The Bura culture refers to a set of archeological
in the lower Niger River valley of Niger and Burkina
Faso. More specifically, the Iron-Age civilization
exemplified by the Bura culture was centered in
southwest portion of modern-day Niger and in the
southeast part of contemporary Burkina Faso.
The Bura are a true paradox: almost nothing is
of this shadowy Nigerian/Malian group. They
to have originated in the first half of the first
millennium AD, although the only archaeologically-
excavated site (Nyamey) dates between the 14th
16th centuries. They are contemporary with – and
probably related to – the Djenne Kingdom, the
the Teneku and a satellite culture known as the
Niger Delta. Insofar as can be ascertained, the
share certain characteristics with these groups;
our purposes, these include extensive ceramic
stone sculptural traditions.
The Bura appear to have been sedentary
agriculturists who buried their dead in tall, conical
urns, often surmounted by small figures. Their
utilitarian vessels are usually plain, while other
“containers” – the function of which is not
understood – are often decorated with incised and
stamped patterns. Their best-known art form is
radically reductivist anthropomorphic stone
with heads rendered as squares, triangles and
with the body suggested by a columnar,
shape beneath. Phallic objects are also known;
phallomorphic objects may have been staffs,
regalia pertaining to leaders of Bura groups.
heads are usually more complex than their stone
counterparts, with incised decoration and variable
treatment of facial proportions and features.
are a few very rare equestrian figures, which bear
some resemblance to Djenne pieces; almost no
human or equestrian figures are known.
The range of figures is so large that it presumably
indicates differing geographical and temporal
in aesthetics within the Bura polity. Equally, similar
figures with different scarifications of coiffures
imply production by a range of different
areas. However, without more complete contextual
information it is impossible to explore this
and it is necessary to glean what we can from the
The role of these figures is almost totally obscure.
Equestrian figures probably represent high status
individuals, and the very few full- body
representations of humans may be portraits or
ancestor figures. Intuitively – as with so many
groups both inside and beyond Africa – figures
exaggerated sexual characteristics would tend to
associated with fertility and fecundity, as would
artefact modelled in the shape of pudenda
the sceptre-like qualities of some such pieces
be noted – see above). The distribution of
on some ceramic pieces (notably phalluses) may
suggest that they were designed to be viewed
one angle only – perhaps as adorational pieces.
is true of decorated urns that have no obvious
secular importance. Many pieces are believed to
been found in burials, perhaps implying an
importance that would have been linked to social
standing and status.