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The Soapstone Images of Esie

Jul 6 2017

Kwara State is one of the laid back State in Nigeria, it is part of the places we Yoruba’s always refer to as ‘ilu Oke’, that is, a non-vibrant State. About 70%of the working population are civil servants, 20% farmers and the remaining 10% are serious entrepreneurs who are mostly non-indigenes. But Kwara State is home to the tallest waterfall in West Africa, home to the largest Soap Stone collections in sub-Saharan Africa and many more beautiful sites.

There are different stories and myths surrounding the soap stone collections in Esie. I could remember many years ago when I attended a boarding school in the area. It was a very good school and many Lagosians sent their children to the school. We were told that if we go to the museum we would be turn into stones, and this formed the basis of me never visiting the museum till now. Yes, I was afraid.

The images were discovered in 1775, brought to limelight in 1933 and the museum was established in 1945, far before Nigeria got its independence. Thus making this museum the foremost indigenous museum in the country.
Before the museum was built in 1945 by the government, the community was the care taker of the soapstone images.

Story has it that the images were discovered under a palm tree in a semi-circular form by a hunter named Baragbon.

There are two stories to the origin of the images, there is the Historical aspect which stems from the beliefs of the people in the images and the mysterious circumstances. Then we have the archeological aspect of the images which said that the images were carved by someone due to the crooked nature of the tool marks that was used in carving the images. On checking the base you will noticed the not too smooth tool marks.

The Esie people were not the original inhabitants of the town, their lineage was traced to a town called Oke-odo, where they had previously migrated to from Oyo. The people were having issues with getting water for their live stocks, farms, and themselves. It was difficult to survive especially during the dry season. Thus the reason why Baragbon was sent out in search of a flourish land for them to inhabit and sleep.

When Baragbon discovered the soapstone images under the palm tree he went back to tell the King in Oke-Odo, they made the move to migrate to Esie. On sighting the soapstone images in their position under the palm tree the king ran away. He was scared and myth has it that he felt threatened by the images. The semi-circular form depicts a king holding court. As a result of this act all the Elesie of Esie, which is the title of the king do not come near the soap stones once they are crowned king. These were exceptions of the first two kings that were before the people of Oke-odo, now known as Esie people migrated down.

The oral tradition version have it that there were some visitors from a foreign land that want to pay the king a visit, and they had pre-informed him of their journey. On getting to Esie, the king was not at home, thus the visitors got angry while waiting for him. On getting back the king apologised but one of them noticed a small leaf that stucked to the king’s chin, which depicts that he went to the farm. They were furious and decided to curse the king and his people in order to teach him a lesson but before they could carry out their evil plan they were turned to stone by God. Unknown to them, the king went to the farm to harvest okro which he will prepared for his visitors. ARCHEOLOGICAL DEFINITIONS

The archeological source has it the westerners came around and carried out their own extensive research and debunked the oral version of the story. They said the images were not human beings turned to image but they were carved by unknown carver. The reason were they were carved was not known, the year they were carved was not known and the tools used were not known.

The reason why the archeologists said they were carved were:

1) The images were not life sized, they are three times reduced size of a human. The objects range in height from 14cm to 12 cm and weigh between 0.55 and 104kg for the weight varies.

2) All of the images are in one form or the other of sitting position. Some are sitting on the chair, some are kneeling while some are in another sitting form.

3) You can see the tool marks by the feet of the images. There are rough tool marks, this revealing the kind of tools used by the carver. The body of the images are smooth compared to the feet and lower regions which are rough and marred by tool mark.

4) There is a guess that maybe they were carved during the stone ages.

Taking a good look at the images you will find that their form of dressing are different, the facial marks are different, the hairdo are so different and they are been repeated in our ages now. Some of the images resembled the Edo people, some Nupe, Some typical Oyo people. So how is it possible that they are carved with lots of specifics? I will really love to know.

The Fashion sense

The images are dressed in beads, bangles, depicting that that are highly fashion conscious and they do dress well. They were not clothed in the upper part of their body, clothes were used to just cover their loins. This is same for both male and female. More conspicuous on the female is their different hair styles, they are styles that we are now doing which concludes the saying that there is nothing new under the sun, we are just re-innovating the old things.

Another noticeable thing is the decapitation of the heads from the bodies. The heads were all lined up in a roll with the accompanying body on the second row to it.
When they were first discovered the people started worshipping it. They believe that they have to do this in order not to be turned to stone like the earlier people.
Story has it that Ifa (oracle) told them that the stones are peaceful and will fight for them in terms of external aggression. Thus they added them to the gods they were worshipping. Though this is no more in practice.

Due to the community been responsible for the images before government intervention and they were handling the images which are fragile in moving them from the place of discovery to where they were first housed, thus the reason why they broke off.

The archeologist said the name of the material used in carving the images is called Soap Stone. If water is poured on the images and rubbed it is slippery like a wet soap and it gives out little foams, but not as foamy as a real soap. The chemical name for the material is called Steatite. It has the characteristics of a metarmorphic rocks. Some of the images are holding objects that cannot be identified while some can be identified. The images are in both males and females, while some are obviously warriors due to the presence of the quivers bag at his back, some are farmers, and others.

The Esie museum houses the largest collection of soap stones in sub-Saharan Africa, another place where you can find carvers working with soapstone is amongst the Kisii people of the Tabaka Hills in western Kenya.

Some of the images were excavated by the archeologist not far away from the site of the discovery and other materials such as charcoal that was discovered with the images are dated back to 1100 years.
The stone images while they were worshipped has a pries called the ‘Ayarun’ which was a family line. The first three were males while the last photographed ‘Ayarun’ was a female before the stone images were taken away.

The stone images have a king, with chiefs and is kept outside in an iron gate. There are pictures of the then faithful’s worshipping the stone images, the ‘Ayarun’ prostrating for the images, the female priestess and the first house where the images were housed before the present place was built for them.

(NOTE: Cameras are not allowed inside the museum and as a result there are very limited pictures of the images available)

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