Lydenburg Bantus Sculpt Life-Size Terra-cotta Heads

The discovery of the “Lydenburg heads” testifies to the cultural life and society of the peoples inhabiting southern Africa by the sixth century c.e.

Summary of Event

Seven life-size terra-cotta sculpted heads were discovered in the eastern Transvaal region of South Africa in the 1950’s by K. L. von Bezing. Metal ornaments, beads, and pottery shards were located with these heads. Von Bezing reported his find to Ray Inskeep, an archaeologist from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, which led to an excavation and study of the site. Radiocarbon dating has placed these intricate sculptures in the period between the fifth and sixth centuries c.e., which was the height of the Late Iron Age on the continent of Africa. Archaeologists named the sculptures the Lydenburg heads after the place where Von Bezing discovered them. Historians believe that the site where the heads were located was the territory settled by early Bantu-speaking immigrants in southern Africa.

In the last thousand years b.c.e., Bantu speakers migrated in multiple phases to southern Africa from the eastern Congolese rainforests and became the leading force of change on the southern African economic scene. The range of communities that existed in southern Africa resulted from the semidesert, shrubland ecology of the region. The hunting-and-gathering practices of the ancestral Khoikhoi, who most likely populated these regions before the arrival of the Bantu, required dispersed, sparsely populated groups of people as one means of managing the semidesert environment. Communities of southern Africa, in the early first millennium c.e. and earlier, were typically based on economies and lifestyles of hunting and gathering, but the Bantu immigrants established themselves in farming, iron smelting, and basketry. The Bantu agriculturalists facilitated the transfer away from an economic concentration on gathering and hunting to a complex mixed economy of cattle raising and grain cultivating. The innovations brought in with the southeastern Sala-Shona Kusi Bantu included cultivation techniques developed by ancestral Bantu-speaking peoples of the west-central African forests as well as methods of grain and cattle raising that were viable in the semi-arid vegetation zones of southern Africa.

The hollow sculpted heads themselves were elaborately designed and showed evidence of having been painted. Several of the sculptures are large enough to have been worn by an adult person, but the majority are significantly smaller. The smaller heads have notches in the necks, suggesting that were attached to some type of fixture for display or use in festivities or rituals. Carved and sculpted clay was added to create detailed facial designs. Examples of the meticulous facial expressions include a temple to define the hair line, wide mouths, oval eyes, and raised bars across the forehead, suggestive of facial creases. The two largest heads have animal figures on the top, likely signifying wealth or religious or political authority. Typically, the balance of the head and neck are covered with designs, including geometric shapes, that are common in material culture found in other Bantu-influenced Iron Age archaeological sites. The makers of these remarkable sculptures were most likely the southeastern Sala-Shona Bantu ancestors, who themselves emerged from Kusi Bantu communities in the Transvaal region.


The discovery of the Lydenburg heads gives evidence of the earliest known settled agricultural civilization in southern Africa and has revealed much about the Africans south of the equator from ancient times. Because there is no written evidence of the Bantu from the early first millennium, the importance of the heads is situated not only in their intrinsic value as art objects but also in the evidence they provide of the Bantu presence, cultural developments, and adaptations in southern Africa. These sculpted heads were created in the initiation period of farming in southern Africa, which hints that the early Kusi Bantu civilizations were more sophisticated and culturally complex than assumed by early scholars. The terra-cotta style suggests the work of a sedentary agricultural people inhabiting southern Africa by the fifth century c.e. Because of the similarity to other Bantu inspired potteries, the Lydenburg heads suggest that they were created by agriculturalists speaking Bantu languages.

Attribution of cultural meaning and social significance of the Lydenburg pieces has been based on comparative evidence collected and analyzed by archaeologists and historians. Authorities in the field of southern African history and archaeology have inferred that the heads were used for ceremonial rites in initiation rituals, which were common in Iron Age Bantu cultures. The heads would have been used as ceremonial objects or possibly to signify a particular cult or religious affiliation. This interpretation is supported by the numerous beaded decorations found on the masks. The beads would have caught the sunlight and shimmered, creating luminous ritual regalia. The masks may also have displayed the wealth and social prominence of their owners. The fact that the Lydenburg heads and other artifacts were found together in an underground cavity suggests that they were hidden or protected when not being used, further testament to their likely ritual importance.

Further Reading

  • Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: An Archaeological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Provides a detailed account of archaeological finds in the African continent and how archaeologists interpret the continent’s historical cultures. Contains information on the early Bantu peoples as determined from their archaeological remains.
  • Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. A textbook examination that covers early African civilizations and the cultures they introduced. Includes bibliography and study questions.
  • Evers, T. M. “Excavations at the Lydenburg Heads Site, Eastern Transvaal, South Africa.” South African Archaeological Bulletin 37 (1982): 16-30. Addresses the archaeological importance of the terra-cotta sculptures found in the Transvaal.
  • Maggs, T., and P. Davison. “The Lydenburg Heads and the Earliest African Sculpture South of the Equator.” African Arts 14, no. 2 (1981): 28-33. Discusses the discovery and importance of the Lydenburg heads, including their significance as evidence of an artistic society.
  • Mokhtar, G. General History of Africa II: Ancient Civilizations of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. This work contains an analysis of ancient Africa well before colonial forces arrived in Africa. Provides a detailed report of ancient activities throughout the continent.