Iconography and Continuity in West Africa: Calabar Terracottas and the Arts of the Cross River Region of Nigeria/Cameroon

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Recent archaeological investigations conducted jointly by the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the University of Maryland, under the direction of Ekpo Eyo, yielded a large number of decorated terracotta vessels, headrests, and anthropomorphic figurines at Calabar, Nigeria, which date to the fifth-fifteenth century A.D. The decoration includes a variety of discrete geometric motifs, such as concentric circles, spirals, lozenges, and cruciforms, among others. This iconography is described and compared to information available in historical sources in order to locate the terracottas within the broader narrative of visual culture in the Cross River region. The decoration of the terracottas reveals strong correspondences to modern art production across a variety of media, foreshadowing in particular the ideographic script called nsibidi (or nsibiri), which has been the subject of scholarly interest since the early twentieth century.

Calabar gained international prominence in the seventeenth century due to the burgeoning transatlantic slave trade, was later named the seat of the British colonial government in Southern Nigeria, and is today the capital of Cross River State, Nigeria. While the accounts of traders, missionaries, colonial officials, and modern researchers offer much information about Calabar during this time, its earlier history remains largely unknown. Thus, the terracottas offer valuable new insight into the period prior to the initiation of the transatlantic trade and reveal a continuity of artistic traditions that is significantly deeper and more widespread than previously considered.