Although the precise purpose of bells shaped like heads is unknown, it is reasonable to assume, based on the traditional use of bells and gongs among the peoples of southern Nigeria, that the Dallas example was used to call ancestors and divinities to worship.
Rendered in a naturalistic style, the face has humanlike eyes, broad nose, mouth, and ears. The relief imagery of horns rising from behind the ears, serpents issuing from the nostrils, and a knot at the bridge of the nose are, however, unnatural. These symbolic motifs are found in the visual arts of the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms and Lower Niger cultures. Horns, for example, symbolize the extraordinary power that emanates from the head of a deity and, as such, appear on multiple depictions of Eshu, the god of uncertainty and chaos, and on Yoruba Ifa divination trays (see p. 107). Snakes are associated with the worship of Oshun, the deity who rules the ocean and other bodies of water, and are depicted in artworks from the ancient Yoruba kingdom at Ile-Ife and especially in the art of the Benin kingdom. Knots represent the powerful, magical medicine that is usually found on warrior gear worn by figures on Benin and Lower Niger Bronze Industry sculptures. Taken together, the imagery evokes supernatural and physical powers.(4)
Cast using the lost-wax process, this bell is similar to others attributed to the style of the "Lower Niger Bronze Industry," a designation coined by William Fagg in 1959 as a catchall attribution for a hoard of bronze castings excavated around 1909 on the Forcados River in the western Niger Delta southwest of Benin City.(5) The castings are diverse in terms of formal qualities, iconography, and technical sophistication and do not fit within the canons of copper alloy casting in the major centers (i.e., the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms and at Igbo Ukwu). Similar mysterious castings, none of which has been precisely dated, have since been found in numerous locations in southern Nigeria and have been attributed likewise. That the bells are made of a durable material, are technically sophisticated, and depict complex imagery suggest they were made for leaders or persons of high sociopolitical rank, perhaps kings or chiefs on whose behalf they were used on the occasion of the transfer of power or as part of the royal regalia.
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 43.
4. Lorenz, in Brincard, Marie-Thérèse, ed. The Art of Metal in Africa. New York: African-American Institute, 1982. pp. 52-66.
see also Peek, in Anderson, Martha G., and Philip M. Peek, eds. Ways of the Rivers: Art and Environment of the Niger Delta. Los Angeles: University of California, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2002. pp. 39-50.
5. Fagg, William. Nigerian Images. New York: Praeger, 1963. pp. 39-40.
Fagg, William. African Tribal Images: The Katherine White Reswick Collection. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968. n.p., cat. no. 153.