Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology

2. Koma ‘Shrine’ Mounds, Yikpabongo, Northern Ghana.

Click the images to read the captions.

Between 2010 and 2014 I was involved in the Koma Land project which was under the overall direction of Prof. Benjamin Kankpeyeng of the University of Ghana. My focus was on interpreting figurine function and meaning. This involved trial excavation of part of a ‘shrine’ mound at Yikpabongo, Northern Region, and sampling and surveying figurine distributions from two seasons (2010 and 2011), with the aims of;

  1. Assessing the potential of figurines and associated materials for residue and DNA analysis.
  2. Retrieving figurines for preliminary analysis.
  3. Mapping the distribution of figurines and figurine parts across the mound so as to attempt to reconstruct ritual behaviours in relation to libations (medicines, blood, other substances) and concepts of personhood as represented by the whole and fragmentary figurines (see Publications).

251 figurines and figurine fragments were recovered (see Ghana Koma). Computed Tomography scanning of a sample of the figurines was completed by Dr Sharon Fraser in co-operation with the Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility, Manchester Materials Science Centre, University of Manchester. This indicated deep cavities incised into some of the figurines singularly or in combination, from the mouth, ears, nostrils, or top of the head, and possibly for the admission of substances. DNA analysis of samples from inside the cavities by Dr Heather Robinson, Professor Terry Brown, and Dr Kerry Brown of the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester indicated the presence of DNA from plantains and bananas, grasses, and pine tree. The pine was likely imported from North Africa and the pine needles and bark potentially boiled to make an infusion given to the figurines. A radiocarbon date was obtained from the mound of 970+/-40 BP (CAL AD 1010 to 1170). This agrees with radiocarbon dates previously obtained that suggest an overall chronology for this material of c.AD 600-1200.

It is not possible, based on the frequently small fragments present, to provide a figurine typology, but the broadly salient groupings represented were human, animal, part human and part animal, and anthropomorphic cone figurines (see Publications). In general, the depiction of human features could be described as solemn. The majority are stylized and lack expression or emotion and are framed in static standing or seated postures. However, the figurines and figurine fragments provide significant information on past concepts of personhood, and understandings of the body (see Ghana Koma and Publications). Structured deposition in repeat patterns is also evident with selected human remains such as a skull, human teeth and long bones recovered from the ‘shrine’ mound, as well as complete but more often fragmentary figurines interred along with material such as spherical stone querns, fragments of quartz, iron objects such as razors, pottery disks, perhaps stoppers for gourd containers themselves perished, and numerous potsherds.

Various questions are raised by this enigmatic material. The cavities in the figurines, and also clay structures found, as well as the DNA evidence, suggest offering libations was a significant ritual practice. These could have been directed to the figurines themselves within a framework of ancestral veneration, but potentially also as a reflection of chthonic beliefs directed to the earth through the agency of the figurine. Whilst the figurine fragments could represent, in part at least, deliberate processes of fragmentation and breakage linking individuals and kin groups through ancestors represented by the figurines, or were fragmented after an individual’s death, enchaining the living and deceased to ancestors/figurines. The possession of body parts, as represented by the skull and teeth, might also have served to join together— enchain—the living, the dead, and the figurines, reflecting both complex ritual practices and associated understandings of personhood.

The Wellcome Trust funded the field research, and subsequently funded, along with the Zochonis and Morel Trusts, and the British Academy, the exhibition on the figurines, Fragmentary Ancestors. Figurines from Koma Land, Ghana at the Manchester Museum (October 2013-May 2014) (see Ghana – Koma 3 Exhibition). The exhibition presented the results of the research through focusing on what the figurines mean and was a partnership project between the Universities of Manchester and Ghana, and the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. This exhibition has now transferred to the National Museum in Accra and the Guidebook is available as a free download at this link (