A Context for the Luzira Head

By Reid, Andrew; Ashley, Ceri Z. | Antiquity, March 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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A Context for the Luzira Head

Reid, Andrew, Ashley, Ceri Z., Antiquity


Previous examinations of pre-colonial African art have relied almost exclusively on art from West and Central Africa. This focus has much to do with the recognition given in the early part of the twentieth century to sculpture in terracotta and brass, and also to contemporary mask traditions. It is disturbing that these conventional approaches remain largely unchallenged outside of specialist discourse and indeed are fuelled by the international art market. More significantly, such views actively ignore substantial long term artistic traditions in eastern and southern Africa, including rock art and figurative ceramics. In this paper a long recorded, but largely ignored, collection of figures will be re-examined: the unique head and related figures from Luzira, Uganda (Figure 1). Although, or perhaps because they were encountered in 1929, this collection remains poorly recognised both in Uganda and within African art and archaeology as a whole. The objective here will be to propose a date and context for the objects and to find a place for the head itself in the canon of African art.

The recovery of the figures

The Luzira figures were found in October 1929, when a gang of prisoners was set to work levelling a hilltop, within the Luzira prison, on the outskirts of Kampala (Figure 2). 'Consternation was occasioned among the prisoners when felling a large chunk of earth from the face of the low artificial cliff, because of the uncovering of what appeared to be a human face. On examination by a European police officer, this remarkable find proved to be a head of a pottery figure and continued excavation revealed fragments of other figures' (Wayland et al. 1933: 25). Following the uncovering of further material, work was stopped on site and W.C. Coombe, and then E.J. Wayland, of the Geological Survey inspected the site.


The figures and associated material came from three pit features with extended shafts of between 1-2m, cut into the humic topsoil, through a buried reddish subsoil and extending to the eroded granite bedrock below (Figure 3). The material recovered consisted almost entirely of ceramic figures and associated pottery fragments, with a small quantity of earlier lithic tools, associated with the weathered granite and disturbed by the cutting of the pits. Additionally, a modern shrine was noticed a short distance away on the hilltop, which included a pot for offerings and early colonial coins, surrounded by a number of spearheads and abstract ceramic objects, possibly fetishes or amulets. All of the material, from both the pits and the shrine, was sent to the British Museum in 1931 (Accession nos. 1931. 1-5. 1 to 136), there being no museum in the Uganda Protectorate at the time.

In 1933, a joint report on the Luzira remains was published in Man, combining Wayland's site report, a discussion of the earlier stone tools by Miles Burkitt, and a description of the associated ceramic artefacts by H.J. Braunholtz, of the British Museum's Department of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography. Having no precedents with which to link the Luzira collection, they struggled to place the material in a relevant broader cultural context. It is this lack of association and the wider intellectual background of the time that helps to explain the continued omission of the Luzira material from academic discussion. The 1933 paper is the earliest published archaeological report from Uganda, and was produced at a time when Louis Leakey and others were only beginning to demonstrate the massive range of activity that had taken place during the 'Stone Age' in eastern Africa. In contrast, the 'Iron Age' was largely overlooked, and was assumed to relate to what were then regarded as the very short and unappealing histories of contemporary African populations. The embryonic nature of archaeological knowledge of later times meant that neither Wayland nor Braunholtz could possibly have recognised or categorised the ceramics associated with the figures, let alone the figures themselves.

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