Bronze metal came from Benin from Germany

For a long time, it was not clear where the famous Benin bronze metal came from. An analysis now reveals that the African artwork was made of German brass. The metal was produced in the Rhineland until the 18th century and cast in the so-called manilas – horseshoe-shaped copper rings. It was exported to Africa, where it was used by slave traders as “currency” and used as raw material for the famous Beninese bronzes of the Kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria.

The Benin Bronzes are world famous copper sculptures and reliefs made in the Kingdom of Benin, in present-day Nigeria. Thousands of these artworks were looted during the colonial period especially in the 19th century and brought to Europe and the USA. Several Benin bronzes have also been acquired by German collectors and museums. They were only officially returned to Nigerian ownership in July 2022, but have largely remained on loan in Germany.

“Slave money” as raw material?

But despite the great fame of Beninese bronzes, it was previously not clear where the metal raw materials for works of art came from, most of them made of brass. “Benine bronzes are the most famous ancient artifacts in all of West Africa. Where the vast amounts of metal came from and how Benin obtained copper was a mystery for a long time,” says lead author Tobias Skoronek of Georg Agricola Technical University Bochum. It was proposed to use horseshoe hoops made of copper or brass for their manufacture.

Manila served European traders and slave catchers in Africa as a means of payment, and thus was also referred to as “slave money”. “Hundreds of thousands of these manilas were shipped from Europe to Africa at the beginning of the Portuguese-African trade in the late 15th century,” Skoronek and colleagues explain. Therefore, it was logical to melt these rings and then use them as raw materials for Beninese bronze. However, this has not yet been proven, in part because comparative chemical analyzes have yielded contradictory results.

See also  Alzheimer's disease spreads in the brain like an infection

The bronze is made of German brass

In order to clarify the issue of raw materials for the Benin bronzes, Skoronek and his team again analyzed 67 manilas that came from five shipwrecks in the Atlantic Ocean and three locations on land. Ships and finds associated with the African trade date from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The focus of the analyzes was on lead isotope ratios, because they are specific depending on the ore and origin, like a kind of chemical fingerprint. It turns out that many manilas produced up to the 18th century contained similar proportions of lead isotopes as Benin bronzes. Skowronek and colleagues conclude that this manila must be the main raw material for the bronzes.

However, the analyzes revealed something more surprising: the isotopes of lead in the Manila copper matched amazingly with the ores and copper from the Rhineland. “We have thus proved something quite unexpected: the brass for the elaborate artwork in Benin did not come from Great Britain or Flanders, as was long assumed, but from West Germany,” says Skoronek. “This is the first time this connection has been scientifically proven.”

It is now clear that the bronze metal of Benin came mostly from Germany. In the early modern era, the Rhineland was a center for metal processing and brass production. Until the 18th century, the Rhenish metalworks were also a major supplier of manila that was exported to Africa. The present findings not only clarify the issue of raw materials for Benin bronzes, but are also of great social interest. Because they provide more information about Germany’s role in the international slave trade: a large part of the early “slave money” came from our country.

See also  Neurology: the brain becomes paralyzed only from the age of sixty

Source: George Agricola Technical University; Specialized article: PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0283415

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.