Gus Casely-Hayford travels to Nigeria and Mali to explore the story behind a series of magnificent 16th-century bronzes made in the ancient kingdom of Benin.
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Africa, where the human race began.
Nearly a billion people live here,
and it's a continent
with an incredible diversity of communities and cultures.
Yet we know less of its history than almost anywhere else on Earth.
But that's beginning to change.
In the last few decades, researchers and archaeologists have begun
to uncover a range of histories
as impressive and extraordinary as anywhere else on Earth.
It's a history which has been neglected for years,
and it's largely without written records.
But it is preserved for us in the gold and statues, in the culture,
art, and legends of the people.
My name is Gus Casely-Hayford.
Over many years I've studied the history and culture of Africa.
As an art historian,
I'm used to drawing stories from mute objects from the past.
I'm going to discover the history,
and find out what really happened to the lost kingdoms of Africa.
Many of the stories of Africa are told here,
the British Museum in London.
This is where thousands of artefacts
collected, bought, and taken from the continent ended up.
When they were first discovered,
objects from the ancient kingdoms of West Africa stunned the world.
None more so than these extraordinary plaques.
They came from what was once the kingdom of Benin,
and are around 500 years old.
When the British came upon these objects in 1897, they thought,
"There's no way they could have been created by Africans."
They were amazed at the detail and the intricacy.
They were seen as being something completely revolutionary
to the British, and you can understand why.
These aren't carvings, they're 16th century casts
in copper-rich alloys of brass and bronze.
Over 900 plaques are thought to have been made.
To produce each one, the artist would need to know
how to make and fire a clay mould,
and how to melt the metals to pour into it.
It's an incredibly difficult skill to master.
The combination of relatively sophisticated science and artistic accomplishment
baffled most European 19th-century observers.
They couldn't believe that so-called primitives had been capable
of producing work of the same standard
as their European contemporaries.
These amazing objects just didn't match the Europeans' view
of West Africans.
The questions were, where did they get the technology
to develop this amazing bronze work,
and where did they find the materials?
But the clue as to how such artefacts were manufactured
are there for the finding,
but I think they will reveal much
about the West African kingdoms that created them.
I want to know why they were made, what they mean,
and what that tells us about the time and place they were produced.
And there are some symbols that seem to reoccur.
The leopard, the snake, the crocodile,
so obviously they were very important.
I'm going to find out what they mean,
and why they were so important to these people.
These recurring images remind me
of the symbolic motifs in Renaissance art.
I think they carry hidden layers of meaning,
beyond the understanding of the imperialistic Brits.
So what do the bronzes tell us about the kingdom of Benin,
and its power, and its culture,
and what does the technology required to make them
tell us about pre-colonial West Africa?
I'll travel to modern-day Nigeria,
where the kingdom of Benin reached its height in the 16th century.
And I'll reach even further back in time,
and explore a panoply of ancient cities and kingdoms in West Africa,
founded many centuries before Benin.
I'll look for evidence in what's now Mali,
of how ancient culture and technologies made Benin
and its bronzes possible.
The centre of power of the kingdom of Benin was Benin City.
Today it is one of Nigeria's thriving cities,
home to over a million Africans.
The main circle in the centre is dotted with statues,
public art depicting Benin's history.
For 600 years, until the late 19th century,
it dominated this part of West Africa.
But the kingdom's former scale and power are not immediately obvious,
unless you know where to look.
Dr Ekhagusa Aisien, author of several books on Benin's history,
is taking me to see a 500-year-old feat of engineering.
At the kingdom's height in the 16th century,
a series of moats and earthen walls
protected the city and its surrounding land.
It was a defensive system, that consisted of a ditch,
and then a rampart.
What little survives is overgrown and barely recognisable,
but archaeologists have found evidence of a vast network
of trenches and walls up to nine metres high.
They zigzagged around the city area for an incredible 4,000 miles.
Benin really was the capital of this part of Africa.
That is, the eastern part of the west coast of Africa.
Benin was the principle town.
It was an important centre of the culture of this part of Africa.
It was an important centre of the political reach,
along the huge area
of the eastern portion of the west coast of Africa.
The kingdom was governed from a vast palace
by a hereditary ruler, the Oba.
His subjects were animists - believers in the idea
that souls and spirits existed not only in humans,
but in animals, plants and the earth itself.
At its height it exerted political, military, and economic control
over an area stretching almost 40,000 square miles.
In the 19th century the British saw the kingdom as an opportunity
to extend their influence in Africa.
They established a trade agreement,
but when Benin reneged on it, relations deteriorated.
A British delegation ignored warnings not to approach the Oba
and were massacred,
leaving just two survivors from over 200 people.
A month later, in February 1897,
1,200 British soldiers arrived in response.
The city walls didn't stop the British punitive expedition,
and the city was razed to the ground.
At the Royal Palace, they found artwork
that they couldn't believe had been created by Africans.
Around 2000 pieces were taken, sold, and distributed to Western museums.
The Oba was deposed, and died in exile.
It was a catastrophic defeat for the kingdom of Benin,
but that's not the impression you get from the modern monument
in the centre of the city.
It shows a Benin warrior
standing victorious over his dead and dying British enemies.
I actually see it as a triumph of narrative,
that we will continue as a nation, whatever.
Ultimately, it tells the story of a victorious nation,
victorious in the sense that it proudly tells its stories,
whether it's in the Benin Bronzes
or whether it's in monuments like this today.
In Benin, it seems history isn't written by the victors,
it's written by the artists.
And the kingdom of Benin disappeared only for a short time.
In 1914, the British restored the monarchy to Benin City
to help administer their Nigerian colony,
and a modest palace was rebuilt.
The traditions of the kingdom that have survived,
are maintained from an enclave in the city centre.
I've been granted a royal audience,
an opportunity to attend the Oba's court,
where hereditary and appointed chiefs gather each day.
When His Royal Majesty the Oba of Benin enters,
the Chiefs greet him with, "God save the King".
THEY ALL GREET HIM
This is more than a symbolic institution.
The Oba and his chiefs rule on issues brought to them
by ordinary people.
Their judgment carries authority here,
and the kingdom exists in parallel with the Nigerian state.
With a leopard at the Oba's feet and standard bearers at his side,
it's like one of the Benin bronzes come to life.
This is the kind of occasion
he believes the plaques were designed to mark.
Those bronzes were not made for museum pieces.
Initially, in the absence of photography and writing,
they were made to depict certain events in the palace,
or the community, or some festivals.
That's why you see them,
they were made as in the absence of photography.
That's what they were made for initially, yes.
And how important are the bronze-casters, the smiths,
the people who actually make these objects?
They are a guild, a royal guild,
specifically to be trained in these things in the olden days.
The bronze casters' guild exists today.
Their main business is tourist souvenirs,
but the makers are still an exclusive group of craftsmen,
with high social status.
Membership of the royal guild is hereditary.
Ikponmwusa Inneh's family have been bronze casters
for as long as anyone can remember.
The skills that created the 16th century bronzes
are still evident today.
You see, it's liquid now. You can see the flame.
The process begins with a simple clay shape to act as a core.
So then you cover the core with wax?
With wax, then you start your details,
the mouth, the nose, the eye.
-And then you cover it...
-With the mud.
-With the mud.
This is the soft mud which we use to cover them,
so you cover the hole with the mud, soft mud, after the designing.
The details in the wax will leave their impression on the clay mud.
When the object is heated, the clay will harden,
and the wax will melt and drain out.
Molten metal will fill the space left by the wax.
Inside the fire is like this pot,
and with this scrap metal, you load this pot.
In the 16th century, the craftsmen melted down copper bracelets
brought by Portuguese traders to create brass and bronze.
Nowadays, any metal seems to do.
So you can put something like a car aerial?
A car aerial, this is scrap metal, and then you put them in here,
then I'll put it inside the fire here.
In the furnace,
the assortment of metal melts at around 1,000 degrees Celsius.
Ikpnmwusa has some moulds that have been fired
and the melted wax has been drained away.
Now the molten metal can be poured in.
It's just amazing to think that these processes haven't changed
for hundreds of years.
-No, no it hasn't changed.
-But the thing is, it still feels...
-It's still the same.
-..totally relevant as well.
Very, very. Very, very.
The same way, 100 years ago, it's the same way today.
The same processes from one stage to another, from one stage to another,
it's the same process.
