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18 August 2010
Looting and neglect threaten Nigerian monoliths

The Cross River State of Nigeria holds a piece of the history of humanity that may soon disappear. Over 300 upright stones placed more than 4000 years ago are being lost to theft and decay. The Ikom Monoliths are 1-2 meters tall and carry elaborate carvings of faces and geometric figures. The images have not been decoded, but may be a form of prehistoric writing. The monoliths, most volcanic stone, are usually found placed in circles facing each other. Also know as Akwanshi, meaning "dead people" in one native dialect, the stones are  part of traditional local funerary rites
    At one time, there were over 450 of the Ikom Monoliths counted at 34 sites around the country. A current census has found only 119. There have been many reports of thefts and looting of the monoliths, but the police have recovered very few of the objects that were stolen. Since the stones weigh between 50 and 800 kg, it is not easy to remove them. But the outdoor sites have very little protection or supervision. At the Alok Open Air Museum, 30 of the stones are protected by 7 staff members. In 2006, due to budget cuts in the Federal Civil Service, their positions were eliminated. The Cross River State Governor was alerted to the danger of looters, and he restored the funding. He also initiated the construction of a fence around the site. But other locations of the stone cirlces are still at high risk. Emangabe has only a partial wall and Nkirigum is completely accessible and unprotected. Local and federal laws are in place that criminalize removal of the artifacts. But the destruction of the Nigerian economy has made the estimated $50,000 value of the stones an irresistable prize for some thieves. And the laws that do exist are, in many cases, not strictly enforced. Looters at some locations run little risk of discovery or prosecution.
     In 1992, Chief Sylvanus Akong who heads the Alok Open Air Museum, described the constant battle waged with looters. "Thieves once came here at night and carted away some priceless antiquities. We managed to recover some, but not all. But, two monoliths were recovered".
     In 2007, UNESCO and the World Monument Fund placed the Ikom Megaliths on the Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. This was something of an embarrassment to the Nigerian government. Other World Heritage sites in the country have also been plagued with mismanagement and corruption.
     The stones are also in danger from fungus and plant growth. There are limited resources for clearing the weeds and plants that grown up around the monoliths. At Alok Circle, microbes have covered the monuments with a corrosive white dust. In addition, local people sometimes set fire to the stones while clearing land for cultivation.

Source: The Sun News Online (5 August 2010)

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