Cross-River Monoliths Project


In October 2016, the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation travelled to the Cross-River State region of Eastern Nigeria to collaborate with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) and the University of Calabar (UNICAL) on a project aimed at exploring, documenting and raising awareness about the so-called ‘Cross River’ or ‘Ikom’ monoliths. These monoliths are one of the most important parts of the story of African art, but through fire, theft and negligence have become one of the most threatened. This is recognised by their inscription on the World Heritage Organisations list of endangered sites.

The project was made possible by a generous donation from James and Paula Crown.
TARA’s work was made possible by a generous donation from the Prince Claus Fund.

The project’s aim is to promote the cause of the monoliths internationally, with a view to gathering support for an inter-disciplinary team that would enact ‘rescue’ archaeology and 3D-recording at the most damaged sites, whilst establishing appropriate preservation measures at those sites that have retained their original setting in a sacred forest. Of equal importance is the promotion of understanding of the importance and value of the monoliths amongst the communities that are the homes of the monoliths. The first stage of this aspect of the project will be the production of booklets that gather together information on the monoliths and that will be distributed throughout the area, particularly as a resource for local schools.

The Chief of Neberokpa contemplates a split monolith

Click on the image to watch the video introduction of the project
The sites

The sites visited by the project can be roughly divided into three categories.

-Severely Damaged (Neborokpa, Nejemetop,Ntitogo,Nlol, Edamkono). These tended to exhibit the following features: 

The characteristic circular formation of the monoliths seen at Emangebe

Burnt, cracked and neglected: one of the monoliths at Edamkono

Fire: Many monoliths have been extremely heavily damaged by the practice of burning vegetation at the end of the cycle of yam production. The extremely high temperatures of the surrounding foliage being burnt causes the basalt to heat up and then crack with rapid cooling. 
Theft: This category can be linked to the former, in the sense that frequently the crack from the heat occurs around the middle of the monolith (around the navel) thereby making the upper section with the prized carved face a more manageable size to be transported. The illegal trade route is said to go through neighbouring Cameroon and from there onto the antiquities market where monoliths can be found in France and the United States.
Loss of context: The original context for the groups of monoliths was within the forest that once covered large parts of southern Nigeria, logging and bush clearance to make way for farmland has caused this habitat to disappear for many of the sites. A further loss of context is caused by well-meaning efforts to protect the monoliths by moving them into a prominent position within a village; this prevents theft but loses the ability to understand the objects from an archaeological perspective.
Fallen or partially buried: Many of the monoliths found in this category of sites tended to be horizontal and partially buried. This encourages a further lack of respect towards them, for example, in a couple of cases in the practice of using the surface as a wet stone for machetes.

Chief Sylvanus ‘Orlando’ Akong points towards the area of a monolith in Ntitogo that has been used as a whetstone for a machete

- Partially preserved (Alok, Emangebe)

The monoliths within an enclosure at Alok define the village and point towards a future of potential tourism

Enclosure: These are the two sites that were officially listed by the Nigerian government and as a result have been encircled by a perimeter wall, which protects the land from use by farmers, from damage by fire etc. Although these are, in a sense, positive measures, they have had some unintended consequences (as follows).
Erosion Damage: This is particularly apparent at the site Emangebe, where even though the circle is intact, the complete removal of tree cover from it has made the conditions for extreme degradation of the surface of the carvings. This is likewise a problem as Alok, although less pointed as a result of the retention of some tree cover.
Loss of context (see above).

- Potential for preservation in original context (Nkrigom, Ntol, Amandag)

Nkrigom: one of the most difficult to access sites, but that rewarded with exceptional examples of the monoliths

Original context: Unsurprisingly the sites in which the monoliths can be found in their original setting, were the same that were hardest to access (tracks only accessible via motorbike, rivers to ford, etc.) but also the most rewarding in terms of atmosphere.
Well-preserved carvings: Tree cover prevents the negative effects of fire in the first category and erosion damage in the second.
Safety from theft: The inaccessibility of these sites has led to the greater difficulty of removing the monoliths.

