Useless Speculation on the “Lydenburg Heads”

Posted by Chris Parker
Jun 01 2007

This group of seven fired earthenware heads is named after the site where they were discovered in the eastern Transvaal of South Africa. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples from the excavation site has established that the heads were buried there around 500 A.D., making them the oldest known African Iron Age artworks from below the equator.The reconstructed heads are not identical, but do share a number of characteristics. Modeled strips of clay form the thinly opened oval eyes, slightly projecting mouths, noses, and ears, and raised bands decorating the faces, while the backs of the heads are adorned with incised linear patterns.

The columnar necks are defined by large furrowed rings. Necks ringed with fat have been and continue to be viewed as a sign of prosperity by many African peoples.

However, it is currently impossible to know whether the rings on the Lydenburg heads were intended to be read in this way due to the scant information available on the ancient culture that produced them.Two of the largest heads could have been worn like helmet masks. They are differentiated from the smaller heads by the animal figures poised on their peaks and the small clay spheres that articulate what appears to be raised hairlines. The animals, once covered by a heavy slip, are now difficult to identify but have disk-shaped faces reminiscent of a lion’s mane.

The five smaller heads are similar to one another, with the exception of one that has an animal visage with a projecting snout. Too small to have been worn as helmets, these heads all have small holes on either side of their lowest neck rings that may have been used to attach them to something else. …Metro Museu of Art

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