In the 9th century CE, a town in what is now Nigeria produced the most masterful bronze artefacts in the world.
In 1938 a Nigerian named Isaiah Anozie was digging a well for his home in the town of Igbo-Ukwu. He found some interesting artefacts: a remarkably detailed bronze bowl, an ornate shell, a scabbard, and more. The surface of these bronzes showed intricate patterns that would require impressive technical expertise to create… so naturally when a British colonial officer heard about them he jumped to the wrong conclusion.
J. O Field noted that the local residents had no memory of any advanced metallurgy, so the bronzes must have been forged somewhere else. He also thought that because of their high level of craft that they were perhaps a century old. Subsequent archaeological expeditions told a different story: the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes had been created locally, and they were more than a thousand years old.
When they were created, these bronzes would have been some of the most sophisticated in the world – centuries ahead of European bronze-casting techniques. What’s really impressive about these bronzes is what wasn’t used to create them. The intricate lines, points, and decorations were not separate pieces soldered or carved onto the artefacts – and, in fact, there’s no evidence that the makers knew about soldering. Instead, they were created by careful application of the lost wax technique.
What’s the lost wax technique? First, sculpt something in wax. Then coat your sculpture in clay and fire the clay. The wax melts away and the clay hardens into a mould. Pour molten metal into that mould, let it cool, and smash the clay to release the finished bronze. The lost-wax technique has been used for thousands of years, but the most common starting point was beeswax. The Igbo-Ukwu bronzes were probably made with latex wax instead, which would have held a lot more detail than beeswax and allowed for the exquisite filigree-like texture on the resulting bronze.
Hundreds of Igbo-Ukwu artefacts are now distributed across museums and art galleries throughout the world (including the British Museum and the Met Museum in New York).