Merton D. Simpson, New York
Werner Muensterberger, New York, acquired from the above on March 29, 1973
Werner Gillon, Collecting African Art, New York, 1979, p. 57, fig. 48
Anthony Atmore and Gillian Stacey, Black Kingdoms, Black Peoples. The West African Heritage, London, 1979, p. 8
George Nelson Preston, "Dr. Werner Muensterberger", Tribal Arts Magazine, No. 39, Autumn/Winter 2005, p. 117, fig. 2
Stone sculptures like this magnificent head from the Muensterberger Collection are the only remnants of a vanished cultural empire that existed centuries ago in the area of present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia. William Siegmann (1943-2011), the leading scholar for the ancient arts of Sierra Leone and Liberia, considered the Muensterberger Head as the greatest masterpiece of this culture. In an unpublished essay for Sotheby's (2008), Siegmann noted: "Over that past century and a half, numerous stone carvings have been found in the southeastern part of Sierra Leone between the Sewa and Mano river basins, and stretching between the coast and the border with Guinea as well as in adjacent portions of Liberia. The earliest direct references to stone carvings in the region of Sierra Leone and western Liberia are found in the writings of a British missionary George Thompson in 1852 (George Thompson, Thompson in Africa: or an Account of the Missionary Labors, Sufferings, Travels and Observations, of George Thompson in Western Africa, at the Mendi Mission, New York, 1852, p. 289). He reported finding a group of five of them located at the base of a tree. All were broken or damaged, whether deliberately or accidentally is not clear. When he asked the local chiefs where they came from, the chiefs told him that 'We don't know; but suppose they grew - nobody among us now can make such things.'
"Ever since Thompson's report, there has been speculation about the origin and age of such stone figures. They have been found over a wide area of Sierra Leone and western Liberia, primarily between the Moa and St. Paul Rivers. We can say 'found' since none of the current inhabitants claim to know anything about who made the pieces and indeed virtually all of the pieces are acquired by farmers clearing their fields for planting, well diggers, or by diamond miners. In principle, therefore, all of the stones are archaeological relics. Regrettably, not a single documented instance has been reported of a scientific excavation of one of these pieces and all are essentially 'accidental' finds.
"They are found in areas now inhabited by a number of different ethnic groups who call them by different terms depending on their own language. The Mende, who today inhabit the largest portion of the region in which they are found, generally refer to them as nomoli meaning 'found spirit' (nomolisia, pl.). A sub-group of stone heads with pedestal-like necks without a body and commonly nearly life sized are referred to as Mahen Yafe or 'head of the chief' [...].
"It is generally accepted that the makers of these objects were rarely from the populations that now inhabit the region. Only in areas now inhabited by the Kissi is there any indication that these figures might have been carved by the ethnic groups that currently inhabit the areas. Moreover, there are no indications in the early Portuguese or Dutch accounts of the coast that there was a stone carving tradition active on the coast at the time of early European contact. This region has undergone significant population movements and social change in the last five centuries due to migration of Mande speaking groups from the north, the social disruption of the slave trade, and a significant amount of warfare during these centuries. It is possible that these disruptions are responsible for the discontinuation of the stone carving tradition.
"In the last two decades several wooden figures and terracotta heads in styles relating to the stone carvings have been found. So far only one of these pieces, a wooden figure, has been dated. Carbon[-14] dating gives a period of manufacture between 1200 and 1400 with a high degree of probability. Thus the current thought on the subjects is that these stone carvings were likely made by populations ancestral to the Bullom, Sherbro and Kissi and most likely date from a period well before the arrival of Europeans in 1463."
The Muensterberger Head is distinguished by its compact elliptical form and highly developed style that brings to mind the ivory carvings produced by Sapi artists between the 15th and 16th centuries on commission for Portuguese merchants. Cf. Bassani and Fagg (1988: passim).
In his discussion of another stone head of closely related iconography, Siegmann (in Schmalenbach 1988: 105) notes: "Evidence suggests that [Mahen Yafe heads] were originally made by the Sapi. They usually have elaborate coiffures, often, as in this case, showing a combination of shaved, tufted, and possibly plaited areas. Similar hair styles are described in early seventeenth-century sources, where they are apparently associated with the Sapi aristocracy. The elaborate jewelry, including earrings and nose rings, is also similar to that described in these sources. Although many of [Sapi stone heads] appear bound and gagged, it is unlikely that they represent sacrificial victims, as was previously thought; rather, they are probably chiefs ritually bound at the time of their installation - a practice still observed among the Temne, who are descendants of the Sapi."
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