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Keeper of the stones: UB professor to be honored by Nigerian village for preserving mysterious carvings

A UB professor who has spent years working to document, preserve and protect a trove mysterious soapstone carvings near a village in western Nigeria will return to the village at the end of this month for an elaborate ceremony in which he will be named an honorary chief of the kingdom.

Phillips Stevens Jr., an associate professor of anthropology who has worked at UB since 1971, will be named Chief Erewumi of Esie Kingdom, a title that includes the name local residents gave him in the mid-1960s, during his first stay in Nigeria. "After I had been there many months and made strong friendships," says Stevens, he was dubbed "Erewumi," which roughly translates as "he gets along with the images." Stevens will receive the honor on the final day of a three-day celebration marking the silver jubilee of the king of Esie.

Stevens joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Yale University in 1963 and was sent to Nigeria to teach high school English. During a long school holiday, he landed an internship at the Nigerian Museum, part of the Department of Antiquities. It was there that he learned of the endangered and mysterious stone images of Esie.

Up until 1937, the captivating images stood in a grove, arranged in a semicircle around a large palm tree, with a statue identified as the king in the center. "This is one of Africa's great mysteries, an amazing collection, and some of the sculpture is really, really fine," said Stevens in an interview in his book-filled office in the Ellicott Complex on the UB North campus. "And it's just sitting out in the bush, silent and endangered."

Local people had known about the 800 to 1,000 images for about a century before officials of the British colonial government learned about them. The statues, an impressive sight in the few photos from the early days, form an almost eerie crowd of men, women, children and animals, ranging in height from about 5 inches to more than 3 feet. They exhibit a variety of distinctive hairdos and headpieces, jewelry, clothing and facial features, sometimes including traditional tribal scars. Some are holding weapons, including cutlasses, a shield, bow or arrows, or implements of daily life, including food, large vessels and musical instruments. One, possibly a blacksmith, holds a flat anvil-like object and a hammer. A few are kneeling, but most are seated on stools of various designs.

The people of Esie say that they did not create the figures, and that they are "the petrified remains of visitors from afar."

"There was a lot of intertribal warfare in the 19th century, a lot of internal migration, and the people who live in Esie today came there after the images were made," says Stevens. "They had nothing to do with the images," which Stevens estimates were carved around 1100.

The people revered the images, especially the one they identified as the king, which was stained with the blood of animal sacrifices. In 1965, Stevens documented one worship ceremony carried out by a cult that called themselves "the children of the images," but says that worship of the images has now died out.

When they were discovered in the 1930s, some of the images were half-buried, overgrown with vegetation or damaged. After some negotiation with local residents, who opposed having the images moved, in 1937 the government had a shelter built to protect "the best of the figures," including the king. This shelter collapsed in 1944 and was replaced by a second shelter, which did little to protect the images from theft or damage.

The figures had never been cataloged, making stolen pieces impossible to trace. "If a piece showed up in Europe there would be no way of tracing it back," said Stevens.

After beginning work on the images, Stevens was granted a transfer from his teaching work to the project in Esie.

By the time Stevens saw them, most of the images had been damaged, suffering chips, broken-off limbs and decapitations. "Soapstone is very fragile, and if one falls over it breaks," said Stevens. But, he said, "A lot of them also seem to have been the victims of intentional damage, with the faces of some chopped.

"There may have been a swoop of Muslim influence through the area in the mid-19th century, and Muslims are opposed to making images. That is speculation. Or it may have been the result of tribal warfare; people might have believed that these images had power and they embodied the power of this tribe and one way to get at the tribe is to destroy their images, but this is speculation too."

Armed with a camera, tripod and plain backdrop, Stevens photographed and cataloged every figure, including hundreds of heads, some of which were made without bodies. He also documented the features of every figure or fragment, including the shape of decorations on caps, braided or shaved hair, jewelry, posture, placement of hands, facial features and descriptions of the stools on which most sat. "My job was to make a catalog of this collection, which was very vulnerable to theft and to damage," he says.

He also repaired many of the figures, reuniting heads with the correct bodies and replacing limbs. "During that process, we agreed that the old structure, which was called the House of Images, had to be replaced, because it was falling down," Stevens says.

