DID YOU KNOW (4)? A Nigerian Museum has the largest collection of soapstone carvings in the world

The Èsìẹ́ National Museum, located in Èsìẹ́ Town within Irepodun Local Government Area of Kwara State, houses more than 2,000 images and objects. It was the first Museum to be established in Nigeria as at 1945 when it was opened by the then British Colonial Government.

Entrance to the Èsìẹ́ National Museum

Èsìẹ́ town itself is an archaeological site in which over 1,000 soapstone figures of men, women, children and animals are located and were originally discovered in Year 1775 in a grove surrounded by Peregun trees.

Soapstone carvings at the Èsìẹ́ National Museum

A. All have facial marks of 3 horizontal lines between eyes and ear.
B. Some have vertical lines on their chins.
C. Some have facial striations.
D. Majority wear necklaces and bracelets.
E. All the objects are figurines.
F. No two of them look exactly the same. They differ in facial feature, hairstyles/ dress.
G. There are figures of women holding swords/ quivers of arrows.
H. All figures are of indeterminate dates of origin.
I. No single statue is below 30cm in height.

Vast majority of the statues range in height from 30 to 65 cm. Most have identical facial marks, which are three parallel and horizontal, straight lines between the eye and the ear. The Esie people claim this to be an ancient mark of the Nupe people, who predate the Esie.

The soldier statues have quivers and arrows at the back and bird-shaped helmets. Some female figures carry curved swords, which indicates Esie women held political power.

Actual origin of the Èsìẹ́ stone carvings remains a mystery, because the community has no historical antecedence as stone carvers. Archeological objects collected from this area have been dated between the 12th and 15th centuries and were perhaps associated with the nearby ancient Yoruba kingdom.

Prince Baragbon, a renowned hunter, had migrated from old Oyo and settled in the area. Baragbon was said to have founded Èsìẹ́ town in 1770. He discovered the stone carvings in a grove of Peregun trees.

Peregun Tree, Dracaena arborea

Baragbon, on the hunting expedition, came across the statues well arranged in a circle like a human settlement where a meeting was taking place. The images depicted tribal marks, musical instruments, tools, weapons, dancers, spectators, town criers, farmers etc. Most noticeable was the king with palace guards, queens, chiefs, and the palace itself.

However, awareness of the stone statues and its collection thereafter started in 1912 when German Ethnographer Leo Frobenius discovered the stones. The archaeologist had learned about the images, picked interest in them and went to the neighbouring town of Offa where he collected 3 carved stone heads.

German Archeologist Leo Frobenius who discovered the Èsìẹ́ stones in 1912 but did not report them

Frobenius, overwhelmed by the uniqueness and quality of the images, did not disclose them. So, not many people knew about them till 1933, when H. G. Ramshaw, School Inspector at Church Missionary Society of Nigeria also got to know about the images and informed others about them. Ramshaw informed the Colonial Governor and the Èsìẹ́ museum was then established in 1945.

By 1965, a more detailed study towards preservation of the objects began, and between 1973 and 1974, Phillips Sterena Jnr. (then a young Peace Corps Volunteer affiliated with Nigeria Department of Antiquities) completed the photography and cataloguing of the Èsìẹ́ stone images.

Today, Èsìẹ́ town is occupied by a Yorùbá-speaking ethnic group, whose dialect is predominantly Igbomina. The town’s king is Oba Yakubu Babalola Egunjobi II.

The King of Èsìẹ́, Oba Yakubu Babalola Egunjobi II

Currently, Èsìẹ́ Musuem is one of the prominent tourist attractions in Nigeria, and the town hosts a festival in the month of April every year.


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