Digitization of glass bead-making, use and meaning in Ile-Ife, Southwestern Nigeria

By Nik Petek-Sargeant | 1 October 2019

This project aims to digitize the glass bead making process in Ile-Ife, Southwest Nigeria, in order to produce a digital record to be deposited with the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme repository. Ile-Ife emerged as a dominant political and religious centre in the 11th century with a centralised political and sacred kingship systems. Sophisticated crafts specialization in copper alloy casting, stone carving, and glass/glass bead making among others was also established. Recent archaeological investigations of early glass production in Ile-Ife have revealed evidence of glassmaking, the first known local glassmaking in pre-15th century sub-Saharan Africa. Ethnographic works in Ile-Ife in the 1970s and 1980s have recorded memories from glass bead makers and reported the process of making and its significance among the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria. The households and families known for this occupation were also recorded. However, in the last three decades, the craft of glass bead making has witnessed a significant decline in Ile-Ife. Today this practice is endangered as only a few people still retain the knowledge of this important material production. Combining my understanding of the archaeology of glass technology in early Ile-Ife with new ethnographic fieldwork, the proposed work seeks to digitally record the processes of glass bead-making as it is practiced today in the city. For this project, I will be working with two local collaborators over fifteen months to collect ethnographic data on the use, symbolism, and making of glass beads. Several people connected to the craft in one way or another will be interviewed. Furthermore, we will work closely with glass bead makers and have them demonstrate the processes of the material practice. These demonstrations, as well as interviews, will be digitally documented to produce an audio, photo, and video record that will be deposited in the public domain of the for free access. This project is an effort to safeguard the endangered material knowledge practice of glass bead making (a craft that was once profuse and widely admired in early Ile-Ife and beyond) in contemporary Ile-Ife for posterity.

PI: Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, University of Cambridge in the UK