In the 15 months he spent working on the project in Esie from 1965 to 1966, Stevens supervised the construction of a modern, protected museum for the images.

After his assignment with the Peace Corps ended, Stevens returned to the United States in 1966 and entered the graduate program in anthropology at Northwestern University. In the spring of 1969, he was hired by UB to fill in for a faculty member who had died. "UB liked me and invited me to return, and so they held a slot open for me" while he did research for his dissertation in Nigeria from 1969 to 1971, he said. He resumed work at UB in 1971 and received his doctorate in 1973.

Stevens returned to Nigeria for two months in 1974 at the invitation of the Department of Antiquities to take more photos of the images and to investigate the possible origin of the figures.

After studying the soapstone used to make the figures and comparing it with samples from other areas, Stevens focused on a large tract of uninhabited land to the west of Esie, the site of the ancient kingdom of Oyo, "which served as the headquarters of all the Yoruba people until it was overrun by marauders in the 19th century and abandoned," he said.

The fact that the images reflect influences from many cultures, Stevens says, "suggests to me that this represented a kingdom with wide influence, so my Oyo speculation is a good one, I think. My hypothesis was that a group fleeing from this ancient kingdom carried these sacred objects, which may have embodied the fortunes of the kingdom."

Stevens' 400-page book, "The Stone Images of Esie, Nigeria," published in 1978, remains the definitive text on the statues.

Since its publication, thousands of people have visited Esie to see the figures.

On a quick visit to Esie in 1994, Stevens met the traditional king, Alhaji Yakybu Babalola, who holds the title of Elesie, or "the one who is in charge of Esie." The king had been installed in 1987.

Five years ago, a group of people who had immigrated to the United States and Canada from Esie suggested that Stevens be given the title of honorary chief as part of the festivities planned for the Elesie's 20th anniversary, but the timing was too short and Stevens was not able to travel to Nigeria. In June, the group asked him again and he accepted. Stevens was able to meet with the king in July when the ruler was attending conferences in Washington, D.C., and staying with his daughter in Baltimore.

After many phone conversations back and forth, "little by little, things are getting ready for my departure," said Stevens. He has provided measurements for a traditional Yoruba men's suit that he will wear during the ceremony, including a cap, loose trousers and shirt that will be worn under a poncho-like robe called an agbada. The suit will likely be made of fine material and richly embroidered, due to the honor he will receive.

Stevens plans to bring a handsome statue of a charging American buffalo with an inscribed plaque as a gift for the king. He is pleased with the image, which not only embodies the name of the city where he lives, but is also a powerful symbol fit for a ruler.

Phillips Stevens Jr., an associate professor of Anthropology, holds the custom-inscribed buffalo statue he plans to present to the traditional king of Esie, the Nigerian town where the unique soapstone figures were found. (Buffalo News file photo)

The commendation for Stevens is not only prestigious for him, but also reflects well on the university, says the chairman of his department.

"Professor Stevens is a role model for anthropology today, presenting this truly global discipline that provides knowledge, skills and tools to work with people and their cultural heritage of the past and present to shape the future," said Peter Biehl, an associate professor and chairman of the Anthropology Department.

After the ceremony, the new Chief Erewumi of Esie Kingdom will return to work at UB, where he spent two decades as director of Undergraduate Studies until last year. In addition to teaching classes, including a popular course in the anthropology of magic, sorcery and witchcraft, Stevens has written many pieces on cultural anthropology and African studies, and received two awards for excellence in teaching. He is completing a book titled, "Magic and Witchcraft: Inherently Human."

He has transferred some of his old slides into digital form to prepare for a lecture he will give when he returns.

Stevens is looking forward to the trip and seeing people he remembers. He will fly to Nigeria with a man from Esie whose uncle worked with Stevens in the 1960s and became caretaker of the images' museum. "His uncle is now dead but his widow, the aunt of the fellow I am traveling with, tells him that she remembers me and she is looking forward to seeing me."

Stevens says, "It will be a nice reunion. And the images will be glad to see me too."