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German-Sourced Metal Used in the Creation of Famous Benin Bronzes from West Africa

Benin Bronzes displayed at the British Museum
A detail of the Benin Bronzes displayed at the British Museum
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mltz

The Benin Bronzes and their Origins

The world-famous Benin Bronze artworks, crafted by African metalsmiths between the 16th and 19th centuries, were made using brass rings sourced from Germany’s Rhineland region. These rings, which were initially used as a form of currency in the transatlantic slave trade, served as crucial materials in the creation of the Benin Bronzes.

The Edo people, who lived in what is now modern-day Nigeria, sculpted the Benin Bronzes in various forms, such as heads, plaques, figurines, and other objects. They combined metal components with carved ivory or wood to create these masterpieces. While it was previously suspected that Edo metalsmiths utilized metals from manillas, horseshoe-shaped brass rings produced by Europeans specifically for trade in Africa, concrete evidence was lacking.

The Research Findings

Scientists, led by Tobias Skowronek at the Georg Agricola University of Applied Sciences in Germany, conducted a chemical analysis of 67 manillas found in shipwreck sites in the Atlantic Ocean, including those off Cape Cod near Massachusetts and the English Channel. They also examined archaeological sources from Sweden, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. By measuring trace elements and lead isotopes in the manillas and comparing them to the Benin Bronzes and the ores used by Germany’s brass industry, the researchers discovered a striking similarity in the metal composition. This suggests that African metalsmiths most likely obtained manillas from European traders as a primary source of material for creating the Benin Bronzes.

Historical Context

The research findings align with historical records, including a 1548 contract between a German merchant family and the Portuguese king that pertained to the production of manillas for trade in West Africa. Other written sources document contracts between slave-trading countries of the time, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, and the German brass industry centered around Cologne and Aachen.

Implications and Significance

This newfound evidence has the potential to reshape our understanding of Germany’s involvement with the Benin Bronzes. Previously, much of the focus was on the colonial period and the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, which marked the division of Africa among European powers for colonization and exploitation. However, this research sheds light on the pre-colonial period, specifically during the era of slavery, highlighting Germany’s connection to the materials used in the creation of the Benin Bronzes.

Cresa Pugh, an expert at The New School in New York, believes that this discovery serves as a missing link between different historical periods. It expands our understanding of Germany’s role in the looting and distribution of these artifacts. Thousands of Benin Bronzes were looted by a British military expedition in 1897 and subsequently ended up in European museums, including many in Germany.

The Return of the Benin Bronzes

Starting in 2022, Germany initiated the process of returning some of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. This move is part of a broader international discussion on cultural restitution and decolonization, acknowledging the need to reconcile and address the historical injustices surrounding the looting and displacement of cultural artifacts.


Topics related to this article:

  • Benin Bronzes
  • German Rhineland
  • African metalsmiths
  • Transatlantic slave trade
  • Rhineland brass industry
  • Historical contracts
  • Cultural restitution
  • Decolonization
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