Lost History: the terracotta sculpture of Djenné-Djenno

Seated figure, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta (Djenné peoples), terracotta, 25.4 x 29.9cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Kristina Van Dyke and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their African galleries, looking at this extraordinary terracotta figure.

Dr. Kristina Van Dyke: [0:12] We have a seated figure who’s pulling one knee up and wraps his upper body around that knee, turning his head in this uncomfortable way to the side on his knee.

Dr. Zucker: [0:21] The way that the clay was shaped creates this snake-like quality that allows the body to turn and move in a way that seems to defy any kind of internal skeletal structure.

Dr. Van Dyke: [0:34] I think that this object could represent somebody who is ill. When I first started studying these objects, I was very drawn to frankly how weird they are.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] And expressive.

Dr. Van Dyke: [0:43] There’s something fantastical about them. What I saw is very highly imaginative. The longer that I’ve studied them, the more questions I’ve developed around what exactly is being represented here.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] We should say at the outset that we know very little about these figures. This is one of approximately 1,000 objects that have been found. Most have been looted, and so we have very little firm archaeological context for these objects.

Dr. Van Dyke: [1:06] They are a perplexing group of objects. We have a very wide date range for them because we have very few objects that were found in context. They pose a tough question to us because, lacking context, we can never really fully understand how they were used.

[1:21] However, they constitute an incredible resource for us because they’re one of the few large corpuses we have of objects before the colonial period, so they absolutely demand study.

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] If these are figures with a kind of affliction, if this is an expression of pain or perhaps sorrow, it stands in such contrast to so much sculpture where the ideal figure is represented.

Dr. Van Dyke: [1:44] Even within this corpus of 1,000 objects, there are objects that are very strong. There are horse and riders, for example, the paragon of strength during this period of the trans-Saharan trade.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] By trans-Saharan trade, you’re talking about kingdoms that developed trade networks that crossed the desert, that moved from sub-Saharan Africa through to the Mediterranean coast.

Dr. Van Dyke: [2:03] We think that these figures emerged in the context of the collapse of the first major empire, the empire of Ghana. We know that there was a big population movement into the inland Niger Delta and that there was a lot of population pressure around this period when these objects seem to emerge in the historical record.

[2:19] The next empire to emerge is the empire of Mali. The founder of that empire, Sundiata Keita, is born lame and has to learn to walk and overcome this in order to become this powerful leader who unites the kingdom of Mali.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] This is such a complicated moment because you have the introduction of Islam. You have older traditional religions. You have the building and collapsing of empires.

Dr. Van Dyke: [2:43] You also have an incredible movement of goods and people. You have traders coming down to Timbuktu. You have another group of traders coming up to the city of Djenné. You have the Niger River, which is the superhighway of the Trans-Saharan trade. I would argue it’s also a disease vector.

Dr. Zucker: [2:59] These could be representations of disease, either those that have contracted disease, or perhaps, those that are trying to ward it off.

[3:07] In this particular sculpture we have the most elaborate back. We see these forms that stand off the back that almost look like soft buttons, and we also see these circles that have been incised in rows in between the button forms.

[3:21] It’s all so regular and decorative that they could be pustules, perhaps a kind of abstract representation of a pustule or of a bubo, of a blister of some sort. But they also could be some kind of scarification. They could be deliberate.

Dr. Van Dyke: [3:34] Are we seeing a number of symptoms loaded onto a figure, that kind of representation of illness in a big sense? Is this a depiction of very particular symptoms of a particular illness?

[3:43] Could this kind of stylization on the back, could that be a response, an attempt to ward off illness? It’s almost impossible to know. People who overcome illness we can imagine might also be seen as very spiritually powerful.

Dr. Zucker: [3:57] If we look at the torso, there is this flaring from the narrowness of the neck into this very large belly and very strong legs.

Dr. Van Dyke: [4:07] Other scholars might even argue that they don’t see illness here, and that they just see a very expressive and very creative representation of the human body.

[4:14] I would go back to the point that you’re making about looking at the body swelling and the way that the torso swells. We move down into these very substantial thighs, but as you move down the rest of the leg, you really see a shrinking in the calf and these very tiny feet.

[4:29] This is the value of having put together a very large corpus. We have a lot of comparative material. I frequently see this kind of shriveled lower limb, and even have seen it to the point of great elasticity, where the limb becomes very plastic and is even thrown over the shoulders, which, to me, looks like something very much akin to polio, again raising the question, are we seeing a representation of arrival of particular diseases that may have come through the Trans-Saharan trade?

Dr. Zucker: [4:57] The fact that we have so few findspots, that we have so little archaeological evidence to go with these figures, makes interpretation difficult in and of itself. This is a real conundrum.

[5:06] When these figures were first discovered, they were being excavated using scientific archaeological methods. But very soon, looters took over. The vast majority of objects in museums today are coming from looted sites, which means we don’t have a findspot, and we don’t have archaeological evidence.

[5:20] There’s another layer though, which is that in order to reduce further looting, there’s been a kind of a moratorium on scholarship about these objects to help reduce their attractiveness to the market and to private collectors.

Dr. Van Dyke: [5:32] It’s an understandable position. As you say, rightly, it’s a conundrum. However, the objects that are out are out. I would argue that we must find a way to make these objects speak. We have to ask them different kinds of questions than the kinds of questions we would ask if they were in an archaeological context.

Dr. Zucker: [5:49] We can’t pretend that they don’t exist.

[5:51] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristina Van Dyke and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Lost History: the terracotta sculpture of Djenné-Djenno," in Smarthistory, September 8, 2017, accessed May 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/lost-history-the-terracotta-sculpture-of-djenne-djenno/.