The Tree Man

BY Akin Ogundiran and Adisa Ogunfolakan

It is with deep sense of loss that we announce that Dr. Omotoso
Eluyemi joined his ancestors in the early hours of Saturday, February
18. He was at the time of his death, the Director-General of
Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments. He was a
teacher, mentor, archaeologist, cultural worker, frontline
politician, an influential member of the ruling Peoples Democratic
Party, and a high-ranking chief in Ile-Ife, among others.

Dr. Eluyemi was born on November 13th, 1939 in Ile-Ife, the Yoruba
holy city. He attended Moscow State University (1962-68) where upon
graduation he won Gold Medal as one of the best students of the year.
He afterwards served as a teacher at the Provincial Teachers'
Training College, Osogbo- 1968-1969, and Curator in the Federal
Department of Antiquities, Lagos in 1969-70. For his graduate
studies, he attended University of Birmingham (1970-73), and he
obtained his Ph.D. at the Academy of Sciences, Moscow in 1979,
becoming the first Yoruba with a Ph.D. degree in archaeology. Omotoso
joined the history faculty at University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo
University Ile-Ife in 1973. Dr. Eluyemi successfully initiated the
establishment of the Department of Archaeology as an independent
academic unit within the then University of Ife in 1984, and he
served as the Chair of the Department from 1984 to 1989. For the five
years he headed the department, more than thirty students graduated
with concentration in archaeology.

Dr. Eluyemi was primarily a cultural historian. He had an abiding
interest in using archaeology to advance Yoruba history. The model of
archaeological training that he set up at Ile-Ife was therefore in
the cultural history mode, with emphasis on the critical use of oral
traditions to inform archaeological science, and vice versa. Most of
his own scientific excavations were conducted outside Ile-Ife, at
Egbejoda, Agidi, and Sekunde. At a time, (early 1970s) when most
archaeologists resident in Ile-Ife were focusing on the Ife royal
court art of the Classical period, he decided to focus on what he
labeled the "peasant culture" at Egbejoda, a village 37 km from Ife
on the Ife-Ondo Road. The excavations yielded, among others, almost
150 terracotta sculptures, 75 of which were modeled in stylized human
heads. The finds revealed a new artistic tradition hitherto unknown
in Ife and Yoruba archaeology. The sculptures, especially the
stylized heads, are characterized by elongated ovoid form,
"coffee-bean" eyes, wide, flaring nose, and parted lips. He boldly
referred to the ensemble as Egbejoda Culture, though not without
controversy. Dr. Eluyemi later excavated at other sites such as
Sekunde and Agidi, both within few kilometers outside the ancient
city of Ile-Ife.  His last major archaeological project was the
investigation into the origins and technology of glass bead
industries in Ile-Ife. He focused his research on Igbo-Olokun, a
large-scale industrial center for the production of glass beads and
iron, about 1.6 km. from the center of the city, and dated to at
least the eleventh century. He conducted excavations and interviewed
dozens of bead makers. He also set up experimental studies within the
grove in order to capture the details of this ancient industry. The
study established the continuity in Ife bead works, and also led to
the conclusion that Ife artisans manufactured glass from the local
quartz-silica minerals. Dr. Eluyemi was the author of four books and
21 research articles and essays on the archaeology and culture of
Yorubaland, with emphasis on Ile-Ife.

As an archaeologist, Dr. Eluyemi served in different official
capacities in the Archaeological Association of Nigeria. He was a
member of the World Archaeological Congress, and was for many years
on the Editorial Board of the West African Journal of Archaeology.
Yet, he was also a community man. He played many roles in the social
development and politics of Ile-Ife. Above all, he was committed
throughout his life to the advancement of Yoruba indigenous religion.
He rose through the ranks to become the Apena of Ife, a prominent and
high-ranking religious/civic chieftaincy. As the Apena of Ife, he was
the leader of the religious rites in Ile-Ife and the Yoruba world in
general. In recognition of his contributions to Yoruba culture, Dr.
Eluyemi was honored with chieftaincy titles by the monarchs of
Badagry, Ketu (Republic of Benin), Ifetedo and Ede. He was one of the
very few individuals who combined the modernity of University
academic position with the traditional community service steeped in
the indigenous religious life and values.

Upon his retirement from the Obafemi Awolowo University in 1993, he
established and became the director of a non-profit cultural
organization named "Center for Yoruba Cultural Studies and Elusope
Temple of Deities", an institution dedicated to research, learning,
and worship. He also worked tirelessly with others in Nigeria to
forge lasting links with the Yoruba in diaspora, and several leading
priests and their followers in North and South America have been able
to renew their ties with Yorubaland through him.

In 2000, President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed Chief Eluyemi to head
the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. During his service
to the archaeological, University, and Yoruba communities, he
encouraged and assisted many to receive University education
including training in Russia and South America; he inspired many to
become archaeologists; and he facilitated the training of scores of
students in Nigeria with distinctive charm and humor.

May his soul rest in perfect peace. Burial arrangements will be
announced shortly.