Weaving the Fabric of Archaeological Research in Ugwuele-Uturu Stone Age Site of South-Eastern Nigeria


Dr. L. C. Ekechukwu

Department of Archaeology and Tourism University of Nigeria, Nsukka 08035487765





Mr. C. S. Agu

Department of Archaeology and Tourism, University of Nigeria, Nsukka 08034825914





The prehistoric site of Ugwuele in Uturu of Abia State was discovered about three decades ago. The state of euphoria associated with this spectacular discovery fuelled a lot of research interest on the site at the initial stages. With the passage of time, however,  the research interest could not be sustained, probably due to a number of seemingly difficult obstacles that needed to be crossed, to enable the original intertia to be regained. In this paper, therefore, we  shall attempt to re-visit the site in order to appraise the progress of work by the Pioneer researchers and also suggest ways of mustering support for research to continue at the site in order to save it from the threats of destruction from other competing interests.


History and Nature of the Site:

The Ugwuele Stone Age site is the earliest prehistoric site in South-eastern; Ugwuele is one of the villages in Uturu town in Isuikwuato Local Government Area of Abia State, Nigeria. Uturu is located 10 km east of Okigwe on the Okigwe/Afikpo road while the Ugwuele is about 7 km north of the Hopeville Rehabilitation centre and schools which become visible immediately one enters Uturu from the Abia State University road junction.  The site was acquired in 1977 by  a construction company, Ozigbo Engineering Company, for the exploitation of dolerite, a hard basic igneous rock which when crushed was used as aggregates for building and road construction (Anozie et al 1978, Anozie 1979; 1985).  Information about the site (5° 53‘ N, 7° 26‘E was first received in October 1977, when Mrs. Mercy Emezie, a geography student of the University visited the site and saw many stone flakes scattered over a large area. Puzzled by the flakes, she picked up  a few and brought them to her Professor, G. E. K. Ofomata, who suspected that the flakes were of archaeological interest and sent some to the Archaeology Laboratory of the University of Nigeria  Nsukka. On examining the flakes, they were found to have well-defined bulbs of percussion and therefore man-made.

A visit was quickly arranged since information from the student who made the chance find was that the construction company had already started quarrying at the site since they had obtained a mining lease to do so. When the team of archaeologists from the University arrived at the site they found several hundred piles of artifacts made up of flakes, cores, handaxes, cleavers, picks, etc, near a crushing machine while some had already been crushed (Anozie, et al 1978). A report of the finds was made to the Director of the Federal Department of Antiquities (now National Commission for Museums and Monuments), and to Professor A. E. Afigbo, member for Anambra and Imo States on the National Antiquities Commission. When the Directors of the company were approached they showed understanding by allowing some of the artifacts to be collected for  the  University Museum and also agreed upon request, to reserve two portions of the site for detailed archaeological study. Since the site was under threat, a rescue excavation was conducted in 1978 on the unreserved area to collect as much information as possible about the site. This was done in  the  belief that some vital information that could lead to the proper reconstruction of the history of the site could be gleaned from the unreserved area.

The site is situated on a ridge at the scarp-foot of the Awgu Escarpment while the dip-slope of the escarpment is dissected by fast- flowing streams with deeply incised valleys producing a rugged sand- stone terrain (Anozie et al 1978). The scarp face is  composed  of a 300m thick and steep sandstone wall. The foot of the scarp  is  composed of a plain underlain by folded Lower Cretaceous shale. A line  of perennial  springs rise  roughly at  the  sandstone/shale interface and sprawl through shallow valleys northwards to the Cross River (Anozie, et al, 1978). Igneous intrusions of doleritic and dioritic composition emplaced close to the crest of the anticlines of the fold were exposed during geomorphic processes of Late Tertiary to Pleistocened time. These now stand as low highlands above the Cross River Plain. The dolerite ridge which is exposed to the north of Ugwuele is very fine grained and when struck, the rock fractures conchoidally producing a sharp edge. This made the Ugwuele rock  very suitable for tool-making than others in the area.  The Ugwuele  rock occurs in boulders and these served as the source of raw materials for the stone axe factory in the area.