And, and in terms of the relevance,
is it still there, do people still feel these are important?
Very, very. We have more than 100-and-something members
of bronze-casters along this street.
And they still feel...
And the younger ones are still coming up.
Really, and they feel connected to the Oba and the Royal palace?
So those old stories and traditions,
they're as important to you as to your ancestors?
-It remains this year, next year, and forever.
Once the mould has cooled enough,
it can be chipped away to leave the metal cast.
It strikes me that Ikponmwusa and his fellow bronze-casters
have an impressive range of skills.
They need to understand pottery,
metallurgy, and have artistic ability.
And the same skills would have been required 500 years ago
to cast the Benin Bronzes, something the Victorians could hardly believe.
Oh, I'm beginning to see what it is now. It's two hands praying.
-It's a prayer hand.
-It's a prayer hand.
A Christian ornament,
which has been created using a centuries-old technique.
For me, these objects don't reach the standards
of the 16th-century bronzes.
But these are for the tourists rather than for the Royal Palace.
Reminders of the quality craftsmanship
once commissioned by the King now lie in Benin City's museum.
These are, sadly,
mostly replicas of bronzes that were taken from here in 1897.
But even so, I'm struck once again by the intricacy of these objects.
It's always the detail that shocks me
when I look at these Benin plaques.
I mean, the whole thing
is very much like a historical document as much as a piece of art.
This is depicting very particular people
and you can imagine them in all of their finery,
because you can see it actually depicted here,
the detail of the textiles,
the layered textiles that they're wearing.
Many bronzes depict 16th century Obas and they are records
of specific events, such as military victories
which expanded the kingdom.
This for me will be Oba Esigie
returning from fighting the Ogana triumphant, with his retinue.
Oba Esigie bolstered the kingdom with the help of the Portuguese,
who provided weapons and mercenaries for battles.
Many of the plaques were made during his reign.
The Portuguese also brought the metal
which enabled the bronze-casters to immortalise his exploits.
But these craft pre-dates the arrival of the Portuguese,
so there must have been another source of copper
for the bronze-smiths.
And while the bronzes were records of the kingdom's histories,
I think they were also more than that.
I want to find the origin and meaning
of the symbols depicted in them, like this magnificent leopard,
and the snake which appears on the roof of the Oba's palace.
I also want to find out how the culture and technology spread.
The answer may lie in West Africa's dynamic and lost civilizations.
For a thousand years before the rise of Benin,
West Africa had seen several overlapping kingdoms rise and fall.
They had no fixed boundaries or singular ethnic identity.
They were held together by the trade routes they sought to control.
The 14th century saw one kingdom in particular flourish.
The empire of Mali, and its city Timbuktu.
I'm going there to see whether there's any evidence
that points to the development of Benin craftsmanship 500 years ago.
In the 1300s, Mali was the most powerful kingdom in West Africa.
Its emperor, Mansa Musa,
was at one time thought to be the richest man in the world,
famed for his vast gold reserves
and for sending envoys to European courts.
Timbuktu's wealth and power came because
it was the hub of the lucrative trans-Sahara trade routes.
Arab merchants brought goods such as salt, textiles, and new metals
into West Africa from across the desert.
Metals are still worked in Timbuktu's back streets.
Very interesting indeed.
I'm told that in the 14th century,
the camel trains brought refined copper from North Africa,
which made its way south towards Benin.
But if this was the source of the bronze casters' metal,
I wonder if there are any other hints
as to the meaning of the symbols I saw in the plaques.
The Arabs didn't just bring goods to this part of Africa,
they also brought Islam.
It's certainly very different from Benin.
I've brought a local historian some images of the Bronzes.
I have here some images of Benin plaques
which are actually in the British Museum,
and I'm just wondering if, looking at these images,
if they played any part in the history,
or the mythologies of Timbuktu.
Timbuktu's story-telling is owned by teachers and scholars
from the libraries and the ancient university,
not by guilds of craftsmen.
Timbuktu may have been the source of copper
for the bronze work further south,
but not the imagery, the techniques, or symbolism I've seen.
But further south is another important,
ancient city of West Africa.
220 miles from Timbuktu is the city of Djenne.
Perhaps I can find clues there as to how the culture
and craftsmanship of Benin may have developed.
