690 km from the capital, Accra. Until recently it was relatively inaccessible because of the absence of a road network, leading to the region being known colloquially as ‘overseas’. The climate is tropical and the environment is wooded savannah with thick bush, tree and grass cover varying dramatically between the wet and dry seasons. A similar environment seems to have existed for the previous two millennia. Wild animals have today declined in inhabited areas, but are still found in large numbers south of the River Kulpawn in the Mole National Park. Archaeological research in the region has been very limited, with northern Ghana being seriously investigated only since the late-1990s. Hence our understanding of the past is constrained because there are few written historical sources until the late nineteenth century, and oral traditions are scarce. Archaeology offers the potential to unlock some of the secrets of the past, and the results of the Koma Land research project presented here indicate just what can be achieved. Research focused on West Africa in the Manchester Museum has a long history, from that of the late Frank Willett in Nigeria in the 1950s through to the We Face Forward exhibitions in 2012. Fragmentary Ancestors represents this abiding interest and the partnership between the University of Manchester, the University of Ghana, and the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board.

Map of Ghana in West Africa. Koma Land is located around Yikpabongo

Frank Willett, former curator, Manchester Museum (University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248 UP1/580/1)



River Kulpawn near Yikpabongo (photo. B. Kankpeyeng) Tourists interacting with crocodiles, Paga crocodile pond (photo. T. Insoll)



Crocodile Stylised but identifiable crocodile figurine. The legs were made separately and added to the body, as the socket where the leg is missing indicates. Crocodiles were widely found in West African rivers until recently. It is possible that this figurine functioned as a ‘totem’, a symbol used in structuring human social relations, perhaps centred around taboo or avoidance of the animal represented. The crocodile is still symbolically important as their preservation in the Paga crocodile ponds in northern Ghana indicates. YK08-2-AB8.2. AD 680-880. H.56 mm, W.96 mm, L.280 mm


2 Discovery and Current Research

The archaeologist Professor James Anquandah of the University of Ghana first recovered the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines for which Koma Land is renowned through excavations in the mid1980s. They were discovered following reports by villagers of finding figurines, called Kronkronbua or ‘Olden Days Children’ in the local Koma language. The anthropologist Franz Kröger heard about the discoveries and told Professor Anquandah about them. Research stopped in the late 1980s but was restarted in 2006 under the direction of Professor Benjamin Kankpeyeng with the assistance of Mr Samuel Nkumbaan, both of the University of Ghana, and Mr Malik Saako of the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. Professor Timothy Insoll of the University of Manchester has participated in the Koma Land research project since 2010 with a particular focus upon interpreting figurine function. Excavations have been focused upon the village of Yikpabongo where a key cluster of mound sites is located. The figurines in this exhibition come from two mounds there. These mounds generally have shallow archaeological deposits often not deeper than 50 cm, but are densely packed with archaeological material: figurines and figurine fragments, numerous potsherds, occasional complete pots, some animal and human remains and, more rarely, iron objects, glass beads, and cowry shells. The current research is assessing the meaning and role of the mounds and their contents. Particular emphasis is being placed upon the figurines because they are unique in the region. They offer an insight into aspects of past human beliefs, ways of understanding and creativity. This is not always possible when there is no tradition of making representations, or when they simply have not survived. Detail of Seated Female Figurine (see page 28)



Houses in Yikpabongo (photo. S. Nkumbaan) University of Ghana and University of Manchester students excavating a mound at Yikpabongo (photo. T. Insoll)



Dense cluster of archaeological material. A figurine head can be seen at the centre (photo. T. Insoll)


3 Archaeological and Historical Context

Little is known about the people who made the figurines. They have no connection with the current inhabitants of the region. We know they were farmers who used iron tools and lived in villages, and who had complex religious beliefs. They seem also to have participated in trade. Cowry shells (Cypraea moneta) have been recovered in small quantities and were imported. The rider and horse or camel figurine indicates awareness of animals used in long distance travel. Specific parallels for the figurines do not exist but those of the Inland Niger Delta in Mali are generically similar, and this was a major centre for trade connecting trans-Saharan networks with others further to the south. Perhaps the people who made the figurines were part of these networks. What ultimately happened to the Koma figurine makers is unknown. The area was depopulated, possibly because of migration, disease or warfare. Alternatively, slavery might have been the cause, with the population either removed north to the largely Muslim lands or south to what later became the point of departure for European controlled Atlantic slave routes. The figurines have been recovered from earth mounds, some of which have a stone ring or a stone covering layer, in Yikpabongo. Initially these were interpreted as burial mounds. This has since been revised to suggest the mounds were shrines used to dispose of ritually powerful objects and substances. Some of these objects, such as the figurines, might have been used in other contexts prior to being deposited in the mounds, for example as parts of household or ancestor shrines. The mounds have been radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dated to between the 6th and 14th centuries AD. It has been estimated that there are in total 5000–15000 mounds in Koma Land.

