A metal bowl tells tales of early globalisation

Leibniz Association

In the context of the simultaneous exhibition “8 Objects, 8 Museums” by the Leibniz research museums, the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (RGZM),  Archaeological research institute in Mainz, presents the copy of an oriental metal bowl from the 14th century.

From Nigeria to Mainz – and back
The copy of a metal bowl from the 14th century discovered in northern Nigeria constitutes a particularly remarkable object in the collection of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz. The bowl displays the oldest archaeological evidence to date of Arabic writing in northern Nigeria. In 2007, the original was brought to the museum for restoration and scientific analysis; in 2014, it was returned to Nigeria.

The original of the metal bowl was found in a burial mound within a burial site in present-day northern Nigeria. In 1992, three burial mounds were excavated there as part of a research project by the University of Bayreuth.

The burial site in northern Nigeria consists of eight burial mounds. The examined tombs were presumably all established in the course of the 14th century, when the first city-states developed in the region prior to the adoption of the Islamic religion.

The discoveries from all three burial mounds were so unexpectedly rich that the interments were stored in the museum in Central Nigeria for later analysis.

In order to be able to disassemble the finds with due diligence and without time pressure, they were excavated as a block along with the surrounding soil, fixed with plaster bandages and transported to the laboratory.

Excavation in Mainz
In 2007, the Römisch-Germanische Zentralmuseum took on the research project. Inside a block of earth encased in plaster, the bowl was brought to Mainz for restoration and scientific analysis. The block of earth first underwent an X-ray examination to determine whether other objects were contained inside the bowl. Subsequently, the bowl was retrieved from the block of earth in the laboratory. 

The X-ray image showed that the bowl contained several objects: two earrings, a solid finger ring and a pendant – all made of gold. In addition, the bowl also contained a mother-of-pearl bead bracelet.

Using a sharp scalpel, the metal bowl’s surface was carefully exposed mechanically, one centimetre at a time. The work took several months and revealed that the bowl had once been highly polished but was now badly damaged on one side. Moreover, precise information could be obtained regarding the manufacturing process by means of metal spinning (plastic moulding with a spinning rod).

After its exposure, additional studies were conducted on the bowl. Metal analyses revealed that the original was made of brass. The lead isotope analysis points toward a source of the raw materials in modern-day Iran. Subsequently, the bowl was documented photographically, graphically and digitally.

For the copy, a silicon mould was taken from the original, which was used to create a cast made of epoxy resin. However, since part of the original was extremely corroded, only 2/3 of the bowl could be moulded. In order to obtain a complete copy, the silicon mould was used to create a second cast, from which a fitting piece was cut and inserted in the first cast.

Height 157 mm, diameter 411 mm
The original weighed 1941.1 g

With its inscription, the oriental metal bowl is among the earliest evidence of Arabic writing in northern Nigeria. The Arabic inscription can be seen in the respective areas between the ornamental medallions and fields.

The translation of the inscription reads: “I am a bowl (a vessel), I contained all properties and helpers [?] that obey any desires and wishes. The (silver)smith allowed me to acquire a dress of beauty and of fresh adornments, the most appealing of which are my clothes (?) by hand and man.”
(Translation: Claus-Peter Haase, Berlin)

Following the scientific analysis, documentation and restoration, the original bowl was returned to Nigeria in 2014 to be put on display in the museum of the Nigerian authority for the protection of monuments in Katsina. The copy and the careful documentation continue to be available for further scientific processing in Mainz.

Under the motto “A great heritage for a greater future,” the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments works toward the systematic collection, preservation, research and interpretation of the Nigerian cultural and natural heritage.

Globalisation 700 years ago
The oriental, or more precisely, late Mamluk metal bowl dates from the 14th century. The Mamluk Sultanate (dark green) was established in Egypt in 1250. The empire encompassed southern Nubia, the Levant, Syria and the western part of the Arabian Peninsula and continued until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1517. The crafts, and metalworks in particular, flourished in the Mamluk Sultanate.

The metal bowl symbolises the expansion of the Islamic-Arabic world trade in northern Nigeria in the 14th century. During this period, the trade networks of the Islamic region extended from the North to beyond the Sahara and included West Africa in the early globalisation. This resulted in intense contacts between West and North Africa, the development of large city-states, Islamisation and the slave trade. About 50 years after the metal bowl was added to the tomb, North African trading colonies in West Africa were first mentioned in written documents.

The local centres were increasingly caught up in the flow of early globalisation. The powerful Hausa city-states emerged that were later described in detail by travellers.
The economy flourished here. Goods and raw materials from the Mediterranean and Europe as well as from Western Asia were transported south along caravan routes and exchanged for local products, such as ivory, leather and slaves.

The burial site was established with the development of the core settlements of the Hausa city-states. These became the centres of northern Nigeria that still exist today. The most well-known city is Kano, which now boasts a population of 7 million and an international airport.

Luxury goods in exchange for ivory and slaves: The metal bowl from the 14th century not only stands for the emergence of a thriving economy but also for a problematic chapter in the history of Africa, the Islamic-Arabic slave trade.

The profiteers of the slave trade were the powerful local actors from the Islamic states in northern Nigeria: they regularly travelled farther south to non-Islamised regions on slave raids, leading to the abduction of hundreds of thousands of people to North Africa.