It lies on a natural thoroughfare, the inland delta of the River Niger.
Djenne was established here around 800AD,
three centuries before Timbuktu
and 800 years before the Benin Bronzes were cast.
This is Djenne, one of the great markets of West Africa.
And when the market's on, the town here swells
to more than three times its usual size.
This is one of the great spectacles of West Africa.
I've arranged to meet a local historian and guide,
-Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you, welcome to Djenne.
Djenne was flourishing by the 13th century,
and there's been a thriving market here ever since,
overlooked by the Great Mosque that dominates the city.
But it isn't just a local market.
Djenne has long been connected with far flung destinations,
and the proof is on the market stalls themselves.
These are beautiful beads.
-Those are old beads.
-These are old.
I know that there have been beads that have been found here
that are more than 2,000 years old.
-They may have come from India or China.
Of course. So they find one bead.
Then another, and they put it together and make the necklace.
At its peak, it was without doubt,
one of the great markets of West Africa.
The trade from here supported the development, not just of the Mosque,
but of a huge infrastructure across the area,
and it drew people from miles around.
Its strategic position as a trading crossroads
meant Djenne was contested and conquered
by several kingdoms throughout its long history.
Yet Djenne has managed to hold onto particularly local traditions.
These mud buildings are unlike anything else in West Africa.
Amadou, this is a beautiful house.
The architecture of Djenne is unique in the world.
Amadou says that each architectural feature has meaning.
The vertical columns indicate that the owner had two wives.
There's one pillar at the top for each of his five children.
This symbolism has more in common with the craftsmanship of Benin
nearly 900 miles away,
than to the writing traditions of Timbuktu to the north.
So that was in between the 12th to the 13th Century, people had dream
of building house in that style of architecture.
Islam forbids representative images,
but could architecture be an outlet for artists here?
Every house tells a visual story.
It's a mud building. We have to rebuild our house every year.
When the rains, for example, because it's a mud building,
in the rainy season we lose part of the wall.
When there is a new birth in our family,
or somebody dies, we change the whole architecture every year.
And so that must mean that there is a whole tradition of masons
and of people who preserve and conserve these buildings.
Djenne's masons are all from a hereditary guild,
just like the bronze casters of Benin. With their special skills,
the masons maintain their old traditions,
as well as the ancient beliefs and symbolic codes.
Amadou's mason friend, Tamusa, makes special bricks,
mixing the mud with rice, charcoal, and other material.
In so doing, he infuses them with magical animist powers
to protect and bring luck to the homeowners.
Every building of Djenne always starts with this technique.
So then you have special bricks, five special bricks,
-made with this mixed into the mud.
-Oh, I see.
OK, you are doing one on that corner, one to another corner of the house,
so the four corners of your house have to get these special bricks.
So one in the middle, in the centre of the house,
then you build the house.
This is the animist belief
that spirits can be found in earthly materials and in animals.
Could this be part of the same traditions
illustrated in the snake and leopard symbols of the Benin Bronzes?
Djenne was not the first city to be established on the inland delta.
Less than two miles away lie the remains of the oldest known city
in sub Saharan Africa - Jenne-jeno.
There, archaeologists have found evidence that animist beliefs
go back even further in time.
Amadou and I are going to explore it
with the help of a government archaeologist,
who helps preserve the world heritage site.
I would like to introduce him. He is Mr Samake.
-Mr Samake. Samake.
-Nice to meet you.
So he's going to tell us about Jenne-jeno.
-Yes, of course. He is an expert.
For centuries, Jenne-jeno lay ignored,
its history and significance completely unknown.
But just 33 years ago, a team of archaeologists realised that
this unassuming mound was in fact made up of debris five metres deep.
It revealed evidence of an ancient city 1,000 years older than Benin.
Jenne-jeno was first settled around 200BC,
and was inhabited until the 14th century.
It's thought that the arrival of Islam may have contributed
to the demise of the animist settlement.
Here at the Animist place, there was no room for the Islamic people
to pray because the Islam recommend to pray by group.
There wasn't the room for all the religions to pray,
so then the King decided to build in the 12th century the first mosque.
He make it biggest. People are curious to see
that big building, that big mosque,
and so that since this guy decided to build this mosque
so then started the decline of Jenne-jeno.