A number of factors have combined to make the site attractive  to Early men. The first is the location of the site at the foot of the Awgu Escarpment surrounded by several perennial springs that flow into the Cross River. Water was very important to early men as it was to the animals they hunted for food, so they camped near a river or lake so as to drink at will and to lie in wait for the animals that came to drink. Many geographical reports (Grove 1951, Farrington, 1952) show that the site is situated at the northern edge of the forest, but its present vegetation is derived savanna due to human interference.  The  dominant grasses in the area are Pennisetum purpureum and Andropogon sp. with a sprinkling of other grasses such as Imperata cylindrical. A few tree species, including the oil-palm and Phyllanthus discoideous are scattered over the area (Anozie, et al; 1978).

The situation of the site within the forest-savanna ecotone made it ideal as the early man could exploit the resources of the two habitats. The third factor is that the doleritic rock at Ugwuele is exposed and occurs in boulders of various sizes thus making it easily accessible to the tool makers. Another important factor is that the whole of Igboland lack suitable rocks for tool-making as the country rocks are mainly shale and sandstone which are very unsuitable for the manufacture of stone tools. However, the Ugwuele dolerite  is  fine-grained,  heavy, hard and produces flakes with sharp edges. It was probably the best material for the manufacturing of stone tools in South Eastern Nigeria and the site has been described as perhaps the largest stone axe factory in the world (Anozie 2002). Unlike other Acheulian sites in Nigeria such as Mai-Idon-Toro, Nok and Pingell (Anozie 1975) all on or near the Jos Plateau, where the materials were found in river terraces with most of the tools slightly water worn, suggesting that they were transported   from  elsewhere,   the   Ugwuele   site   is stratigraphically sealed. There is every possibility, therefore, that many facts associated with the way of life of early man in Africa could be preserved there.




(Source: Anozie et al. 1978)


FIG. 1 Map showing the position of the Ugwuele site and geological cross-section.




(Source: Anozie et al. 1978)


FIG. 2   Geology of the Ugwuele locality



As pointed out above, a rescue excavation was carried out over an eight week period between November, 1977 and March 1978 and was directed by F.N. Anozie. During the excavation two test pits of 2m by 2m each and two trenches of 6m by 2m each were dug. These  rescue excavations were concentrated in the Zone on the   north-eastern flank of the ridge which was subsequently destroyed (Anozie, 1982 and 1983). The two test pits were dug near the top of the ridge, to a depth  of 20 cm and 1.8 metres respectively. The test trenches I  and  II attained a depth of 6 metres and 3.4 metres, respectively. In test trench 1, which was dug to a depth of 6 metres, the last 1 metre was largely occupied by dolerite boulders (Anozie, 1982; Allsworth-Jones, 1987).

The site was further excavated in February 1981 by a joint party from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the University of Ibadan, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (Anozie et al, 1978: Anozie, 1982, 1983, Andah and Derefaka 1983).  The joint part  in 1981 also dug three test pits on the northern slope of the ridge in archaeological reserve 1. As in the 1977-1978 rescue excavations, the excavation at the top of the ridge produced nothing and it was therefore not numbered by the excavators. However, test pits 1 and 2, which produced artifacts, were taken to a depth of 90 cm and 80 cm respectively (Allsworth-Jones, 1987). The joint  party  made stratigraphic observations by stating that the walls of archaeological reserve II formed a kind of ―island‖ left behind by the company at the north-eastern end of the ridge. Anozie observed the remains of an extensive hearth at a depth of 1.2 metres in his test trench II. Some charcoal samples from this hearth were sent to Groningen for C-14 dating. The joint party that excavated the site in 1981 was able to make some distinctions in the succession that was revealed at archaeological reserve II.  The stratigraphic succession is as follows:

    1. a dark brown topsoil, up to 30 cm thick, containing artifacts;

(b) reddish-brown deposit, 2-2.5 metres thick, ‗marked by several horizontal lines of artifacts alternating with clay lenses‘;

(c) mottled strong brown deposit, 3 metres thick, more homogenous, but still with artifacts, above;

    1. dolerite boulders and bedrock (Andah and Derefaka, 1983; Allsworth-Jones, 1987).