Archaeology and the present
What is the significance of archaeological research into the situation in northern Nigeria in the 14th century for the present day? Archaeology can help to provide a better understanding of the deep roots of the current problems in this region. For example, today, it is impossible to understand the problematic situation in northern Nigeria without knowledge of the role of the slave trade in mediaeval Islamic city-states. This was the beginning of a deep division in the country, which led to differences in the economic, political and military development in the North and South. The economic backwardness of certain regions in northern Nigeria, coupled with corruption, gave rise to the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.

But archaeology can also contribute to national heritage protection – particularly in regions with a latent vulnerability. The current situation in Nigeria, but also in other regions of West Africa or the Middle East, shows the pressing need for national heritage protection. Archaeological sites and finds are threatened by grave robberies that often accompany a reign of terror partly financed by the international art trade. By documenting and copying significant finds, archaeologists can preserve valuable information about these cultural artefacts for posterity – even in the event of their loss.

The Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum 
Archaeological evidence enables us to understand human thought processes and behaviour from a long-term point of view. It is the main source of information regarding the longest period of human history for which hardly any written and illustrative documents exist. The collections of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (RGZM) include discoveries from Europe, Africa and the Orient, dating from the Stone Age to the early Middle Ages. The collection is distributed across several locations: the main building (Kurfürstliches Schloss in MZ) and the Museum für Antike Schiffahrt (Museum of Ancient Seafaring) in Mainz, the Volcano Park Osteifel (East Eifel) and the Museum for the Evolution of Human Behaviour in Monrepos near Neuwied.

The museum’s tasks involve to research archaeological finds, to use them to trace the pattern of human activity back to the beginnings of mankind and to incorporate the results into current discussions. In doing so, it attempts to identify recurrent, apparently universal human behaviour patterns or sets of rules that strengthen or weaken the cohesion of societies or bring about change.

The Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology (LEA) reconstructs, tests and documents old production methods and object uses. For example, it studied the work processes of the potteries in Mayen, which were of national significance during the Roman and medieval period. The research of the LEA is particularly crucial to answering questions relating to technological and economic history.

The Volcano Park Osteifel elaborates on the region’s natural, technological, economic and settlement history. In partnership with the Mayen-Koblenz district, the museum’s “volcanology, archaeology and history of technology” department (VAT) presents its research results here. 18 historical sites and 5 museums and information centres illustrate volcanic processes, human activity in the landscape – for example, in quarries and mines – and the development of an industrial landscape.

In Monrepos near Neuwied, the new permanent exhibition “Human Understanding” examines the fundamental issue, “Why we are the way we are” – for example, curious or sociable. It reflects the work of the research field “Becoming human.” It examines how, during the course of our history, a universal canon of behaviour has developed. Archaeological research content leads to reflection on what it entails to be human.

Ancient seafaring is displayed in a converted locomotive hall not far from the Roman theatre in the southern part of Mainz. One of the highlights is the Roman fleet on the Rhine, but the museum also provides a great deal of information about shipbuilding and the organisation of military and civil shipping in both inland and maritime traffic.

Credits: Story

“8 Objects, 8 Museums” is a collaboration project between the Leibniz research museums and the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien in Tübingen in the Leibniz Year 2016.

Research project by the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum regarding the »Copy of an oriental metal bowl«

Photos of the copy:
Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum
Photos RGZM: Rene Müller

Photos of the original object:
Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum/ National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria
Photos RGZM: Rene Müller, Sabine Steidl, Volker Iserhardt

Drawings, graphics RGZM: Vera Kassühlke, Michael Ober
3D Animation RGZM: Guido Heinz

Other photos:
Gerhard Liesegang, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane Maputo, Moçambique
Marie Sjövold
Carabinieri T. P. C., Italia

Text and object selection: Detlef Gronenborn
Text: Antje Kluge-Pinsker
Restoration and scientific copy, colouration RGZM: Stephan Patscher, Leslie Pluntke, Ulrike Lehnert

Metal analysis: Thomas Fenn, Cal Poly Pomona, USA

Translation: Hendrik Herlyn


Haase, C.-P.: Die Metallschale aus Tumulus 7/The metal bowl from Tumulus 7. In: Gronenborn, Detlef (Hrsg./Ed.): Gold, Sklaven und Elfenbein / Gold, Slaves, and Ivory. Mittelalterliche Reiche im Norden Nigerias / Medieval Empires in Northern Nigeria. Mosaiksteine 8. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (Mainz 2011) 16-25, 102-103.

Gronenborn, Detlef; Adderley, Paul; Ameje, James, Banerjee, Arun; Fenn, Thomas, Liesegang, Herhard; Haase, Claus-Peter, Usman, Yusuf Abdallah; Patscher, Stephan (2012): Durbi Takusheyi: a high-status burials site in the western Central bilad al-sudan. In: Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa. Special Issue: Papers in honour of Graham Connah. Guest Editors: Detlef Gronenborn and Scott MacEachern 47/3, 2012, 256-271.

Gronenborn, Detlef: States and Trade in the Central Sahel. In: Mitchell, P., Lane, P. (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology. Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology. Oxford University Press, S. l. (2013).

Liesegang, Gerhard: Selma (8th Century BC), Takusheyi (13th / 14th Century AD) and Surame (16th / 17th Century AD). Research on the Rise of the Iron Age, the States of Katsina, Gobir and Kebbi, “Fossilized” Urbanism in Northern Nigeria 1990-1994 and the Impact of Paradigms. In: Alke Dohrmann / Dirk Bustorf / Nicole Poissonnier (Eds.), Schweifgebiete. Festschrift für Ulrich Braukämper. Lit Verlag 317-340 (2013).

Credits: All media
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