Initial Research and Recording Work

Clearing and recording at Nkrigom


David Coulson (Project Manager - Trust for African Rock Art)
Dr Abu Solomon Edet (University of Calabar)
Dr Frank Enor (University of Calabar)
Alexander Peck (Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation)
Ferdinand Saumarez Smith (Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation)
Joshua Bako (Cartographer - Department of Archaeology, Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria)

The Chiefs of the area assembled listening to the explanation of the project

Dr Abu Solomon Edet and Joshua Bako pose with TARA’s posters outside the meeting of the Chiefs

The work in October 2016 had a number of different objectives and made use of a number of different recording techniques. Site identification and community liaising was carried out by Dr Abu Solomon Edet and Dr Frank Enor, who both drew upon their extensive experience and knowledge of working in the region and the etiquette of approaching the groups responsible for each of the sites. The announcement of the project was made at a meeting of all the Chiefs in the neighbourhood and its team was introduced and objectives were explained.

David Coulson photographing one of the monoliths at Nlol

Two-dimensional recording of the monoliths and general documentation of the project was carried about by David Coulson and Ferdinand Saumarez Smith, three-dimensional recording (using photogrammetry) undertaken by Alexander Peck, site mapping undertaken by Joshua Bako and Drone mapping (aerial photography) by Ferdinand Saumarez Smith.

These different techniques will have a number of different usages. Complete 2D documentation and site mapping will make a record of the monolith and its location that will be of use in monitoring further degradation of either the sculpture or its location. Having a record of the monoliths will also discourage potential thieves and/or buyers on the international antiquities market from purchasing stolen monoliths, as it will be possible to trace back the object to its original home. 

Alexander Peck carrying out 3D-recording at Alok

3D documentation of a number of complete and partial monoliths at five of the sites (Alok, Njemetop, Nkrigom, Nlol, Ntitogo) will allow for a more detailed monitoring of the actual surface of the stone as before. It likewise has much potential as a further dissuasive force for potential thieves, in that missing tops in international collections could potentially be matched with their original stump. One of the potential uses of Factum Foundation’s expertise could be to record tops and bottoms and then produce facsimiles that united the monoliths in their original complete state. With this in mind, Alexander Peck recorded the top and bottom of a split monolith with an exceptional standard of carving at Nkrigom.

Nlultextured 3D render

Nkirigom: 3D recording allows for the possibility of reuniting split monoliths.

Nlul render (detail)

Drone mapping allows for potential of cross-referencing of photographic images with the layout of the monoliths at a site. Providing the local communities (many of which are not included on up to date maps) with aerial images of their village is also a positive way of (literally) putting them on the map, benefiting the cause of demonstrating to the communities the importance of preservation. 

  • Nkrigom
  • Nkrigom
  • Nkrigom

Immediate Aims

On November 5th, David Coulson, founder and chairman for TARA and project director for the Cross River Monoliths project, addressed a conference on African Rock Art at the British Museum. African Rock Art: research, digital outputs and heritage management was the first opportunity to showcase some of the images and recorded 3D data, with the objective of raising the profile of the monoliths internationally and to spark discussion as to the preservation of these remarkable monuments.

David Coulson presenting some of the images & recorded 3D data at the British Museum 

There has been almost no archaeology on the sites so it is uncertain what date these objects were made. We visited 7 out of a 34 known sites, with rumours of more un-visited sites deep in the forest. A follow up project should include a full geolocated registry of all sites, a dedicated team to date the monoliths and a concentrated effort to collect oral history from the area.

Factum Foundation would like to extend its warmest thanks to all those people that helped in making the project a success, who are too numerous to name but can be seen in the image below. 

The extended Cross River Monoliths team in Alok at the end of the project

A report on the project by Dr Abu Solomon Edet can be found here.

Find some images here

Related videos

Explanation of the project in Nigeria

Nlul with ZBrush program


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