Archer Figure, Inland Niger Delta, Mali, Africa, 13th-15th century


Archer Figure
Date: 13th-15th century
Geography: Inland Niger Delta region, Mali
Material: Terracotta
Dimensions: H 61.9cm
Object Number: 86-12-1
Description: Standing male figure of an archer with a quiver slung diagonally across his right shoulder in back. The figure's lower right arm and hand are missing as is his right foot.

Since the 1940s, low-fired ceramic figures and fragments such as this have been unearthed at various sites throughout the Inland Niger Delta region, an area that once had highly developed urban centers. These works are among the earliest known surviving art forms in sub-Saharan Africa. The makers were from the various peoples in the region, but it is not known whether they were men or women. Using a mixture of coarse clay and added grog (crushed pot sherds), the potters modeled the figures by hand. Some were modeled in separate parts and fitted together. Most surviving examples are solid, but a few are hollow and built with clay coils. The surfaces are polished and covered with a red slip (clay wash). These massive works are among the largest known terracotta figures created by sub-Saharan African potters. By the 15th or 16th century, environmental and political events caused the urban centers of the Delta region to be abandoned, and the art tradition did not survive. Research, including local oral traditions, indicates that all ethnic groups in the Delta region used these figures. The earliest known written reference to them occurs in a letter of 1447. In it, a visiting Italian merchant remarked that the figures were kept in sanctuaries and venerated as representing the deified ancestors of famous founding rulers of the region. The elaborate dress of the figures suggests ceremonial military attire, and they may represent warriors who were once allies of the Malian emperor Sundjata Keita (c. 1210-c. 1260). Based on stylistic comparisons with similar figures, these works can be tentatively dated to between the 13th and 15th centuries.
Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art

It was unearthed near Djenne in the Inland Delta region of the Niger River, the heart of the Mali Empire between the 13th and 16th centuries. Archaeological evidence indicates that this region had highly developed urban centers as early as 200 B.C.

This sculpture represents a warrior dressed in military gear. He is equipped with a quiver (case to hold arrows) on his back and a knife strapped his left arm.
Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art


See also Equestrian Figure, Djenne, Mali, Africa, c. 1450
Other 13th Century Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers