As the slave trade devastated Yoruba communities, the need for self-protection generated new practices focused on the individual. These included keeping a "house of the head" (ile ori) like this one, which encased a shrine (ibori) dedicated to the inner, spiritual component of the head. Cowrie shells like those that encrust this structure were traded as currency in exchange for human life during the height of the Atlantic slave trade; thus the cowries brought to the Nigerian coast on Portuguese ships represented the violence and the wealth of the Atlantic economy. A cowrie-covered ile ori protected the individual spiritually and also literally, through the accumulation of trade wealth. Upon their owners’ deaths, ile ori were traditionally dismantled, their cowries redistributed among relatives and returned to circulation. In the case of this intact example, the owner probably converted to another religion before his death.
"The checklist of the John B. Elliott Bequest," Record of the Princeton University Art Museum 61 (2002): p. 49-99.