The Bakor Monoliths


Introduction

Factum Foundation is collaborating with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) and the University of Calabar (UNICAL) on a project aimed at documenting, conserving and raising awareness about the Bakor monoliths, also known as the ‘Cross-River’ or ‘Ikom’ monoliths, and locally referred to as ‘akwanshi’ or ‘atal’. The Bakor monoliths take their name from a group of linguistically and ethnically related communities (‘clans’) in an area of approximately 350 square miles in the Middle Cross River region in which they are exclusively found. The word ‘Bakor’ means ‘come and take’, a name that was chosen as a collective title because the phrase is identical in the languages of each of the original eight clans that make up the Bakor people.

The monoliths are primarily basalt or limestone that has been naturally shaped in nearby riverbeds and range from 40 cm up to 3m in size. The natural forms of the rock are embellished by carvings of facial features, beards, decorative markings (probably indicating scarification), protruding navels, etc., which distinguish each as an ancestral clan leader. The age of the monoliths remains the subject of speculation, particularly in the absence of proper archaeological investigation. It seems probable that the tradition developed over a number of centuries, gradually falling out of practice over the period of British colonial influence. This must, however, have occurred some time before direct colonial engagement in the area as the earliest account, Charles Partridge’s ‘Cross River Natives’ (1905), demonstrates that the inhabitants had already lost the custom of producing them. The situation of cultural disconnect today has been exacerbated by the strong influence of Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria, which associates the monoliths with 'juju'.

Preservation issues: damage & theft

An extensive survey of the monoliths was commissioned by the National Museum in Lagos and was carried out by Philip Allison, formerly of the Nigerian Forestry Department, over a period of two months in 1961 and 1962. This put the number of carved stones at 300. In the course of three periods of fieldwork, of about one month in total, Factum Foundation, TARA and UNICAL visited all the major sites documented by Allison and, in addition, identified a handful of others not yet recorded. The condition of the monoliths and their sites vary greatly: the greatest threat to their preservation comes from forest clearance and subsequent farming activity, in particular slash and burn methods which heat up the stone, causing it to crack as it cools.

Allison’s survey has proved an invaluable resource in addressing the other chief problem that the monoliths have faced: theft. It has enabled the identification of monoliths in international museum collections as well as a number of private galleries. Research indicates that the monoliths were predominantly stolen from the sites in the 1970s, following the crisis of the Biafra Civil War, and smuggled over the nearby border with Cameroon before entering the antiquities market. The issue of theft has contributed to the inclusion of the monoliths on ICOM’s Red List of West African cultural objects at risk. In addition, the critical condition of the Bakor monoliths has led to their being listed on the World Monuments Fund’s ‘World Monuments Watch’ (inscribed in 2008) and UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites.

Project goals

The immediate goals of the project are to promote the preservation and understanding of the monoliths at a local and an international level:

  • to record and document monoliths on site and in international collections
  • to work with community stakeholders to develop long term preservation initiatives
  • to disseminate knowledge about the importance of the monoliths and the risks to their preservation, through means such as lectures, films and exhibitions

The long-term goal of the project is to have the Bakor monoliths registered as a World Heritage Site.

Links:

https://icom.museum/en/resources/red-lists/?material=13&type=34&country=64

https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5173/

https://www.wmf.org/project/ikom-monoliths-cross-river-state

Initial survey and documentation

2016

Metropolitan Fragment, Conference, and Site Visits

2018

US Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation Survey

2019


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