But the fact that animist beliefs
were practised in such an ancient city is important.
It means that spirits like those in the masons' bricks have been
a profound part of West Africans' lives for many centuries.
But Jenne-jeno's significance is not just metaphysical.
Artefacts found here have convinced archaeologists
that Jenne-jeno was the region's first major trading crossroads,
possibly from the time of its settlement around 200BC.
Evidence of craftsmanship is scattered everywhere,
and it's a technology with a distant link
to the manufacture of the Benin Bronzes - pottery.
Can you tell me from these shards of pot
what periods are represented here?
I mean if, if you pick up...
There seems to be pottery of so many different types.
So many different kinds of decoration.
850 to the 11th century.
Only 850 into the 11th century, people had used this technique.
When this city was being abandoned,
these were the kinds of pots that they were making?
Yes, in the 14th century it was completely abandoned.
So this is Jenne-jeno at its height
-when people are demanding sophisticated pottery.
They are probably trading with people
from right across the region
and obviously the pottery reflects all of that economic might.
Jenne-jeno wasn't just making pottery,
required for the casting technology of Benin.
Oh. This is metal.
It's a piece of metal.
So that's from 800 after Jesus Christ.
The excavations have revealed evidence of blacksmithing here.
The iron industry of Jenne-jeno
is one of the earliest known in sub-Saharan Africa.
And the continuity of remains makes archaeologists believe that
there was a guild system here,
just like the masons of Djenne and the bronze casters of Benin.
This early evidence of metalworking and a guild system
means that the craftsmanship seen in the Benin Bronzes
developed in West Africa over many centuries.
But there are no iron ore mines near Jenne-jeno.
And whilst there were animist practises here,
I still haven't found evidence of the symbolism
seen in Benin craftsmanship.
But 70 miles away is a living example of an animist community.
I'm travelling to the Dogon country to see how, and why,
their culture and traditions endure,
and whether there's any link to the Benin Bronzes.
The Dogon live in a succession of small villages
clinging to the lower reaches of the Bandiagara Escarpment.
It's a spectacular 150-mile-long sandstone ridge
that rises above the savannah.
I've come here with a local guide, Kene Dolo.
Archaeologists believe Jenne-jeno may have got its iron ore
from deposits near the escarpment,
and its no surprise that there's a long tradition of ironwork here.
In fact, archaeologists have dated iron smelting in West Africa
to around 500BC.
And like the Benin craftsmen and the Djenne masons,
blacksmiths have a special place in Dogon society.
In this village we have only one family blacksmith.
-Only one family.
-And that is because they are a very important caste family.
This is passed down from father to son, is it? These traditions?
And is this the father over here?
Yes. It is his father.
So they would know about the history
-and these guys, they bring them to life.
You take these ingredients, the ore which is from the earth.
-You take the coal...
..which is from the earth.
-You take the air. The transforming of these raw materials...
..just into something which is useful.
Filling them with a kind of spirit.
Yes, the blacksmiths have a lot of secrets in their life.
They have important magic.
The blacksmiths don't just magically transform iron ore into metal.
They also work in wood, carving masks and figures.
They have been essential in keeping Dogon traditions alive
since at least the 13th century.
Some of the blacksmith's handiwork is appearing this evening
in a ritual called dama, part of a funeral ceremony.
The Dogon may date back as far as 10,000BC, no-one is certain,
but these are traditions
that developed over many centuries at least.
Could this be the system of symbols I'm looking for?
The beginning of an artistic tradition that leads to the bronzes?
This ceremony is to lead the soul of a recently deceased elder
to his final resting place.
It certainly contains echoes of the plaques.
This is the spirit mask, the spirit.
This colour is the, it is the death...
If somebody is dead they put on this colour of clothing...
They represent the Heron, the...the format.
The feet they represent the Heron feet. It is elegant.
-They are very elegant, just like herons.
This is a vibrant illustration of animist practises.
In wearing the masks and the costumes, the Dogon take on
the character of the spirit they believe each animal possesses.
Dogon tradition says that they migrated
to the escarpment centuries ago from the Manding mountains 400 miles away
because of the spread of Islam.
They sought somewhere they felt secure
to continue their animist traditions without the fear of being converted.
