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Staff showing a military commander on horseback

Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria
18th century
Artist Unidentified


Height x width: 16 x 4 in. (40.6 x 10.2 cm)

Accession Number

L-G 7.16.2012

Medium or Technique


On View

Benin Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 172)


Africa and Oceania, Musical Instruments



Every aspect of this artwork speaks of luxury. The finely dressed figure is riding a horse–an animal that was expensive and difficult to maintain in Benin’s tropical climate. The carefully worked passages on his clothing and headgear give a sense of the heavy beadwork and layers of rich cloth that make up his ensemble. Many students of Benin history believe that a figure wearing this particular type of headgear is the highest military commander (Iyase) of Benin’s army, who often acquired great riches in his appointed role. Although ivory is now considered a precious material, it was readily available in the 17th and 18th centuries in Benin, but its use was restricted by the Oba, or king. During this period, the Oba gave high-ranking courtiers permission to commission ivory ornaments and staffs like this one from the royal ivory carvers’ guild. Similar to more common bronze staffs with the bird of prophesy, this staff was once carried and struck during the annual Ugie Oro celebration, which commemorates Oba Esigie’s success over the Idah in 1517.


18th century, probably commissioned from the Igbesanmwan, or royal ivory carvers guild, by a member of the court of Benin. 1897, taken from the Royal Palace, Benin City, during the British military occupation of Benin. April 4, 1898, sale, J. C. Stevens Auction Rooms, London, lot 155, sold for £ 25.70 to Lt.-General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers (b. 1827 - d. 1900), Farnham, England; until the 1960s, kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, and passed by descent within the family [see note]; 1970s, sold upon the dispersal of the collection. By 2011, Robert Owen Lehman, Rochester, NY; 2012, promised gift of Robert Owen Lehman to the MFA.

The collection of the privately-owned Pitt-Rivers museum passed by descent through Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers’s son Alexander Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers to his grandson, Captain George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966) and his common law wife, Stella Howson-Clive (Pitt-Rivers). The museum closed in the 1960s and the collection was sold.

Credit Line

Robert Owen Lehman Collection