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The Cover
April 6, 2011

Head of an Oba

JAMA. 2011;305(13):1274. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.374

Late in the year 1897, a large collection of bronze and ivory artifacts from the Niger Coast Protectorate was sold to European collectors and buyers for museums. Although the lurid tale of their provenance was common knowledge at the time, many buyers were surprised that art of such quality could come out of darkest Africa. Some of the bronze artifacts, such as Head of an Oba (cover), were cast images of the rulers, or Obas, of the Kingdom of Benin. They are assumed to be stylized representations of the power and authority of the Obas, rather than true likenesses. The eyes of this Oba are inlaid with disks of iron, expressing the power to survey his kingdom and peer into the spirit world. The Oba wears a collar of coral beads, which were tokens of authority symbolizing the great wealth that was gained in trans-Atlantic trade. A method of analysis based on lead-zinc quotients suggests that this head was cast in the 17th or 18th century, but stylistic details and the composition of the alloy suggest that it could have been made as long ago as the 15th century.