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Esie and mystery of soapstone

By Akinbola Akinwale

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Esie is a town in Irepodun Local Government Area of Kwara State, it is about 53 kilometers from the state capital (Ilorin). In 1945, a community-based museum was established to house one of the greatest treasures ever bequeathed to mankind, Esie stone images (Ere Esie). These stone images provided the first attraction to Esie People by the outside country and also beyond the confines of the town and its environs.

The physical size and number of these carved stone figures, their artistic depiction of human beings, and their presence in a community whose members have not demonstrated any extant tradition of stone carving have excited great curiosity.

Ere Esie has long been known and associated with the people of Esie. Indeed, it has become a reference in the cosmology and social-cultural spectrum of the people.

The origin of Ere Esie’s soapstone figures has long been a subject of social and academic discussion. The puzzle concerning the origins of those stone figures has been described as one of the mysteries of the African material culture.

However, people think that the images were formerly human beings and turned to stone by a supreme being (Olodumare), while some believe it was carved. The origins of Esie stone images were mysterious and he further asserted that there are two schools of thought which are oral and archaeological findings. The oral tradition has it that the images were discovered by a famous hunter,

Baragbon led the Esie people from the old Oyo Empire to their present location in 1775. The hunter discovered these images by accident in a semi-circular form under a palm tree. He then went back to inform Elesie about what he found in the bush (Peregun Grove).

The monarch consequently sent for the Ifa priest, and the Ifa priest after consultations informed the Elesie that the images were formerly human beings before they were turned to stones. Out of fear, the people started to worship the images so that what happened to the images would not happen to them.

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Archeological point of view, archeologists have carried out extensive scientific studies on the images and have debunked the oral school of thought by propounding many hypotheses that the images were carved by carvers.

The Esie museum was regarded as the home of stone images (Ere Esie) it housed over 1,500 soapstone images. The objects range in height from 14 to 20 centimeters and weigh between 0.55 and 104 kilograms.

The Esie people are not aware of how long the images have been there. It can be assumed that they had been there (Petrified or carved) before the Esie people settled there. In 1775 AD the people of Esie people saw the grove which housed these stone images. It was a fearful discovery. People approached the figures with fear because they looked like human figures but would not speak they took the shape of human beings but they were too small in size for normal human beings.

The Elesie of that time saw the figures and ran away out of fear. At this time of discovery, no human knowledge within Esie and its environment could say anything about these strange and fearful diminutive human-like figures that would not talk.

The Elesie consulted the Ifa oracle, who said that the figures were peaceful beings who could serve as guiding and guardian spirits for the people of Esie if they would offer some sacrifice to them at some scheduled periods of the year. It has been said that the Elesie of then fled when seeing the images. On this Ifa said that as from then, no incumbent Elesie should see the figures again as from the day of ascending the throne of Esie.

At the time of the discovery of the figures and the investigation from Ifa,” neither Christianity nor Islam was yet to be known anywhere in the area. Esie people worshipped different and many different objects as their gods. This was why Esie quickly informed people of other settlements around her of the discovery. Most of the people informed (particularly those on Elesie’s land) accepted to join in the worship of the image (Ere). They all accepted it as a deity with an established priest who is known as an Aworo. They recognized the Ere as the general overseer of the general welfare and well-being of all the people of Esie land. All the people of Esie land had specific things to represent to the Ere at the annual festival known as “Odun Ere” It was from here that the people of Esie took the praise song of Awa ni omo Elere Ajoobo.

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In 1937 a shelter was erected to protect the greatest treasure ever bequeathed to mankind. This shelter collapsed in 1944 because the people failed to maintain it. It was because of this collapse that make Nigeria government and the Elesie resolved that a permanent building be provided for images at its permanent site.

In 1945 the government built an octagonal building of concrete mud and corrugated iron sheet roofing to house the images from this year (1945) the Esie stone images became known as a museum and thus became the first National Museum in Nigeria.

In 1951 Mr. C. Murray became the Director of the Federal Department of Antiquities, Lagos. This is how the Esie stone images caught the attention and the interest of the outside world.

The images of Esie are the biggest group of stone sculptures made on such a large scale to survive in the African past.

Museum Authority may need to do more work of excavation, it has been observed that these pieces bear some familiarity with those at Ile-ife. Some items bear similarities with the “NOK culture”. Since all these were found at the Esie site it could be deduced that the artists who made them made the stone images too. However, the museum authority may need to do more work of excavation and research.

The discovery of Ere Esie at Peregun Grove exposed the town to the whole world and these stone images attracted a lot of foreigners among them were a widely traveled German expeditionary and an anthropologist, Leo Frobenius who visited the grove and collected some stone images. Also, H.G Ramshow, Milburn 1936, Daniel 1937, Clark 1938 and Murray 1951 visited the grove.

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The discovery of Ere Esie gave birth to the establishment of the Esie museum in 1945, this enabled the public who were not allowed to have access to the grove to have the opportunity to view and interact with the images. This also serves as an opportunity for students and researchers to have first-hand information in the Museum and also in some cases during the Ere Esie festival.

Ere Esie are endangered by a lot of external forces for example, Leo Frobenius who visited the grove collected three heads of the stone images and took them away to a foreign museum. A lot of visitors aim to steal the images because of their values. The issue of protecting and conserving the images from environmental and human activities is of concern for the managers of these treasure images.

Right from the time past, a lot of mythological stories have been written about this valuable piece of Art.

Some believed that the images were formerly human beings while some of the others think it was carved.

However, the motive behind the carving was not only religious but also social, cultural, political, agricultural, defensive, and entertainment. These were depicted in the various signs and marks found on marksofoundts. These signs and marks represented one aspect of the people’s activities.

I strongly believe that as a Nigerian we have a very rich culture and challenging past which are capable of spurring us into achieving greater things.

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