Detail of Rider and Horse or Camel Figurine (see page 11)



Rider and Horse or Camel Figurine (right) The bearded rider is wearing a cap with straps running under the chin, has an amulet around his neck, possibly a dagger on his left arm as well as multiple bracelets on both arms and ankles, and a waist belt. His mount has a stylised harness. The head appears to be that of a camel but this is uncertain; if correct this would indicate awareness of lands north of the region where camels are used. Alternatively it could be a horse. YK08-AB9-L7 (1-4). AD 680-880. H.310 mm, W. at hooves 90 mm, shoulder 78 mm, L.256 mm

Rider and Horse or Camel Figurine as found in situ (photo. S. Nkumbaan)


4 Figurine Manufacture

The figurines were manufactured in two different ways dependent on their complexity. They were either modelled as a solid object, or made from different parts fitted together using precise joints. Arms and legs were sometimes modelled separately and then attached. Typically, orange clay containing large particles of quartz was used. The quartz served to temper the clay and made it more workable. Sometimes the quartz particles are of such a large size that if they were used to make a pot they might have caused the pot to shatter when fired. Sometimes traces of a red or pinkish clay outer slip are evident; this was probably applied for decorative purposes.

Large broken seated figurine showing the pin and socket used to attach the leg (photo. T. Insoll)

Detail of Large Janus Figurine (see page 15)

Modelling is generally stylised and a range of sizes of figurines were produced. Deep incisions are found on some figurines leading from orifices such as the ears and mouth. These could have been made with tools whilst the clay was wet or by inserting pieces of grass or feathers that were burnt out during firing. This may be how the larger cavities that have been revealed by scanning were created. Firing, based on current West African parallels, was probably carried out using the bonfire method and the figurines stacked under layers of wood and the process carefully monitored. It is not known if men and/or women produced the figurines. The consistency in style and skilful execution suggest it might have been a specialist occupation.

CT Scan of Figurine YK10-3-4-I15-A14 showing incised cavity running from the top of the head (photo. T. Insoll)



Large Janus Figurine (left) Modelled from a single piece of clay, this two-headed, four-faced, two-bodied figurine is a good example of the larger human representations produced in Koma Land. The modelling of the anatomical and decorative features has been achieved by carving the surface, and possibly by applying additional clay features (appliquĂŠ). The gender is unclear and it is perhaps best defined as androgynous. YK08-2-A8/B8.6. AD 561-621. H.370 mm, W.95 mm, L.115 mm

Part of a Large Decorated Clay Cylinder (top, right) Part of a figurine modelled from a single piece of clay. This is one of the largest found. Significant pieces of quartz and laterite gravel are evident in the broken section. The sinewy motifs modelled on three sides possibly depict snakes or are indications that the complete figurine, of which this formed a part, was a snake itself. The position of the decoration suggests it was made to lie on its flat side. Snake shrines are today connected with healing and protection. YK07-2-D1.1. AD 809-885. H.90 mm, W.89 mm, L.163 mm

Small Winged Human or Bird (centre, right) One of the smallest figurines found. It is made from fine clay lacking the quartz temper used in the larger pieces. It is possibly a bird or a winged human. The open orifice seems to have a chin below and the ridge between the eyes is alternatively a nose or possibly part of a beak similar to that of the hornbill, a bird found in the region, and which is symbolically important in parts of West Africa. YK07-2-D4.1. AD 809-885. H.60 mm, W.30 mm, L.18 mm

Tail and Rear Body of Unidentified Creature (bottom, right) Part of the rear portion and tail of a large unidentified animal made from coarse clay. The ridge of the spine and where it meets the upper part of the tail are accentuated with a double row of carefully made impressions forming chevrons. YK07-2-C1.1. AD 809-885. H.95 mm, W.64 mm, L.152 mm




Human Arm and Hand (top left, facing) Left arm and hand that has been separately modelled for later attachment to a human figurine. On the reverse are the joints that connected the arm to the torso. The handle of what seems to be a dagger is modelled on the upper arm near the shoulder and the blade runs down the arm emerging from beneath a strap or bracelet. Where found, these are always modelled on the left arm. Three bracelets also encircle the wrist. YK08-2-A8/B8.6. AD 561-621. H.35 mm, W.56 mm, L.151 mm

Human Torso and Left Arm (top right, facing) Large broken torso and arm of composite type fitted with separately modelled limbs. The join between the arm and torso is indicated by a crack where the two are separating. The coarse texture of the clay can be seen on the inside of the broken section. A dagger worn on the arm with possibly an amulet above on the shoulder, bracelets or straps, and a prominent navel hernia are all depicted. YK07-2-D1.3. AD 770-900. H.94 mm, W.80 mm, L.149 mm

Anthropomorphic Cone Figurine (bottom left, facing) This is a fairly common category of figurines, but this example is unusual as it is made from grey clay rather than the usual orange clay. This suggests that a different clay source was being used rather than the normal one, or that the figurine was obtained from elsewhere. The facial features are highly stylised with the chin especially prominent. YK08-AB9-L7. AD 535-652. H.137 mm, W.46 mm, L.57 mm

Elongated Anthropomorphic Head (bottom right, facing) Unusual elongated head with an incision running from the ear into the core of the figurine. It is made from clay containing large gritty temper. The incisions on the bridge of the nose are unusual as is the representation of the bound mouth. This might be literally representing a prisoner, a slave, or is a representation of something we cannot now interpret. YK11-H13/H14/I13/I14. AD 840-863. H.112 mm, W.51 mm, L.46 mm

Stylised Androgynous Human Head (right) see page 23

5 Religions and Rituals

Ceramic gourd, cone figurine, and broken pots as found, Yikpabongo (photo. B. Kankpeyeng)

The figurines seem to have served various religious functions and to have been used for ritual purposes. Interpreting these is difficult as direct parallels do not exist. Some of the anthropomorphic figurines were perhaps regarded as ancestors. The cavities incised into them, particularly from the top of the head, suggest they were offered libations, possibly of blood, vegetable oil, or millet or sorghum beer. The cone-shaped figurines usually have such a cavity and seem to have been designed to be set either into the ground or another object. Alternatively they were held in the hand perhaps to make it easier to offer them libations. Some of the cone figurines are fully anthropomorphic, whilst others are undecorated. The offering of liquid libations is also suggested by the many pottery discs found around the figurines. These have been ground into shape from potsherds. Gourds or calabashes were until recently widely used as containers for liquids and pottery discs functioned as stoppers. A selection of modern gourds is shown in the exhibition. Gourds, being organic, do not survive archaeologically, but the discs suggest their former presence. A gourd modelled in clay was also found; this is representative of skeuomorphism, the replicating of one material by another.

Combined Human and Bird with Pointed Base (see page 22)

The variety of animal figurines includes mythical creatures and also animals still regarded as symbolically important such as the chameleon. Whilst some of these may be figurative models of animals, others may have more complex meanings in relation to human social relations, and functioned as what were previously called ‘totems’. Today, indigenous religions remain significant in northern Ghana. They encompass various elements surrounding belief in a high God, ancestor veneration, earth and medicine cults related to fertility and healing, and animism, where living qualities are ascribed natural features and materials. Ritual practices are frequently centred on shrines of various types, but figurines are no longer made or used, except among the Lobi ethno-linguistic group.



Earth shrine in current use, Kusanaab, Tong Hills (photo. T. Insoll) Interior of a Lobi shrine showing clay figures, Birifoh-Sila Yira (photo. B. Kankpeyeng)



Ceramic Discs (right, top) Twenty-seven pottery discs made from potsherds ground into roughly circular shapes. These possibly served as stoppers for gourds used to hold liquids. A tight fit was perhaps achieved through using a grass collar around the disc in the neck of the gourd. The varied roulette impressed, incised, modelled, and red-slipped decoration on the discs is representative of the original pots from which they were made. Various – YK07 and YK10. Various dates, 6th-14th centuries AD. Smallest H.9 mm, Diam.33 mm. Largest H.5 mm, Diam.67 mm

Gourd (left, top) A recent gourd of the type in which the people who made the figurines might have stored liquids. The top is cut and it is this hole that could have been sealed with a pottery disk like those displayed. Possibly from Cameroon. 1900. Manchester Museum K18193

Combined Human and Animal Head (right, middle) A mythical creature combining human and animal features whose purpose is unknown. The ears, nostrils, and throat are incised. The tongue and incised crest running along the top of the head suggest lizard-type characteristics, the other facial features suggest human ones. The pierced throat projects into what seems to have been a cavity left in the figurine during manufacture, perhaps allowing libations to be offered. YK11-H13/H14/I13/I14 Fig.1. AD 840863. H.70 mm, W.74 mm, L.134 mm

Chameleon (right, bottom) In northern Ghana today the chameleon is seen as an omen, perhaps of bad news such as an impending death, or of good news such as possible prosperity, particularly if two are seen facing each other. Elsewhere in West Africa it is sometimes regarded as wise because its independently rolling eyes are interpreted as allowing it to look forward into the future and back into the past. Other symbolically significant characteristics include its silence unless disturbed and ability to change colour. YK10-I15.3.4. AD 710-750. H.45 mm, W.27 mm, L.142 mm



Combined Human and Bird with Pointed Base (right, top) Stylised pointed human head with incised wings added to the body. The pointed base suggests it was made to be inserted into or used with something else. Local interpretations suggest it represents a witch or someone who flies at night to catch the souls of the living. Perhaps it had an apotropaic or protective function, or was used in the ritualized exorcizing of the spirits of witchcraft. YK07-2-C4.7. AD 535-652. H.85 mm, W.45 mm, L.34 mm

Standing Bird (right, middle) Standing bird figurine of unknown species with incised wing and tail feathers. The eyes, as with many of the figurines, are accentuated. Perhaps this figurine served a symbolic purpose in structuring aspects of human relations. Perhaps it was just a toy, or was made to represent some quality of birds but not, seemingly, flight. YK07-2-D4.1. AD 809-885. H.130 mm, W.57 mm, L.177 mm

Three Fragments of a Bird (left, bottom) Two of the fragments of this standing bird join together, and the third fragment seems also to belong to the same figurine. It is very similar to the complete example, but this bird might have been deliberately broken into pieces and distributed across the mound in which it was found. YK07-2-D4.1, YK08-AB9-L5. AD 809885. H.46 mm, W.69 mm, L.198 mm

Body of a Bird (right, bottom) Realistic body of a bird with the head missing. It appears to be roosting or sitting on the nest as the legs are not modelled. The two wings are depicted under the body, and the accompanying protrusion on the rear underside of the body might indicate it is male. The species is unknown but is possibly a dove. Today, in northern Ghana the dove is seen as a bird of particular significance. YK08-AB9-L7. AD 680-880. H.34 mm, W.47 mm, L.91 mm


Two Clay Bicones (left, centre) A pair of objects formed of two clay cones joined together and incised on the top, perhaps to receive libations. Their forms are very similar to the iron gong which is struck with a stick to make announcements and for musical purposes during dances. YK07-2-A7.1 and YK07-2-D3.2. AD 770900. H.55 mm, W.41 mm, L.19 mm; H.51 mm, W.51 mm, L.23 mm

Clay Bicone (right) Clay bicone of slightly different form to the other examples found. Emphasis has been given to the top of the object. The holes have been incised into two raised semi-circular lumps of clay giving the impression of eyes or nostrils when viewed from above. YK11-Q10-L1. Undated. H.62 mm, W.46 mm, L.20 mm

Eleven Conical Figurines (right) These bicones are grouped together to indicate that they relate to a common theme, probably ancestral veneration, but differ in form. This ranges from full representation of the human head to a simple undecorated cone. Attention is frequently given to the top of the cone, which always has a hollow, even on otherwise undecorated examples, suggesting this was the feature of importance. Occasionally incised, perhaps for libations, the form of some of these motifs on top of the figurines suggests a cowry shell or female genitalia. All have a pointed base. Excluding the selected examples below, the smallest is H.53 mm, Diam.24 mm and largest H.72 mm, Diam.41 mm

Stylised Androgynous Human Head (bottom, left) This has incised nostrils, ear cavities, and an incision into the top of the cone/head. YK10-O11.3. AD 762-881. H.167 mm, W.46 mm, L.61 mm

Pair of Stylised Male Heads (bottom, centre and right) Found in association with each other, these figurines are similar in depicting a bearded male wearing some form of cap. Except for one, the ear cavities are blocked with earth, which has occurred after they were buried. They appear not to be incised on the top, but have the cowry shell or genitalia motif in the hollow. YK08-AB9-L5. AD 690-751. H.159 mm, W.47 mm, L.56 mm. YK08-AB9-L6. AD 561-621. H.174 mm, W.54 mm, L.59 mm

