This remarkable stone sculpture of a human head is both very old and highly inscrutable. It is a large piece, and would originally have been much larger as the base appears to have been truncated from a much larger sculpture. The thorax is broad and strong, narrowing slightly to a thick neck and an almost spherical head with a sharp chin. The sex is not immediately apparent, although the chest does not display breasts. The ears are flat and flange-like, with the rim of a skullcap tucked in between them and the head. The face is small, with slight depressions for eyes, a short nose and a slit mouth on a prominent jaw. The irregular condition and weathering of the stone, which is extremely hard, implies that it is ancient, and that it has been buried for a long period of time.
The sculpture resembles Palaeolithic works from Europe and Asia Minor, which are preoccupied with “fertility” symbolism that usually revolves around corpulent, schematically simplified women with highly exaggerated breasts and buttocks. This and other related pieces in the Barakat collection have been classified as Bongo, but there are issues with this classification. The Bongo are linguistically, historically and archaeologically attested to have come to Sudan from the area currently known as Chad during the 16th century, thus post-dating this piece by between 500 and 2000 years. We are thus talking about an unexplored culture. The similarities in style with Bongo art may be coincidence, but it is more probable that the Bongo people acquired their distinctive art styles from the previous inhabitants of the area in the manner of the Dogon and the Tellem.
As stated, nothing is known of this culture. Even the age of the piece is uncertain: the span we have provided is inevitably wide, and while it is most likely to lie within the first millennium BC to the first millennium AD, it may be older than this. The Bura (Niger Delta) made similarly reductivist stone pieces in the first half of the second millennium AD. The art itself does imply a society of considerable complexity, and thus settled, agricultural and socially stratified. The function of the piece is unknowable at present. However, the size of the object exceeds that which might be expected for personal talismanic functions, and is more likely to be a social/religious focus that represents an ancestor either real or mythical.
This is a rare and fascinating piece of ancient African art.
- (SUD.005 (LSO))