The digital rescue of the Akwanshi stelae in Nigeria


More than 250 cut stones, probably dating from the beginning of our era, constitute an exceptional endangered heritage. In south-eastern Nigeria, Akwanshi stelae are being screened with advanced technology to understand their symbolic significance and, most importantly, to ensure their conservation.

Phallic in shape, their appearance evokes figures with joined arms, hands sometimes crossed on their stomachs, bearing decorative marks, even scarifications. These monoliths, carved mainly in basalts, more rarely in limestones, make up a unique megalithic landscape in south-eastern Nigeria, registered since 2008 on the indicative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. 1 to 2 meters high, their base deeply buried in the ground, these stelae are called akwanshi by the Nta, atal (long stones) by the Abanyom, or even bakor by other local communities.

So many names which mean „death in the earth“ for some or „stones of genius“ for others. This treasure, still unknown in the West, was to be the subject in November of a long-awaited exhibition at the British Museum, in London (United Kingdom), which was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also to be presented was a vast new program of digitization which itself was not interrupted. It is led by the Briton Ferdinand Saumarez Smith, curator at the Factum Arte Foundation, based in Madrid (Spain), in partnership with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) and the University of Calabar (Unical), the capital of the Nigerian State of Cross River. The foundation, which notably produced the facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt is in fact specialized in the application of advanced technologies to the conservation of endangered historical heritage.