Have you ever heard of the carved monoliths? These precious blocks of stones are found in the Cross River basin area now known as Cross River State. Historically, the area once served as the capital of Nigeria before it was moved to Lagos in 1914.
In 1940 under the colonial administration of Sir Richardson constitution, it was named eastern region and was later zoned under south eastern region 1967 when General Yakubu Gowon created 12 states. In 1976 Cross River was among the 19 states created by late General Murtala Muhammed. Cross River is a multi–lingua ethnic society which comprises of 16 local government areas. Efik is the major spoken language among the cross river people.
By definition, monolith is a single upright block of stone (as a pillar or monument) that was shaped into column by people living in ancient time that have some religious meaning. It is slow to change. The monolith is believed to represent the ancestors that has been in existence over two thousand (2, 000) years. It tells the story of the origin of the people as well as the significance of facial and body marks. It also tells the story of the belief system of their time, especially about procreation and fertility which is illustrated on the shape and marking of different genders.
These carved stones found in the middle of Cross River among the Ejagham people locally called Akwanshi or Atal were found across thirty communities. The stones are erected in circles standing in other to prevent them from being tampered with by the weather or human activities. They are found in strategic places such as meeting points in the community or in secret shrines.
According to oral history, it is the ancestors of Ekoi people that put the stones where they are. It is also believed that the stones are gotten out of the river were smooth by water but the ancestors only cut out the faces with stones and iron. Each faces representing one of the dead chiefs whose names are not known.
According to the Ekoi people, who live in various villages, there is a sole spiritual head or chief priest called Ntoon, thus, when he dies, he is also represented in Carved Basalt Monolith (Akwanshi).
Over 300 monolith carved from basalt in this style were created in Cross River between 200 and 1900 A. D. These lithic monuments which vary in sizes ranging from two to over six feet in height are usually found in circular group facing inward. The images of human features on the addition, the scale, number and arrangement of Cross River monolith distinguished them from other grouping of an anthropomorphic sculpture like the Esie soapstone images.
Since the first discovery of the monolith in 1903, the origin has remained a mystery, their date of execution and their purposes. It is believed among the Ekoi people that the spirit of the dead returns to live in the stone and also another oral tradition states that the monolith or Akwanshi were carved between the 16th and 20th century A.D. There are several sites in which monolith or Akwanshi is located in Ikom area of Cross River State among the main sites are as follows: Abayong, Agba, Akumabal etc.
Though this object has played an important role in the ritual of successive generations of members of local communities. They may represent the spirit of the deceased ancestor. It is also possible that they were created as memorials to important figures. The other version maintains that the stones were created by spiritual powers and emerged out of the ground like trees. It is difficult to ascertain which version of the story is authentic and acceptable.
They are different sizes, the Monoliths are decorated with geometric designs and stylised human features, noticeable eyes and open mouth, others have heads with rings, stylised pointed beards and elaborate marks navels, two decorative hands with five fingers, nose decorated with various shapes of facial marks.
The geometric design on these images of the monolith perhaps show that the maker had basic calculations while some also believe that it is the method of Nsibidi writing.
The Monolith have eyes, nose, mouth, beards and naval portrayed as well as ears, hands, arms, breast and geometric decorations (some of which represent tribal marks). Though the carvings ends at the naval but the beard is an indication that they are all male.
Some monolith, especially those of the Etina have the neck groove shallower which arms, hands and surface decoration are added. Some also look unusual in lacking a sculptured navel, while others have massive leads on the faces which bears the diagonal cheek marks. At Nkrigor (Nselle), there are Akwanshi that have open mouth wedge, shaped beard and protruding naval as well as facial marks.
Basaltic stone monolith have been found almost exclusively in the five villages of Nnams, Nselle, Abaanyom, Nde and Akaju, which are located in the middle of the Cross river area of Nigeria and who speak Bakor, a sub-dialect of the large linguistic group known as Ekoi or Ejagham. The monoliths were first discovered by Charles Partidge in 1905 in the Nnam Village of Alok but by 1968, Philip Allison had listed over fhundred mostly arranged in circles in abandoned villages.
According to Ekpo Eyo, monolith or Akwanshi stone can be found in cluster and some of them feature in their annual new yam festival which represents their dead ancestors more especially, legendary figures.
Monolith or Akwanshi stones are found in Cross River central upward to the northern part of the state. It has played a significant role in the life of the people, such as ancestral worship which protect and provide for the common man who believed in this ancestral cult. The stone has been distributed far beyond the area where it was first carved.
These monoliths became crafts for the people of Cross River State therefore provided a means of livelihood. Also, the stone carving became an important trade among them that is why they are found nearly every meeting point of the villages.
Just like other parts of the country such as Esie, Ife, Igbajo etc. who believed in stone carving that represent their ancestors, who provides and protects them at the time of difficulty.