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Shrine Head
Nigeria, Ife City, <i>Shrine head</I>, 12th-14th century, terra-cotta
zoom Nigeria, Ife City, Shrine head, 12th-14th century, terra-cotta

 

Why do we take pictures of our friends and family? One reason is to remember an event or person, even after the event is over or the person has died.

The people of ancient Ife (EE-fay), an important city in what is today the West African country of Nigeria, wanted to remember their friends and family too. A person who died became an "ancestor," someone to be honored by the family and community. The ancestors were closer to the powerful spirit world than the living and were able to affect daily life on earth. They might help or harm, depending on how well they were treated.

The most influential people in life became the most powerful ancestors and were honored with sculptures like this shrine head. Such sculptures were kept in shrines, sacred places where living family members held ceremonies to keep the ancestors happy and feeling honored.

We do not know this woman's name, but we can tell she belonged to the royal family of Ife. Various details show her high status-her elaborate hairstyle, the patterns cut into the skin of her face (called scarification), and the rings of skin around her neck. These features, perfectly spaced and balanced, show the ideal of beauty in ancient Ife. At the same time, her faintly turned-up mouth and the slightly lopsided placement of her eyes give the sense that she was a real person.