Anyone who studied history in Uganda is familiar with this picture; the Luzira Head.
A ghostly sepia-colored photograph of the Luzira Head has for decades graced the cover a high school history textbook called “The Incomplete, Inaccurate and Infuriatingly Inadequate History of Uganda from 1800.”
Okay, that’s not what it is called, but considering that I have had to relearn Uganda’s history despite studying it for 13 years, that’s what it should be called.
Although I always knew of the Luzira Head, it wasn’t until last week that I was made aware of what a fascinating piece of the history of the interlacustrine region it is. It is a mysterious piece of my country that is lost forever.
The Luzira Head is a terracotta pottery figure that was discovered in 1929 when a gang of prisoners was set to work on leveling the top of a hill within Luzira Prison. The prisoners were alarmed when they uncovered the clay figure of appeared to be a human face. On examination by a British police officer in charge of the prison, it was found to be a head of a pottery figure.
Continued excavation revealed fragments of other figures. The material recovered consisted almost entirely of ceramic figures and associated pottery fragments.
The most identifiable piece of the Luzira Head is the head itself. An archeological review of the Luzira head describes it thus: it is about 20 centimeters in height, formed from a sub-conical, inverted coil-built pot, onto which facial features have been added. The neck is lengthened and has been broken some 6cm from the vessel shoulder.
The external details of the head have been embossed with appliqué clay. They are swollen and bead-like eyes, a small and fine nose, mouth and chin, banding across the forehead, and extensive hair.
On top of the hair there is a flattened plug, possibly representing some form of decoration helping to bind the hair. Around the neck there are five or six bands with diagonal slashes which may represent necklaces.
No excavation of Luzira hill was conducted after the construction of Luzira Prison and so we can only imagine what wonders lie beneath the ground. Perhaps an archeological dig would have given clues into the people and the civilization behind the Luzira Head. Perhaps it could have uncovered Uganda’s own terracotta army.
In 1964 another unique terracotta statuette, the ‘Entebbe Figurine’ was found during the digging of garage foundations at the Geological Survey Department in Entebbe.
The Entebbe Figurine (on display in the Uganda Museum) is a clear phallic representation. The shaft of the column is decorated with loose incised bands similar to those found on the neck of the Luzira material. The testicles and the pronounced neck below the crest are covered in dots, similar to those on a figure fragment from Luzira.
In their essay, “A Context for the Luzira Head,” archeologists Andrew Reid and Ashley Ceri say it is possible that the Entebbe Figurine is neither as old as nor made by the same civilization behind the Luzira Head. They argue that collectively the pieces demonstrate important transformations that took place in the society, particularly around Lake Victoria, considering both Entebbe and Luzira are at the shores of the lake.
The public profile of the Luzira Head was great during colonial period. An image of the head and torso was selected as Uganda’s contribution to a 1967 issue of East African stamps celebrating the past.
However, this progress rapidly withered.
Reid and Ceri write that the Luzira Head did make an occasional appearance in more general literature in the late 1960s, for instance in Aloysius Muzzanganda Lugira’s publication, “Ganda Art.” During subsequent years in Uganda, educational and cultural understandings remained static and new ideas remained unexplored as the state gradually disintegrated.
Former curator of the Uganda Museum, Merrick Posnansky, attempted for many years to repatriate the Luzira Head to Uganda. He argued that the lack of awareness regarding the figurines was caused by their removal from the African continent.
In 1986 when Yoweri Museveni took over power, there was a resurgence in archeology in Uganda. However the Luzira collection has been omitted from archaeological discourse both in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa.
So where did the Luzira Head come from and are there any more?
No one knows. Archeologists think it may have origins in iron-smelting regions of Buyaya in Tanzania or the wider Urewe culture.
There are similarities between the Luzira Head and Lydenburg Heads of South Africa. Like the Luzira collection, the Lydenburg Heads are hollow ceramic heads. They are similar in their basic form, protruding facial features and neck decorations. The Lydenburg Heads date back to the 9th or 10th centuries – possibly the age of the Luzira Head.
It is extremely improbable that the Luzira Head and the Entebbe Figurine are unique. But we will never know for sure.
The housing boom in Luzira and Entebbe and the large scale excavation of land by motorized earth movers means that other clues into these figures have possibly been destroyed. A small part of our history lies smashed and forgotten forever.