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Archaeological Investigations and Survey of the Sacred Landscape of Osun Grove, Nigeria 1

Akin Ogundiran, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Project Grant 2011–2012


The Osun Grove Landscape research project was funded by the Dumbarton Oaks and was conducted between June 30 and August 19, 2011. The fieldwork was in two parts:

  1. Archaeological survey and excavations of the vanishing sites in the northern buffer zone and the central area of the grove, as well as preliminary analysis of archaeological finds.
  2. Recording of the performative and physical aspects of the grove landscape: identification of the New Sacred Arts sculptures/monuments; biodiversity; mapping of the sacred sites/spiritual routes; and interviewing of artists, stakeholders and visitors.

Archaeological Survey and Excavations

Fig. 1: Nigeria, showing Osogbo.
Fig. 1: Nigeria, showing Osogbo.

The Osun Grove is widely acclaimed as the site of the ancestral settlement where Osogbo town (Early Osogbo) originated around the beginning of the seventeenth century (Fig. 1). Previous archaeological investigations by this author revealed that this is a valid claim. However, most of the old settlement site of Early Osogbo was located outside the designated boundaries of the grove. The result was that most of the archaeological site has been destroyed due to farming and development projects (Fig. 2). The inscription of Osun Grove as a World Heritage site in 2005 by UNESCO mandated that a 200-meter buffer zone be established around the grove for the protection of its biodiversity and cultural resources (Fig. 3). Alas, the buffer rarely exceeds 100 meters in most parts, and the northern buffer has not been effectively maintained. Not only have human activities increased exponentially as a result of the College of Health campus nearby, but a road is being planned for construction between the campus and the grove (see Fig. 2). This will completely destroy the remains of the archaeological site in this buffer zone. The site is however critical to understanding the cultural-historical contexts and sociopolitical processes for the emergence of Osun Grove as a sacred landscape.

The 2011 fieldwork was launched to conduct archaeological survey and excavations of the vanishing settlement site in the northwest buffer zone, and to document other archaeological features that may be present in the perimeters of the grove. The survey, for logistical reasons (accessibility, visibility, and time) focused on the northern, eastern, and southern buffer zones of the grove. Survey team scouted only the 20-meter perimeters of these zones in search for archaeological sites. Whereas minimal and sketchy evidence of likely pre-nineteenth-century human occupations may be present in the eastern and southern parts of the grove, it is in the northern buffer zone that our efforts were most rewarded. Here, we found evidence of an occupation mound (14m in diameter) and surface scatters of potsherds, bones, cowries, and metal objects. These were part of the remains of the abandoned Early Osogbo settlement, and the mound was the largest archaeological feature in the site.

We noticed that with the ongoing construction of an Artists Village complex within the northern buffer zone (Fig. 4), the archaeological site is in great danger of total obliteration Archaeological Investigations and Survey of the Sacred Landscape of Osun Grove, Nigeria 2 within the next couple of years, if not months. After a comprehensive assessment of the location of the building viz-a-viz the largest mound in the site (only 4 meters apart), the archaeological team (including the staff of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments) decided to focus excavations on the mound. The result was the excavation of an 80 square-meter unit, making it the largest single unit of excavation ever conducted in the southwest part of Nigeria (Figure 5).

Fig. 5: Excavation Unit in relation to the Artists Village (also showing the location of ash pit and glass cullet finds).
Fig. 5: Excavation Unit in relation to the Artists Village (also showing the location of ash pit and glass cullet finds).

The excavation yielded a wide range of artifacts, ceramics being the largest followed by an assortment of well preserved animal bones. Other finds include cowry shells, tobacco pipes, clay lamps, glass beads, metal objects, and flora remains (in form of seeds). These artifacts together weigh more than 1000 pounds. The preliminary analysis of the ceramics has been completed and the fauna remains have been sorted. Here is the summary of the importance of the excavation and the finds:

  1. Our investigation demonstrates that this was one of the first locations where the pioneer settlers in Early Osogbo carried out their everyday activities, perhaps as early as 1592-1609 according to the radiocarbon date from a bone sample collected at the lowest deposit of the unit.
  2. We uncovered the Phase I occupation (on top of the bedrock) of the site where some of the pioneering immigrant hunters first settled before other settlers who were farmers, traders, and artisans joined them. In fact, the evidence from the lower deposits of the unit leads us to believe that some of the pioneering hunters used this location to butcher and share their games which included large duiker species (Cephalophus ogilbyi) and red river hog (Potamochoerus porcus) (Fig. 6).
  3. We also uncovered an oval pit (60cm deep) filled with what appears to be plant ash (Fig. 7). Perhaps this pit and the ash were associated with the manufacture of dyestuff and possibly cloth dyeing about 400 years ago. We also have evidence of primary glass bead production in form of bead-making crucible and bead wastes (cullet), Figure 8a. These two finds are very significant and will likely lead us to rewrite the history of craft production in this region. For example, outside Ile-Ife (also in sw Nigeria), Osogbo is now the only other place in West Africa where we have evidence of primary glass bead production. Whereas the advent of primary glass bead production dated to ca. 11th-13th century in Ile-Ife, the evidence at Osogbo took place only in the seventeenth century. A prominent geochemist and specialist in glass beads, Dr. Akin Ige, recently noted however that it is likely that the ash deposits nearby was related to the glass beads industry. After visiting the site and surveying the geology of the area (Fig. 8b), Dr. Ige opined that the quartz and granite rocks and plant ash were the likely key raw materials, and that these would have been melted together using different colorants (dyestuff) for the manufacture of the glass beads. The further investigations of this hypothesis may place Osun Grove at the center of a new understanding of the glass production technology in Africa south of the Sahara.
  4. Ecologically, the preliminary analysis of the faunal remains points to the fact that the people of Early Osogbo consumed wild animals that straddles the rainforest and derived savanna environments. Lee Broderick, a zooarchaeologist and doctoral student at the University of York (UK) is currently analyzing the faunal remains from the excavations. His findings will be very useful in understanding the ecology of the grove and its surroundings during the seventeenth through early eighteenth century. Many inferences will be available upon the completion of the Archaeological Investigations and Survey of the Sacred Landscape of Osun Grove, Nigeria 3 analysis on the nature of the environmental conditions of the grove in its early phase as a settlement site.
  5. Summing up our finds, we can say that we now have clear evidence that it was indeed in the Osun Grove that the early Osogbo settlement started more than 400 years ago. The settlers were active entrepreneurs. They were involved in market economy, trading far and wide across the region. The ceramics that have been excavated provide evidence that the early settlers in Osogbo traded with some of the major polities in the region: Oyo, Ife, and the Ilesa. In fact, a new ceramic complex has been identified in Osogbo. This find is very important to our understanding of the cultural historical relationships that Early Osogbo had with the other core ceramic complexes in Yorubaland. In addition, the Early Osogbo residents used cowry as currency, and they smoked tobacco pipes for recreation. The presence of beads and brass among the artifacts also tell us something about the worldliness and fashion styles of these people. They also utilized the environmental resources to provision for their families. There is evidence of palm production and the use of palm oil for cooking. Their meat consumption however seems to have relied heavily on hunting wild species including red river hog, duiker, reedbuck, honey badger, primate species, turtle, and catfish, among others.

Performative and Physical Landscape of the Grove

Fig. 10b: Ohuntoto Market Site: Sculptures depicting Yoruba Mythology Scenes in Osun Grove.
Fig. 10b: Ohuntoto Market Site: Sculptures depicting Yoruba Mythology Scenes in Osun Grove.

The second phase of the fieldwork consisted of mapping the sacred sites and spiritual routes within Osun Grove, as well documenting and mapping the New Sacred Art sculptures/monuments. This project also involved oral interviews with the artists of the New Sacred Art Movement, priests and priestesses of Osun and of other Yoruba deities, staff of the National Museum Osogbo, the current king of Osogbo and his chiefs, citizens of Osogbo, and tourists, worshippers, and other visitors. Ethnographic study of the experiential processes for the different segments of the visitors to the grove was also conducted. Morover, I visited the National Archives to collect relevant information on the grove as part of the political, cultural, and economic life of Osogbo during the colonial period, especially between 1930s and 1960. In addition, I was fortunate to access small but vital letters written by Susan Wenger, the Austrian-Yoruba priestess who was at the forefront of the struggle, between 1950s and 1990s, to preserve the cultural and biodiversity of the grove. Likewise, I was able to locate some of the writings of the late king of Osogbo – Oba Iyiola Matanmi III on the subject of the grove’s preservation. In addition, I collected valuable inventory of the botanical and zoological resources of the grove, and I interviewed resource persons: herbalists, diviners, and hunters on the medicinal, spiritual, and social values of the grove’s biodiversity. Finally, I was able to access some of the local writings that are relevant to understanding the evolution of the grove as a social common of Osogbo, and now of the world heritage.

Fig. 10d: Priestesses in Osun-Lakokan Sanctuary, Osun Grove.
Fig. 10d: Priestesses in Osun-Lakokan Sanctuary, Osun Grove.