-These are snakes?
-Yes, these are snakes. The two masks. Yes.
And all this group is the lizard mask.
So what's happening here?
Er...they're dancing to goodbye the bad spirits
to go away from the village because it touches the ground.
To clean the village.
-Bad things go away.
-Oh, this is warding away evil.
For centuries, Dogon culture has withstood pressures from conquerors,
empire-builders and missionaries.
This breath-taking performance is art,
spirituality and symbolism all rolled into one.
And I've seen dancing all over Africa,
but that was absolutely the most spectacular I have ever seen.
THEY SHOUT AND CHANT
In the morning, Kene takes me to see
another way Dogon culture is represented,
as part of the design of a granary belonging to the chief
and spiritual leader, the Hogon.
Oh, look at that.
This is the granary door.
-The door for the granary.
You see? This is the Hogon.
Yes, it is the oldest person in the village.
All this group of masks represent the Kananga mask.
Oh, the mask with the lizard on the top.
-These are the lizards...
-It is a lizard.
-..being led in the dance by these men here.
And this is the head of the lizard...
-..and this direction represents the sky...
The door isn't just about spiritual belief.
It also commemorates the trek undertaken by the Dogon people
from their original homeland around the 13th century.
This is the eight family Dogon coming from Manding to here.
-So these are the original people who migrated...
-..all the way from the Manding...
..down here to the Dogon lands.
They walk to Manding by foot to build here.
This is a piece of history? This is history...
Yes, in wood, and it is acacia wood. We take some...
some piece to make a door with Dogon history to...to give the informa...
the whole information to the, er, young generation.
To the young people.
Yes, who didn't lose our culture.
Here, 800 miles from Benin, is a living example
of the same kind of history and story telling
as we find in the bronzes.
The techniques may be simpler
but the purpose seems strikingly similar.
The determination to record cultural heritage is common to the Dogon,
the Benin craftsmen, the Djenne masons
and the guilds of blacksmiths in West Africa.
The need to maintain their identity was vital when kingdoms,
new religions and centres of power were fluctuating over the centuries.
But I want to know whether the animist symbols the people use here
shed light on those used in the kingdom of Benin.
I've made an appointment to see some elders
in a neighbouring Dogon village
a mile along the Bandiagara Escarpment.
-I have brought my sketches of the symbols used
in the Benin Bronzes to show the elders.
We're meeting in the Togu'na,
a men-only gathering place in the centre of the village.
Do you have, erm, any traditions with leopards? Leopards?
Really? You're from the leopard clan.
-SPEAKS IN LOCAL LANGUAGE
-So this one is you.
If in the village, in his family if one, er, person
have to die soon, the leopard comes in the night to the roof,
-he climb into the roof and "Mmm..."
"Mmm", and you know bad news is coming for the family.
So, something bad is going to happen, someone's going to die.
To the Dogon, the figure of the leopard certainly has meaning
and symbolism beyond the physical.
I wonder if the same is true of the snake.
-..this design of snake...
..originally was found on the roof of the Royal Palace.
These are snakes around a woman's face.
-This is bronze. Metal.
Here the snake protects the village leader.
It seems to have a protective function in Benin too.
500 years and 800 miles away from the Benin Bronzes,
the Dogon people attach meaning to the snake and the leopard
that chime with those on the plaques.
And there is also evidence of indigenous development
of metalworking skills throughout the region.
But the bronze-casters of Benin
needed to know about more than metallurgy.
To create a cast, they first had to make a mould.
That required the knowledge to manipulate clay.
And high above the Dogon villages
is evidence of how it was used 2,000 years ago.
Kene has taken me to the plateau of the escarpment.
-2,000 years ago, all this place, it was a forest.
-In this time of year there more rains than now...
More rains than now. All this green.
The people live here go to hunting. They get many, many animals.
Elephant, porky pig, you have monkey.
The people who lived on the Bandiagara Escarpment
2,000 years ago were the Tellem.
They are believed to have been red-skinned pygmies,
and they built dwellings into the rock face itself.
The belief endures that the Tellem had the power of flight,
and I'm beginning to understand why.
It does look quite precarious.
Nestled under the cliffs are one of the wonders of West Africa.