Small Pot (left) A flat-bottomed pot incised with lines and dots forming decorative chevron patterns on the exterior. It was possibly used for ritual purposes, as, based on modern parallels, it is too small to have functioned for household cooking, serving or storage. The broken section shows how much smaller the quartz temper fragments in the clay are in comparison to those in many of the figurines. YK08-B8-60cm. AD 561-621. H.87 mm, W.120 mm, L.123 mm

6 Healing and Medicine

Separating rituals and religious beliefs from traditional healing and medicine in many African contexts is difficult, and it is possible that the figurines also functioned simultaneously to facilitate healing and for medicinal purposes. The mounds themselves might have acted as shrines, perhaps medicine shrines, or as places for disposal of material considered powerful or potentially dangerous if not ritually contained or disposed of correctly.

CT scan of figurine YK103-O11-2-21 showing cavities, perhaps for offering libations and/or that contained medicinal substances (photo. T. Insoll) New-born baby having just been given herbal drinking medicine, Yikpabongo (photo. B. Kankpeyeng)

Power Figure, Nkisi Mangaaka (left) Nkisi figure made of carved wood, with shell eyes, and cowry shell in the stomach. The stomach was the locus of the figure’s spiritual power. Nails and blades were driven in to activate the spirit. Each was put in for a specific reason, such as to provide protection or detect a thief. Used by Kongo men, Cabinda, Angola, c.1850-90. 09321/1

Some of the incised holes and cavities identified through Computed Tomography (CT) scanning might have been packed with medicinal substances. Future residue analysis might enable archaeologists to identify them. Parallels from elsewhere in Africa exist. Songye wooden figures from eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo were filled with ‘magical’ substances located in the head, anus, and abdomen. Minkisi figures from Angola and the Congo were essentially composites of substances and objects such as iron nails, but their activating medicine – quartz, seeds, leaves, fungi, white clay, red ochre, and other materials – was the important component. These features can be seen on the nkisi figure on display. Some ceramic figurines from the Inland Niger Delta in Mali, unfortunately from looted archaeological contexts, have also been found to have cavities in the stomach filled with unidentified substances. Other figurines might have been ‘scapegoats’, intended as the focus or recipient of disease and misfortune rather than their human keepers. Some might have worked for spiritual or psychological healing, exorcizing witches or spirits for example. Fragments of figurines, as well as possibly relating to personhood (concepts of being a person), might have also been linked to healing, being direct representations of afflicted body parts such as arms and heads. Objects such as iron razors and knives might also have served medicinal and surgical purposes, gourds could have stored liquid medicinal substances, and grinding stones been used to prepare them.



Anencephalic Head (right) This head clearly indicates an individual with anencephaly, a fatal birth defect in which a baby is born missing parts of the brain and skull. The protruding eyes, flattened head, enlarged upper lip and pinched or dog-like ears all suggest this. It would seem to have been modelled from life and might represent the recognition of this anomalous condition, or a desire for it not to occur with the figurine acting as a ‘scapegoat’. YK07-2-D5.1. AD 809-885. H.59 mm, W.64 mm, L.63 mm

Reptile or Mythical Creature (below) Almost complete large reptile or mythical creature. The sockets suggest it once had separately modelled legs. As with many of the figurines emphasis is placed on the open mouth. The appliquéd clay spots could be decorative, or representative of an unidentified reptile’s skin, or might function for a ‘scapegoat’ purpose, perhaps representing boils or spots in the hope that these would afflict the figurine and not the human custodian. YK07-2-B5.1. AD 809-885. H.68 mm, W.64 mm, L.276 mm


Three Spherical Quartz Upper Grinding Stones (right, top) Three quartz spheres that would have been used in association with querns as hand grinding stones. Some substance would have been crushed and ground on a lower stone through a repeated rubbing motion using these spheres as hand tools. Their coarse surfaces suggest they might have been used for primary abrasion and grinding, perhaps followed by a finer grinding process. YK10-3-L13 (x 2), YK10-3-J12. AD 840863. All c. 60 mm x 60 mm diameter

Quartz Upper Grinding Stone (right, middle left) Possible dual-purpose upper quartz grinding stone that was used for coarse grinding on the spherical surface and finer grinding on the flat surfaces, both in conjunction with a lower quern. Today, a range of substances are ground and processed using these tools including spices and condiments, vegetable foodstuffs, meat and medicine ingredients. Food and medicine grinders are usually kept and used separately. YK11-H13/H14/I13/I14.5. AD 840-863. H.40 mm, W.53 mm, L.57 mm