Analysis and Interpretation of Finds:

The artifacts recovered from the site include handaxes and cleavers which were few in number, picks, side scrapers and a variety  of flakes and cores. The principal tool found at the site however was  the handaxe which was of various forms and sizes. Three categories/types of handaxe were identified and they are:

  1. a heavy crude type with average max. Length 32 cm, max.  Width  17  cm,  max.  thickness  10  cm  and max. weight 6 kg. It is flaked all over the body by stone hammer. Some of the flake scars are very deep and the edges are irregular and sinuous;
  1. a well finished typed (Fig I) with shallow flake scars and straight edges, with average max. length 17 cm, width 9 cm, thickness 4cm and weight 1 kg. This  type  constitute over 70% of the handaxe collected;
  2. A small cordiform type (Figs 2 and 3) well finished with thin and straight edges with max. length, 11 cm.,   width 8.5 cm., thickness 3 cm., and weight 0.8 kg. Several miniature bifaces that are not cordiform were also collected (Anozie, et a, 1978).


The cleavers recovered are few. They are triangular in cross- section and made on specially prepared flakes (fig 4). The picks are pointed and massive. Analysis shows that some of the flakes were struck from cores prepared so that flake form and size was predetermined. The most common of these are of Levallois type, and most of the cleavers and well-finished handaxes were made on such flakes. A few kombewa flakes with two ventral  surfaces  were collected. Also recovered from the site are curious stone axes reminiscent of the iron axes still made and used today in Igboland. These stone axes show no evidence of grinding. Axes (adze?) and some tranchets similar to the ones recovered from Ukpa Rockshelter at Afikpo (Chikwendu 1981) were also recovered (Anozie et al 1978).

The question that is asked is ―how old is the site‖?  Since over 80% of the tools found at the site are handaxes which are of various forms and sizes, the consensus among the researcher and scholars  is that the site belongs to the handaxe culture known as the Acheulian which has been found in many places in Africa. Although the Ugwuele site has not been precisely dated, the Acheulian culture to which it is ascribed flourished between 1.6 million and 95,000 years BP (Clark 1974, Anozie 2002: 18), therefore the age of Ugwuele falls within this range. Judging from tool typology alone, it seems that the site belongs to a later phase of the Acheulian culture. This is because the well- finished type with shallow flake scars and straight edges predominate and constitutes over 70% of the handaxe collected. In other parts of Africa, this phase has been dated to about 500,000 years BP (Clark 1974; Anozie 2002). Attempts to date the site include the use of the Carbon -14 and Potassium-Argon techniques,  although  these techniques have their attendant  problems.   Similarly, other  specialists like the geologists and palynologists have been invited to assist with  the dating using other methods.

An important observation by the pioneer researchers is that over 60% of the handaxes collected were either broken or unfinished. This was because, although the rock has a conchoidal fracture and flakes easily, it is also brittle and even a small error could ruin a tool. This accounted for the large accumulation of tools and fragments at the site, thus indicating that a lot of raw materials were wasted. Anozie (1982) has consistently maintained that the Ugwuele site constitutes a primary workshop centre, and given the enormity of artifacts, could    qualify as

―the  largest  stone age axe  factory in the world‖, Andah and Derefaka (1983) are of the view that the second deposit in particular shows traces of sorting by stream action, and that in general the whole site may constitute a‖secondary occurrence resulting from redeposition of artifacts by water movement‖. In a similar vein, Allsworth-Jones (1987), does not consider the site as Acheulian, as he ‗feels some unease‘ about that description. This feeling ‗arises partly from the nature of the site itself and partly from the nature of the materials recovered‘. He further stated that he did not ‗consider the elements accompanying the handaxes to be particularly diagnostic, nor did be see anything that could be convincingly claimed as Levallois‘. He also considered the broken or unfinished ones as ‗preforms or roughouts‘ for something other than handaxes, perhaps for ground stone axes.




(Source: Anozie F.N. 2002) FIG. 3   Medium Handaxe.






(Source: Anozie F.N. 2002)


FIG. 4  Two Small Handaxes             FIG. 5   A Cleaver









(Source: Anozie F.N. 2002)


FIG 6. Kombewa Flake FIG. 7   Stone Knife.


