221040 - Ancient and authentic Bura Funeral Urn - Niger


Antique Terracotta Bura Funerary Urn - Niger.
This superb and highly characteristic Bur urn measures 17 cm in height. 

This Bura Urn was collected in my private collection in 1986.

Africa-gallery is pleased to offer from his own private collection a rare terracotta Funerary Urn from the Bura culture, Republic of Niger, West Africa. 

Discovered in an area northwest of Niamey and dating from the 11-16th centuries, these figurative funerary urn are commonly called “Bura” figures, a reference to one of the three tribal groups living in the area today. 

The area of West Africa belonging to the Bura, Asinda and Sikka tribal groups lies along the Volta River, which separates the countries of Niger and present day Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta). The greater Volta area is a region of vast cultural, ethno-historical and archeological significance. 

The Bura appear to have been sedentary agriculturists who buried their dead in tall, conical urns, often surmounted by small figures. Their utilitarian vessels are usually plain, while other “containers” - the function of which is not understood - are often decorated with incised and stamped patterns. These are their best-known art form along with a group of radically reductivist anthropomorphic stone statues or markers, with heads rendered as squares, triangles and ovals, with the body suggested by columnar, monolithic shapes, some of which are also decorated with incised patterns. 

It shows wear consistent with an age of several hundred years, including cracks and chips that are a normal part of the patina. Importantly, it is an intact original piece.

The story:

The site of the necropolis of Bura-Asinda-Sikka in the lower Niger River valley in southwest Niger was discovered accidentally in 1975 by a young hunter who found two small terracotta heads. Three years later the discovery was reported to the Departement d'art et archaeologie (IRSH: l'Institut de Recherches en sciences humaines de l'Universite de Niamey). In 1983, Boube Gado (1944–2015)—head of the Department of Art and Archaeology, IRSH, Niamey—conducted a quick but rigorous archaeological excavation there, financed by the University of Niamey and the French Minister of Relations Exterieures. Among other things, Gado found tubular and oval-shaped anthropomorphic terracotta pots, some surmounted by heads or highly adorned equestrian warriors. The pots were placed upside down on the ground above burials and dated from the second to eleventh centuries ce. Gado wrote a short essay on these extraordinary terracotta vessels and his interpretation of their meaning for the exhibition catalog Vallees du Niger (Devisse 1993). The exhibit was held in Paris at the Musee National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie in 1993–1994 and travelled to museums in Europe, America, and West Africa throughout 1996. In the 575 page catalog, over forty scholars addressed aspects of the early history of the inland Niger Basin reconstructed through material objects and other sources. Gado's contribution is the only existing article to describe this Bura material. I was fascinated by these pots and surprised that so little had been published on them.

Gado (1993) tells us that, at the Bura necropolis, groups of pots covering several hundred square meters were found associated with burials: the archaeological excavation (25 x 20 meters in size) exposed 630 funerary urns placed upside down and close together. There were twice as many tubular urns as semi-ovoid ones (see maps and photo of site in Gado 1993: 365–66). The urns were placed on the ground several feet above the buried remains or they once covered or contained human skulls, teeth, bones, or offerings of cooked food for the dead.

Gado suggests that the vases with bodily features are "effigies" of those buried 1–1.2 meters below the surface and that some contained the head of a caretaker of the dead—perhaps a slave, servant, spouse, or kinsman sacrificed to serve the deceased in the afterworld. Gado maintains that the coffin-jars or anthropomorphic funerary urns from the Asinda-Sikka site are funerary statuettes. The terracotta pots vary in size but include tubular urns 70–80 cm in height and round or semi-ovoid urns, some of which are surmounted by standing figures, mounted horsemen, or heads (Fig. 1). Most urns, however, are decorated only with anthropomorphic features depicting eyes, nose, mouth, and/or coiffure. There are also representations of phalluses, breasts, and coiffures on the urns, which Gado says represent sexual differentiation. He interprets the iron arrowheads with hooked ends that were found beside every jar as remnants of a ritual sacrifice.1 The skeletons buried below the terracotta pots wore bracelets of brass or iron, brass nose rings, and sometimes strings of quartzite beads.

There are basically two shapes of pots found in the Bura necropolis: cylindrical and spherical. I suggest that most if not all of these represent genitalia. It is surely not an accident that the Hausa word bura means "penis" (Abraham 1962; Bargery 1934).2 The ancient stone megaliths at Tondidarou in Mali form a parallel example. To understand the sexually explicit forms on the Niger urns I consider them as a group, as a single category, and compare them with objects, myths, and rites performed by several other present-day peoples in nearby regions of West Africa.