The different sources of information revealed different perspectives that are both historical and sociological. All these data are however amenable to landscape and cultural analyses. They will allow me to address the following research themes in the future:

  1. The spatial and locational changes in the tangible cultural landscape of the grove since 1950s.
  2. The political and cultural projects of the social actors (e.g., artists, state, priestesses and other stakeholders) who have shaped the evolution of the grove’s tangible cultural landscape since the 1930s (Fig. 9). Archaeological Investigations and Survey of the Sacred Landscape of Osun Grove, Nigeria 4.
  3. The meanings and roles of more than 90 sacred arts in shaping the experiential moments of tourists, worshippers, and other visitors to the grove (Figs. 10a–d).
  4. Sociological and ecological analysis of the grove’s biodiversity, with emphasis on the medicinal, spiritual, and environmental values of the plants and animal species in the grove (Fig. 11).
  5. Spatial analysis of how the grove’s landscape is contemporarily used by members of three religious groups: Christianity, Islam, and Indigenous Religion; as well those who come to the grove for secular contemplative and inspirations purposes; and as a preferred choice for movie production. This will allow me to demonstrate the cosmopolitanism of the grove beyond its current popular unitary identifier as a site for only indigenous religion (Fig. 12).
  6. Understanding of the grove as a politically contested landscape from its point of origins in the seventeenth century till the present, pointing at how the agency of the grove was mobilized at different junctures in Osogbo history for political contestation, conflict, and co-optation, including the ongoing dispute over the installation of the current king of Osogbo, Oba Jimoh Olanipekun, Larooye II.
  7. The interventions of the colonial and nationalist governments of Nigeria at the federal, state, and local levels in packaging the grove for international tourism; the impacts of this on the transformations of the grove’s landscape, a site documented as destination for more than 60,000 visitors annually (Fig. 13); and the environmental impacts of this number of tourists on the ecology of the grove, including how the responses of the government and other stakeholders to stabilize these impacts have in turned transformed the landscape of Osun Grove.

Fig. 11: Vervet Monkeys, sitting on one of the New Sacred Art walls, Osun Grove.
Fig. 11: Vervet Monkeys, sitting on one of the New Sacred Art walls, Osun Grove.

The Aftermath

Fig. 13a: The billboard of a multinational gin beverage company at the entrance of Osun Grove.
Fig. 13a: The billboard of a multinational gin beverage company at the entrance of Osun Grove.

Since this project was conducted with the cooperation of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monument who granted the permit for the fieldwork, I gave a talk on my research to the commission’s staff and members of the public on July 27 (Fig. 14). The talk was titled Archaeology of Everyday Lives in Osun-Osogbo Grove, ca. 1600-1750.

At the end of the fieldwork, I developed and served as curator of an exhibition that is based on my archaeological study at Osun Grove. Titled Ancestral Legacies in Osun Grove: Archaeological Exhibition of Early Osogbo History, the exhibition consisted of sixteen 11x17 poster-presentations and 32 artifacts (Appendix II- Exhibition Catalogue). The exhibition was declared open on August 19 by His Royal Majesty, Oba Jimoh Olanipekun, Larooye II who hosted it in the public pavilion of his palace (Fig. 15). The occasion was a moment of satisfaction for me and joy to everyone present (Appendix I). The exhibition is the first of its kind in Osogbo and for the grove. The exhibition is now a permanent collection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. The goal is to display it in Osun Grove, and for public education as a travel exhibit.

The Nigerian media became aware of the project within weeks of the fieldwork. The demands for press interviews eventually led me to host a press conference at the site on July 14. This is the first known archaeological press conference in Nigeria. Three national newspapers—This Day, Saturday Champion, and The Nigerian Tribune (Appendix IIIa–b)—wrote featured stories about the research. Likewise, two federal government media houses—The National Television Authority (NTA) and The Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN)—and a private television station, The Galaxy, ran stories in prime-time news that broadcasted nation-wide. Archaeological Investigations and Survey of the Sacred Landscape of Osun Grove, Nigeria 5


In summary, both the archaeological and the landscape studies have yielded the most comprehensive data on Osun Grove. Thanks to the Dumbarton Oaks research grant, I have been successful in retrieving vital archaeological data (ca. 1590-1750) that would have otherwise been lost on the early history of Africa’s most popular sacred grove. The grant also afforded me the opportunity to collect important ethnographic, oral historical, and archival information on the grove’s performative and physical landscape (1750-2010). I will use these data to write a book on the landscape and cultural history of Osun Grove. This will be an interdisciplinary book that cuts across the different branches of landscape studies – ecological, cultural, political, religious, social, gender, and preservation. It will also be a book that makes use of the theoretical frameworks and methodologies of many disciplines, including archaeology, cultural anthropology, art history, preservation studies, landscape studies, performance, and ecology. In addition, as a result of this research, we now have the information that may be used for developing a multimedia database and online exhibition of the archaeology, sacred arts, biodiversity, and living traditions of the grove.