Old Oyo or Ijebu-Oyo Pottery: The Vessels of Oke-Eri.

Author:Ogiogwa, Joan-Mary I.


Oke-Eri is a small community about 4km from Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State South Western Nigeria. This community is the traditional starting point of the enormous earthwork monument known among the Ijebu people as Sungbo's Eredo. The term Sungbo's Eredo literally means Sungbo's earthwork, Sungbo being the name of the very powerful and influential woman who initiated and supervised the building of the earthwork. This earthwork surrounds the ancient Ijebu kingdom of south western Nigeria and lies in the heart of the rainforest enclosing an area of 25 miles (40 km) north to south and 22 miles (35 km) east to west (Onishi, 1999).

According to Darling (1999), the Sungbo's Eredo is a 160 km long earthwork which among other things has unified the hitherto diverse communities of Ijebuland into a formidable kingdom. The ditches along the entire length of the Eredo are astonishingly magnificent, with some places recording depths of up to 20m in the south towards Epe and Odogbolu but surprisingly only about 5-10m deep at Ijebu-Ode (Darling, 1999)

Oke-Eri is a community which is said to have been the dwelling place and eventually became the burial place of Bilikisu Sungbo, the acclaimed initiator and builder of the Sungbo's Eredo and therefore the traditional starting point of the earthwork. Bilikisu Sungbo is believed to be a very rich and powerful queen among the Ijebu people who was childless and because she did not want to be forgotten by her people after her demise, decided to build such a great monument in memory of her. Her tomb which lies within a sacred grove has become a sort of 'shrine' as thousands of worshippers flock there annually for prayers to this powerful deity.

From recent archaeological excavations which spanned five years and carried out at different spots of the earthwork, radiocarbon dates suggest human occupation existed before European contacts. The dates are 730[+ or -]30 B.P. and 4040[+ or -]30 B.P. and have added to the knowledge and evidence that the rainforest region of West Africa had a history of human occupation within a durably settled order that pre-dates the Atlantic trade.

In 2009, a systematic archaeological excavation was carried out on a refuse dump within this sacred grove and two dates were obtained which are 227[+ or -]49 B.P. and 144[+ or -]38 B.P. indicating a recent occupational site. The reason for this excavation was to throw some light on the life ways of the dwellers of this now abandoned area with a view to providing the basis of a systematic analysis and consequently a better interpretation of the cultural materials that are recovered from the earthwork excavations. The excavation on the refuse mound was actually a control one to facilitate better understanding of the contemporary use of the earthwork and its ditches.

A 3m by 2m area was marked out right at the centre of a refuse mound which was approximately 20 metres long (north to south) by 15 metres wide (east to west). Excavations proceeded at 10 cm spit interval, with sieving and collection of materials done concurrently. The refuse mound trench reached a depth of 285 cm (sterile layer) that consists of 27 distinct spit levels and five distinct cultural layers. A total of 20,622 potsherds were recovered from this excavation unit.

During classification, a close examination of the pottery materials recovered from the excavation revealed two distinctly different pottery types laid side by side and running through the length of the trench in varying amounts. These were black (5YR 2.5/1 and 7.5 YR N2/0) and brown (7.5YR 5/4 and 2.5YR 5/4) ware potsherds. The black ware pottery with maximum thickness of 1cm, most of which are bowls and lamps was dominated by decoration motifs of incisions, burnishing and punctate; they are burnished/ polished.

These are some of the characteristics of Oyo ceramic complex pottery to be discussed later. Present day Oyo is a town approximately 200km north from Oke-Eri (Ijebu-Ode). The brown potsherds on the other hand are larger and thicker (maximum thickness of 2-3cm), the dominant decoration being "V", shaped a decorative style that is associated with the Ijebu people.

The main thrust of this paper is to address the following questions bearing in mind that the distance between the two locations is well over 200 km if one considers the present day Oyo and Oke-Eri. The questions are: How did the "Oyo" pottery reach Oke-Eri? Was it through conquest, trade or were they produced locally in Oke-Eri by Oyo potters or Ijebu potters that were familiar with old Oyo pottery techniques?

It is of utmost importance to embark on a study like this because according to Usman (2005), ceramics have been employed for understanding regional cultural-historical and inter societal contacts by some Yorubanist archaeologists such as Agbaje-Williams (1983), Aleru (1998) and Ogundiran (2000). The basis being then to better understand the association of these ceramics with different decorative styles and manufacture techniques associated with this site: were they produced from the same or different raw material sources or were they items of trade or indicative of socio-political activities?

Description of Pottery

The diagnostic attributes of the Old Oyo pottery, as discussed by Agbaje-Williams 1983; 1989a; 1989b; Omokhodion 1978; Usman 2000; and Willett 1961 include a characteristic burnishing, basting, brush marking, shell-edge, scallop impressions, dot punctate, and incised geometric symbols consisting of cross, triangular, square, and perpendicular motifs. The assemblage so described above has come to be known as the Oyo ceramic complex (Ogundiran, 2011). Twisted string roulette, incision, groove decorations were also characteristic of the old Oyo ceramics complex (Usman, 1998). The above description that characterises and has become a diagnostic feature of the Oyo ceramic complex originated in the northwest region of Yorubaland, especially in the core Oyo territories as early as the ninth century AD (Agbaje-Williams 1983).

Plate 1 below shows samples of the "black" pottery wares...

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