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Ile Ife (Nigeria)

Yoruba Capital of Ile Ife

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Yoruba Crown Representing Ile-Ife Leader Oduduwa

Early 20th century crown of the Yoruba people, with a frontal piece representing the Ile-Ife leader Oduduwa

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Ile-Ife (pronounced EE-lay EE-fay) is an urban center in southwestern Nigeria, first occupied at least as early as the 1st millennium AD. It was most populous and important to the Ife culture during the 14th and 15th centuries AD, and it is considered the traditional birthplace of the Yoruba civilization, of the latter part of the African Iron Age.

Ife Timeline at Ile-Ife

  • Pre-Classical (also known as Pre-Pavement), ?-11th centuries
  • Classical (Pavement), 12th-15th centuries
  • Post-Classic (Post-Pavement), 15th-17th centuries

During its heyday of the 12th-15th centuries AD, Ile-Ife experienced a fluorescence in bronze and iron arts. Beautiful naturalistic terracotta and copper alloy sculptures made during the early periods have been found at Ife; later sculptures are of the lost-wax brass technique known as Benin bronzes.

It was also during Classic period Ile Ife that construction of decorative pavements, open-air courtyards paved with pottery sherds, began. This custom unique to the Yoruba is said to have been first commissioned by Ile-Ife's only female king. The potsherds were set on edge, sometimes in decorative patterns, such as herringbone with embedded ritual pots.

Buildings at Ile-Ife

Buildings were constructed primarily of sun-dried adobe brick and so only a few remnants have survived. During the medieval period, two earthen rampart walls were erected around the city center, making Ile-Ife what archaeologists call a fortified settlement. The royal center of Ile-Ife had a circumference of about 3.8 kilometers, and its inner-most wall encircles an area of some 7.8 km. A second medieval period wall encircles an area of some 14 km; both medieval walls are ~4.5 meters tall and 2 meters thick.

Archaeology at Ile-Ife

Excavations at Ile Ife have been conducted by F. Willett, E. Ekpo and P.S. Garlake. Historical records also exist and have been used to study migration patterns of the Yoruba civilization.

Sources and Further Information

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the African Iron Age and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Usman AA. 2004. On the frontier of empire: understanding the enclosed walls in Northern Yoruba, Nigeria. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23:119-132.

Ige OA, Ogunfolakana BA, and Ajayi EOB. 2009. Chemical characterization of some potsherd pavements from parts of Yorubaland in southwestern Nigeria Journal of Archaeological Science 36(1):90-99.

Ige OA, and Swanson SE. 2008. Provenance studies of Esie sculptural soapstone from southwestern Nigeria. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(6):1553-1565.

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