Quartz Pebble (right, middle right) The function of this pebble is not known, but today similar pebbles are used for fine grinding in conjunction with a quern or rock surface. Small quartz pebbles are also used for burnishing or polishing the outside of pots and external mud plaster on houses. YK2-C3. Undated. H.29 mm, W.29 mm, L.39 mm

Lower Granite/Schist Quern (right, middle centre) Quern or palette with a heavily worn concave shaped upper grinding surface. This could have been used, with an upper stone of the types also exhibited, to grind a variety of substances, including medicinal ones. YK2-C3. Undated

Iron Razor (right, bottom) Iron razor tapering to a wide blade. The other end is rolled over to facilitate its handling, and perhaps as an aesthetic touch. This razor could have been used for a variety of procedures, shaving the head and body, cutting skin and other substances. YK11-H13/L13/L14. AD 840-863. L.77 mm, H.28 mm, W.4 mm



Seated Female Figurine (right) This figurine is incised from the top of the head, nostrils, and ears. These cavities run into the body and were perhaps once packed with medicinal or other substances. YK10-D11.3, AD 770-900. H.190 mm, W.95 mm, L.60 mm

Torso Fragment (below) This fragment seems to be from a female figurine. Breasts are depicted, as are three bracelets on the left upper arm, one on the wrist, a necklace, and a skin or cloth skirt. YK07-2-D2.1. AD 809-885. H.95 mm, W.60 mm, L.45 mm



Five Detached Heads These heads are grouped together as they all might have been intentionally broken from the figurines of which they once formed a part. We do not know if this is correct, or why this might have taken place. Janus Head (top) The heads have open mouths, perhaps representing speech or sound or to receive something. Only the ears have shallow incisions. YK07-2-O2-1. AD 809-885. H.122 mm, W.49 mm, L.84 mm

Stylised Human Head (middle left) Half this head is eroded suggesting it had only been partly buried and was left exposed for some time. The ears are incised and the person depicted is wearing a cap of some type. YK07-2-D1.3. AD 770-900. H.76 mm, W.36 mm, L.47 mm

Stylised Human Head (middle right) The nose is uncharacteristically thin, though the pointed chin is found on other heads. The nostrils and ears have shallow incisions. The individual is shown wearing a boat shaped flat topped cap. YK07-2-A3.1. AD 809-885. H.85 mm, W.46 mm, L.51 mm

Human Head Wearing Cap (bottom left) Except for the exaggerated pointed chin, this is quite a realistic representation of a human head. An elaborate knotted or woven cap is shown. Alternatively, it might be made from an animal skin, perhaps snake or crocodile. Traces of an unusual, unidentified, black substance are on parts of the head, particularly the top and the right facing side. YK08-A9/B9-L7. AD 535-652. H.112 mm, W.62 mm, L.64 mm

Bearded Head (bottom right) The beard on this head is formed of five points, perhaps reflecting how some men dressed their beards. The individual is shown wearing a cap with a brim that bulges at the back. What this feature was is unknown as the top part is broken – perhaps it was a plume or crest. YK07-2-01.2. AD 809-885. H.83 mm, W.48 mm, L.59 mm


7 Personhood and the Body

The figurines represent and make powerful statements about the human body and ideas of personhood, literally what it meant to be a person. This need not have been the same as today. The figurines seem to indicate quite different understandings of personhood, or concepts of being a person, were current in Koma Land. As noted, the majority of figurines were fragmentary. It is possible that, besides their use for religious and healing purposes, the figurines, figurine fragments and other substances and materials deposited in the mounds were linked to people via what is known by anthropologists as ‘dividual’ or ‘partible’ personhood. The figurines might have been considered ‘alive’, as ancestors, or perhaps literally as persons, and being powerful they were broken and widely distributed as a way of sharing them. This links in with the rare, selected, fragmentary human remains (skulls, jawbones, teeth, long bones) buried in the mounds, perhaps also of powerful persons or ancestors. Two or four headed Janus figurines might reflect on persons with wisdom or special abilities, looking to the future and to the past, refer to male and female gender, or relate to something now wholly unknown. Female leader of the hunters’ association, Yikpabongo. Note the inclusion of medicines and animal parts in the headdress (photo. T. Insoll)

Some similarities with modern understandings of personhood can also be suggested. Individuality, as we might recognise it, is suggested by objects such as a stone lip or earplug, or carefully looked after human teeth. The figurines also tell us about bodies. Umbilical hernias are commonly depicted, whilst male genitals are not realistically modelled at Yikpabongo. Men, women, and androgynous individuals, but not children, are shown. The figurines can have elaborate hairstyles, beards, hats, knives, bracelets, belts, aprons, skirts and protective amulets.