Discussion, Suggestions and Conclusion:

In this paper, we have looked at the discovery of the stone axe factory at Ugwuele, the research as far carried out at the site as well as the controversy among some scholars about the nature of the  materials and the proper placement of the site. While scholars like Anozie (1982, 2002) of the view that the site is undoubtedly Acheulian, others like Allsworth-Jones (1987) do not consider the site as Acheulian. The  latter school of thought has also considered the broken or unfinished handaxes, which occur in large quantity at the site, as ‗preforms or roughouts for something other than handaxes, perhaps for producing ground stone axes. If this view is accepted, it then means that the finds from Ugwuele could be consigned to the neolitic. This view in the opinion of scholars in the field is unjustifiably biased since it was held without regard to a proper understanding of the nature of the rock used in the manufacturing of the tools. Geologists who have looked at the nature of the Ugwuele rock (Umeji, 1978) are of the view that although the rock has a conchoidal fracture and flakes easily, it is also brittle and even a small error would ruin a tool. This accounted for the large quantity of handaxes that were either broken or unfinished which scholars like Allsworth-Jones (1987) erroneously regarded as ‗preforms and roughouts‘. Whatever the arguments against the site‘s credentials, the consensus of opinion among several archaeologists to that the Ugwuele site undoubtedly belongs to the handaxe culture and therefore occupies an important and early position in African cultural sequence. As strategic as the site is in our understanding of the story of man in the remote past especially in an area hitherto considered by archaeologists as unoccupied by man at that time, because it falls more or less within the tropical rainforest zone, research at the site has lost its momentum. As a matter of fact after the initial researches were carried out, not much has been done as a follow up. This situation is worrisome, especially when one considers the importance of the site and the several threats the site has faced over the years and the one it is  currently facing. These threats come from other land use activities going on around the site, the greatest coming from quarrying. As pointed out earlier, the land was acquired in 1977 by the Ozigbo Engineering Company for the exploitation of dolerite rock at the site which they crushed into aggregates for house and road construction. It was at this time that the site was accidentally discovered and efforts were made to save the site from destruction. These efforts included  rescue excavations and the reservation of two portions of the site, upon request, for detailed archaeological study. As a result of the feud between the prospecting company and the Ugwuele  community over the failure of the company to meet some of its social obligations to the community, the quarry activities were halted. However,  in  recent years, another Construction Company, SETRACO, a key player in road construction in South-Eastern Nigeria, has been granted a lease by the Ministry of Solid Minerals, to quarry at the site. Unfortunately,  this new company was not a party to the initial agreement to leave two portions of the site as archaeological reserves. This means that if no serious intervention is made to save the site, every other thing that  needs to be known about the site will be completely lost.

To save the site from total destruction therefore, a number of measures could be taken. One of these measures should involve a meeting between the company currently quarrying at the site and the Department of Archaeology and Tourism, University of Nigeria, Nsukka under the auspices of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, to intimate them with the initial agreement reached with the previous company and to educate them on the importance of the site. Another measure, which should quickly follow the first, is to resume research activities at the site and also evolve a comprehensive site management plan for the site that will involve all the stakeholders. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments should blaze the trail by carrying out as well as sponsoring such researches at the  site. To make the site accessible to the public and also enable them understand its significance, a site-museum should be  erected  there. This type of museum also known as Visitor information centre could help visitors to the site appreciate the many different values of the site. The museum when built should have pictorial illustration and other displays that could show the different types of stone tools and the techniques used in their manufacture. This would no doubt help to educate and inform the public including the local inhabitants of the area about the significance of the site and its materials and also help to enlist their support in any efforts to protect and preserve this important cultural heritage. A similar thing has been done at  several archaeological sites across the world such as the archaeological sites of Ephesus in Turkey (Torre and Maclean, 1992) and the royal tomb at Luxor of Queen Nefertari, one of the Queens of Pharonic Egypt (Agnew, 1997). A museum has also been built at NOK to display the various elements of the Nok culture. The local community and other stakeholders can be involved in this project to enable all to share in the stewardship role. The Ugwuele stone axe factory site is an important heritage of this country and efforts should be made to save the site and its contents from total destruction.









(Source: Umeokafor, C.L. 2005)





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