Historical Fiction

Everyday objects from the Benin empire

I was scrolling through my laptop yesterday when I came across these images. Once upon a time, I was trying to write steampunk set in the Benin empire. These images show that I took my research very seriously. I couldn’t remember where I found the images so did a reverse image search on Google.

For the keys below, my first source could either have been Ukpuru on tumblr or the EgyptSearch Forums…I’m leaning on the latter. Further clicking leads to our friend the British Museum.

benin key 2
Sketch of a key from Benin dated “Benin City Expedition 1897”


benin keys
Photo of two keys, likely from the British Museum


benin lock and key mechanism
Illustration to show how the keys worked

Here are the curator’s comments from the link above,

A variety of brass keys are still used to lock palace rooms where valuable objects such as the king’s regalia are stored. They are also employed to secure palace shrines, and especially those large quadrangles – only one of many still exists – more publicly accessible and that contain carved ivories, staffs, and cast brass objects. The key holder knocks three times on the large timbered door to ensure that the spirits of the deceased are awake, inserts the key and with a twist, lifts the hook off its latch. This releases the bolt that locked the door. The hooks operate in much the same way as the cast keys. Inserted at an angle, the hook key catches the slide and lifts it, the hooked part of the key holds the slide securely and ensures that the slide does not fall to the ground.
Locks of a more conventional padlock type also existed. Insertion of a key into the side of the lock released a mechanism that held the padlock together. Made of brass, these padlocks often had designs of the king, chiefs, or other court dignitaries, and various animals making them decorative and symbolic at the same time…Read more

Then there are these lamps…just look at the detail!

benin hand lamp
A sketch of a Benin hand lamp

Can’t read the small print?  Don’t worry

FIG. 126. A Benin Hand-Lamp. Every arm has a different design (see Fig. 122) and is about half and inch or 12 mm. wide; two of the arms are cracked and have been rivetted together by means of pieces of brass plate (a) and copper rivets (b). The diameter of the pan is about 15 inches (38 centimetres). It will be observed that the two hawkbells depending above the mannikins are of different pattern from those handing on the snuffer fig. 127, the ornamentation being zigzag on one of the two and arched on the other. I have elsewhere pointed out that one of the dominant features of Benin art is its variety. “All the gentry had these lamps. Palm oil was put in the pan, and a piece of raw cotton wool placed on the edge of the pan served as a wick; a small flat piece of iron was placed on the top of the wick to prevent the oil all taking fire at once. Fig, 127 shows the implement used for snuffing and picking up the cotton wool. The open compounds at night, full of people and lit up with these lamps, were very striking” (C, Punch)

Here’s another lamp (I think, I save the image as “cubical metal lamp with handle chain hook for suspension” but it may be a burner for incense). This must have been hung on walls.

cubical metal lamp with handle chain hook for suspension

See why I get pissed when I read historical novels that have people walking around in the forest/town in the darkness. If “all the gentry” had lamps like these, these writers who shall not be named can do better.

I’d saved more images, like

ekpokin gift box for ceremonial presentations
This Ekpokin gift box
vessel for storage
A random vessel for storing what, I don’t know. It actually looks like the storage vessels they sell at the Arts and Crafts village in Abuja. Those ones can be carried over the shoulder and were apparently used by hunters when venturing into the forest to store random things.
wooden box benin
This lovely wooden box
Even a mirror

Anyone in the know knows that the Benin empire was all shades of amazeballs but stumbling across these photos sharpened my imaginings of how people there may have lived centuries ago.

For more everyday objects, check out the Iyare exhibition. I was especially interested in the hairpins and bracelets worn by the royal women.

I may have to do another photo series on Benin as I have many more images —of warriors and architecture especially.


  1. Awesome images. I treasure you blog. I always find fascinating things when I visit.

    PS: Please write your steampunk novel. I’ll be first in line to read it. 😀

  2. As a long time lurker, I have to say that I really appreciate your work. I have always been so interested in continental Africans speaking about their own history ever since finding the work of Dr. Cheikh anta Diop. It seems that people like him (folks who are methodological, scientific, yet deeply part of the culture they seek to study -ie Drs. Theophile Obenga, Ifi Amadiume, Oyeronke Oyewumi, K. Kia Bunseki Fu-kiau, and more) always find the most interesting, hard hitting primary sources and angles from which to research.

    Do you go to local museums? I often wonder how often people in general and Africans specifically go from day to day with a veritable mountain of antiquities that they never bother to learn about. I seriously want to go to Africa one day, probably Nigeria specifically (and of course Egypt), to go museum hopping. Hopefully all of the best things to see and learn about have not been stolen off of the continent.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for all of your work over the years.

    1. Hello!

      Thanks for reading my blog and for leaving this comment! I’m sorry it took me half a year to respond

      I agree that researchers such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Oyeronke Oyewumi seem to find the most interesting stuff. I’ve also found interesting perspectives when Diasporic Africans research into African history. Lorelle Semley for instance, brought some very fascinating perspectives on Yoruba women in Benin and Brazil.

      Unfortunately, local museums in Nigeria aren’t the best when they exist. As you might expect, a lot of Africans go about without bothering to learn about these antiquities. In worst case scenarios, these antiquities are destroyed…in other cases, they are sold and end up in the private collections of wealthy (I always assume) white people.

      I hope you get to visit too! If you decide Nigeria, feel free to reach out to me.

      Thank you for your support!

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