Detail of Janus Lid (see page 32)



Large Head (top left) An elaborate crested ‘Mohican’ hairstyle is modelled on this head, which is less stylised than many recovered. The gender is unclear, but the expressive open mouth might depict pain, sorrow, ritual or other speech, or be for receiving libations. Intriguingly the ear cavities appear to have been incised and then refilled with clay plugs. YK07-2-B5.1. AD 809-885. H.140 mm, W.90 mm, L.95 mm

Janus Head (top right) Stylised Janus head with a topknot protruding from the skull of a form frequently found on this figurine type. Attention has been paid to modelling the mouth and tongue, and the ears are placed and incised in an unusual position. The gender is unclear and it is perhaps deliberately androgynous. YK07-2-C4.1. AD 809-885. H.86 mm, W.56 mm, L.66 mm

Janus Lid (right) A unique lid or cover surmounted by a Janus head. Four handles (three remain) were added separately. These helped in handling the object but might also be symbolic limbs. There are traces of a pinkish red slip decoration on both the interior and exterior. Emphasis has been placed on the mouths as if imploring, or receiving, something. YK07-2-C4.2. AD 770-900. H.224 mm, W.166 mm, L.167 mm



Torso and Upper Legs with Phallus (top) This seated figurine is from the site of Tando Fagusa, not Yikpabongo where male genital depiction is either highly stylised or absent. The phallus is clearly modelled. It indicates regional diversity in figurine form. Traces of red slip can be seen and above the phallus a belt is shown. The navel is, like many of the Yikpabongo figurines, indicated by a protruding hernia. TD07-1-A1.1. AD 770-900. H.89 mm, W.52 mm, L.51 mm

Stylised Janus Head (bottom left) Very stylised Janus head where attention is given to the eyes and to decorating the topknot. The figurine is broken at the mouth line but the mouths seem also to have been modelled, though the nose and nostrils were not. The Janus character is here seemingly being emphasised. This is perhaps a reflection on the qualities it implies, possibly relating to divination, wisdom, and power. YK08-2-A8.6. AD 561-621. H.110 mm, W.52 mm, L.78 mm

Quartz Lip or Ear Plug (bottom right) Ground and polished quartz stone decorative plug, probably for insertion either in or below the lower lip or the ear lobe. Similar lip plugs were recorded being worn amongst various ethno-linguistic groups in northern Ghana until the early twentieth century. YK11-H12-L3. AD 840-863. H.14 mm, Diam.24 mm



Standing Anthropomorphic Figurine (right) The posture of this figurine is the element being emphasised here by the maker, rather than detailed modelling of the features or bodily adornments. The individual is standing to attention and this is perhaps connected with a ritual act. Similar bodily postures form part of the ritual repertoire in northern Ghana today. The individual represented is possibly male with the phallus either stylised or covered with a modesty apron. YK07-2-C4.1. AD 809-885. H.235 mm, W.99 mm, L.75 mm

Stylised Double Torso (below) A highly stylised double torso is depicted. The upper section is broken off and it can be seen that the figurine is solid. The navel hernia is particularly noticeable on both sides. The recurrent emphasis of this bodily feature found on many figurines is perhaps connected with perceptions of life, or because it was a visually prominent characteristic of the body. Today many newborn babies still have their umbilical cords cut resulting in a similar protruding navel. A belt, and cross-strap or crossed arms motif is also depicted. YK08-2-A9-B8.6. AD 543-664. H.171 mm, W.108 mm, L.70 mm



Standing Female (top) This stylised female figurine is crudely modelled and cannot stand upright without support. The head is missing but the breasts suggest it is female. The waist belt and modesty apron are similar to those used by some women in the region until the early twentieth century to cover the private parts. The arms are unusual in being depicted as wings. This is suggestive of some current northern Ghanaian views of witchcraft and its associated exorcising rituals. YK08-2-AB8-8.6. AD 561-621. H.186 mm, W.100 mm, L.69 mm

Four Faced Janus (bottom left) The symbolic power of this image can still be felt even though partly damaged. The four faces with their open mouths and modelled tongues are surmounted by a square of all-seeing eyes, and above, the break where the topknot would have been. The interior is hollow suggesting it was made as a cover or to fit onto something else, now missing. Alternatively, the hollow might have been enclosed and perhaps filled with a now unknown substance. YK07-2-C3.1. AD 809-885. H.186 mm, W.119 mm, L.105 mm