Kene this is amazing. What are these buildings?
This is the Tellem building.
The Tellem lived here 2,000 years ago.
Here it is a Tellem granary.
The granaries were built using rich mud from termite mounds.
This material, and the natural shelter provided by the cliffs,
means they are extremely well-preserved.
In some of building, they put the fruit from the tree because
we have the forest close to them,
and they take a lot of fruit, er, eat some, and the rest you keep inside.
So this would be a way of storing food, grain,
so that in a difficult year...
-..you would be OK.
-It's not just about survival, it's about flourishing.
These structures are not just beautifully built,
they have been decorated, too.
The outer surface of these granary stores
are just covered in these finger marks.
It's just wonderful to be able to actually place your fingers
in the marks made by someone possibly 2,000 years ago.
It suggests that the people who lived here
could think about more than simple basic needs.
This is a kind of renaissance.
A moment when things changed.
With the development of these granary stores,
the Tellem no longer just had to be hunters and gatherers.
They bought themselves the time to create art.
Archaeologists have found carved head-rests,
jewellery and even metalwork here.
The Tellem vanished from this area centuries ago.
No-one knows why.
But the fact that jewellery and decoration
appeared here 2,000 years ago is significant.
It shows that there was indigenous development of an artistic culture
in West Africa many generations before
the bronze casts of Benin were made.
And nearby, some astonishing discoveries
have revealed further evidence of craft.
They may force experts to re-write the history
of West Africa's development.
At a place called Ounjougou,
the past hasn't been dug up by archaeologists.
It's has been revealed by nature.
It's hard to believe, but within living memory
it was impossible to stand where I'm standing now.
The water levels of these two rivers used to be much, much higher,
but after a huge storm, the rivers broke their banks.
They changed course and what they revealed in the mud
has changed archaeology.
The river erosion created an archaeologist's dream -
the cross-section of history in layers of sediment.
In 2002, an international team began finding evidence
of pre-historic human activity.
Adamo Dembele is from Mali's cultural mission,
which works to preserve the country's archaeological heritage.
The archaeologists carbon dated the pottery fragments
to 11,400 years ago.
People were using pottery here 8,000 years before it appeared in Britain.
The fragments are 2,000 years older
than any other pottery found in Africa.
They are the same age as the oldest-known pottery in the world.
That fairly modest piece of ceramic tells a revolutionary story.
I mean, this is a material that must have transformed
the lives of the people here.
It allowed people to transport things, to store things.
I mean, this really is revolutionary.
The discovery of such ancient pottery here
means that West Africa was way ahead of its time.
When West Africans began developing the skills
that would eventually create
some of the most exquisite art in the world,
Europe was just emerging from the last Ice Age.
The British recognised the extraordinary quality
of the Benin Bronzes when they took them in 1897.
But they thought that Africans were incapable of creating them.
It's only recently that the full and extraordinary history
of West African craftsmanship has begun to emerge.
Now we can see how the bronzes give us an insight not just
into the kingdom of Benin, but into a wider history.
With fluctuating centres of power, cultural identity in West Africa
was more important than a sense of nationhood.
The bronzes show us the power of the Oba
and the spirits that protected him and his people,
and they're the culmination of important, indigenous developments
over thousands of years throughout this part of the continent.
The kingdoms of West Africa share many important aspects - pottery,
ironwork, but also a history of telling their story through art.
These things were, and always will be, truly African.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Four-part series in which British art historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford explores the pre-colonial history of some of Africa's most important kingdoms.
The African continent is home to nearly a billion people. It has an incredible diversity of communities and cultures, yet we know less of its history than almost anywhere else on earth.
But that is beginning to change. In the last few decades researchers and archaeologists have begun to uncover a range of histories as impressive and extraordinary as anywhere else in the world.
The series reveals that Africa's stories are preserved for us in its treasures, statues and ancient buildings - in the culture, art and legends of the people.
When magnificent 16th-century bronze casts were discovered in the kingdom of Benin in 1897, many could not believe they had been made by Africans. It was thought West Africa lacked the technical development required to make them. Dr Casely-Hayford travels to present-day Nigeria and Mali in search of the truth, exploring what the bronzes mean, how the technology to make them developed, and what it reveals about the lost kingdoms of West Africa.