Open Iron Ring (right, top) This open iron ring is too large to be a finger ring and too small to be a bracelet unless for a small infant. It possibly formed part of a harness, belt, or straps worn on a human or animal. YK10-3-O11-L2. AD 790-800. W.4 mm, Diam.37 mm

Closed Iron Ring (right, middle) Rectangular section closed iron ring folded over internally on one surface. Finger or thumb rings have not yet been found modelled on the figurines but this does not mean that they were not worn. YK10-3-J13-L1. AD 790-800. W.7 mm, Diam.30 mm

Iron Links (right, bottom) Two interconnected iron links, one larger than the other. It is not known if they formed part of a chain or harness or in themselves formed an item used for bodily adornment. YK10-3-I13. AD 790-800. W.9 mm, L.42 mm, W.40 mm


8 The Figurines Today

Unfortunately, the figurines have attracted the attention of the international art market. This has led to some of the mounds being illegally excavated to obtain figurines to sell. The mounds are dug into and the contents scattered and broken as only saleable, usually complete figurines are the target of the looters’ attention. The Ghana Museums and Monuments Board and other national, regional, and local stakeholders have worked hard to combat the illegal trade. The people of Yikpabongo are also protecting the heritage of the area as they recognise its cultural importance and would like to develop a museum for the figurines in their village. The growing awareness of the significance of the figurines is in part due to the education activities of local community leaders such as Mr Saibu, and Professor Kankpeyeng of the University of Ghana. Internationally, the Koma figurines have been added to the ICOM Red List, a register maintained by the International Council of Museums of categories of archaeological material at risk. This makes it illegal to either export from Ghana Koma figurines or to trade in them, and has helped to protect both the mound sites and their contents. Excavations are continuing in Yikpabongo, and more scientific analysis of the figurines is planned to try and further understand the meaning of these enigmatic objects, and the lives of the people that produced them.

Human Head Wearing Cap (see page 29)



Looted mound, Yikpabongo (photo. T. Insoll) Piece of pottery left behind by looters, Yikpabongo (photo. B. Kankpeyeng)



Mr Ben Baluri Saibu addressing a student group, Yikpabongo (photo. T. Insoll)



Further Reading

Anquandah, J. 1987. The Stone Circle Sites of Komaland, Northern Ghana, in West African Archaeology. The African Archaeological Review 5: 171–180. Anquandah, J. 1998. Koma – Bulsa. Its Art and Archaeology. Rome: Istituto Italiano Per L’Africa e L’Oriente. Insoll, T., Kankpeyeng, B., and Nkumbaan, S. 2012. Fragmentary Ancestors? Medicine, Bodies and Persons in a Koma Mound, Northern Ghana. (In), Rountree, K., Morris, C., and Peatfield, A. (eds.), Archaeology of Spiritualities. New York: Springer, pp. 25–45. Kankpeyeng, B.W. and Nkumbaan, S.N. 2009. Ancient Shrines? New Insights on the Koma Land sites of Northern Ghana. In, Magnavita, S., Koté, L., Breunig, P., and Idé, A. (eds.), Crossroads/Carrefour Sahel. Cultural and Technological Developments in First Millennium BC/AD West Africa. Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag, pp. 193–202. Kankpeyeng, B.W., Nkumbaan, S.N., and Insoll, T. 2011. Indigenous Cosmology, Art Forms and Past Medicinal Practices: Towards an Interpretation of Ancient Koma Land Sites in Northern Ghana. Anthropology and Medicine 18: 205–216.

Acknowledgements The Manchester Museum is very grateful to the following individuals and organisations for their assistance with the Fragmentary Ancestors exhibition:

Detail of Reptile or Mythical Creature (right) see page 26 Standing Female Figurine (back cover) see page 35


Guest curators: Prof. Timothy Insoll, Prof. Benjamin Kankpeyeng, Mr Samuel Nkumbaan, and Mr Malik Saako The Department of Archaeology, University of Manchester The University of Ghana The Ghana Museums and Monuments Board The Wellcome Trust, The Zochonis Charitable Trust and The Morel Trust, which all provided generous grants towards the cost of the exhibition and its accompanying programmes Members of the Manchester Museum Koma Figurines exhibition team, FDA Design Ltd and photographer, Alan Seabright The people of Yikpabongo

Supported by The Zochonis Charitable Trust

Koma Guidebook  
Koma Guidebook