The Nok culture is an ancient culture that existed in Nigeria around 1000 B.C. but mysteriously vanished around 500 A.D., spanning the end of the Stone Age (Neolithic) and the start of the Iron Age. The region where the culture is estimated to have existed lies mainly in central to northern Nigeria. The Nok culture is assumed to have been highly organized, arguably one of the earliest sub-Saharan producer of terracotta, with permanent settlements and centers used for farming and manufacturing. Historical studies speculates that the Nok culture once existed as a common society which later evolved into the Hausa, Gwari, Nupe, Jukun, Kanuri, Birom and Yoruba kingdoms.
The Nok culture was discovered in 1928 during tin mining activities on the Jos plateau. Mining activities at the time were led by European miners, one of whom was Lt-Colonel John Dent-Young. He led mining activities in a village called Nok in the Jos region. During one of their mining operations, miners found a small terracotta of a monkey head. Other sculptures found included a human foot and head. A few years later in 1932, a group of 11 statues were discovered near the northern cities of Sokoto and Katsina similar to those found earlier in Jos. About a decade later, new clay sculptures were again found in Nok village.
Bernard Fagg, an archaeologist and trainee civil administrator at the time, knew the importance of the sculptures. He demanded that all figurines discovered during mining activities be brought to him. Over many years, he was able to gather about 150 pieces of terracotta sculpture! Bernard expanded his excavation area in search of more buried sculptures which led to more discoveries spread out across vast areas. By 1977, terracotta objects found during the course of mining activities and systemic excavations were up to 153 units. Most of these objects were found in diverse locations due to secondary deposition. Secondary deposits are objects or materials transported to a new location by floods or rivers. The statuettes discovered in Nok were believed to have been transported there by floods near the valley and buried in dried-up river beds in savannahs in northern and the southwestern portion of the Jos plateau in central Nigeria.
Bernard Fagg was able to correlate the Nok culture to central Nigerian groups such as the Jaba ethnic group of Kaduna State. He achieved this correlation by finding similarities in the dressing and cultural practices of the ethnic group and that depicted in Nok art. Bernard went ahead to date the pieces using modern dating techniques such as radiocarbon dating and thermo-luminescence tests. He discovered something that was previously considered implausible by colonial authorities; an ancient but advanced West African society that dates back to the Stone Age. Bernard Fagg named the culture Nok, relative to the village were earliest sculpture discoveries were made.
He continued his studies by working on two other important sites: Taruga and Samun Dukiya. His research on these new sites provided him with more information about the Nok culture, as more terracotta figurines, pottery, stone and iron axes and other tools were discovered. However, due to rapid political changes happening in independent Nigeria at the time, his research was cut short and those sites remained understudied. Most of the sculptures collated were looted by Western collectors which further hampered learning more about the Nok culture.
The most intriguing aspect of Nok culture revolves around their terracotta statues. These statues date back to around 500 BC and mostly epitomize people with large elongated heads, almond-shaped eyes and parted lips. The bodies are portrayed with highly stylized features, ample jewelry and varied postures. The unusual features of the sculptures which are believed to be represented in rational relative proportions make some describe Nok figurines as extraterrestrial-looking sculptures. On close examination, the clay used in the terracotta sculptures show outstanding consistency over the entire Nok area, suggesting that the clay came from a single source which remains unknown. The terracotta is preserved as scattered fragments mostly because they were deposited in alluvial mud in terrains eroded by water. As a result, mostly heads with well detailed hairstyles are recovered in modern times. It is rare for ancient works of art to be exhumed undamaged, making terracotta sculptures discovered highly valued on the international art market.
The functions of these sculptures remain unknown although there are speculations on the purpose they may have served. Certain theories suggest the usage of these figurines as grave markers, or charms to prevent crop failure, infertility and illnesses. Other theories point at the possibility that they represented high ranking individuals or ancestors with deity status worshipped by the people. Furthermore, the dome-shaped bases found on several figurines indicate they may have been used as finials for roofs of ancient buildings and other prehistoric structures. Scientific work was started in 2005 to further explore Nok archeological sites to comprehend the figurines within their archeological context.
In explaining how terracotta sculptures were probably made, an associate curator of art of the Americas, Africa and Oceania at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Margaret Young-Sanchez suggests that most Nok figures were hand shaped from coarse grained clay and sculpted in a way similar to that of wood carving. The sculptures are then dried, covered with slip and polished to produce a smooth glossy surface. They were probably made hollow to allow thorough drying. Comparisons to the process can be drawn from modern drying methods used today in many parts of northern Nigeria, in which objects are covered with twigs and leaves and placed over a heat source for several hours.
Surviving the Iron Age
The use of iron in smelting and forging tools also characterize Nok culture in West Africa by 500 B.C. and maybe even earlier. However, historians such as Christopher Ehret argue that iron smelting was independently discovered in Africa prior to 1000 BC. Some archeologists believe iron smelting methods may have been derived from the need and use of kilns for firing and drying terracotta ceramics, while others believe smelting skills discovered centuries before the Nok may have been brought south across the Sahara.
Ancient West African societies are believed to have skipped the Copper Age. Archeological findings in West Africa are often a mixture of stone and iron tools seem to support that theory. Unlike certain parts of Europe where Copper Age lasted for almost a millennium, most West African societies show little or no sign of copper use, leading many researchers to believe that such societies may have transitioned from the Stone Age directly to the Iron Age. The Nok people may have led this transition. Their works illustrate the complexities of life in prehistoric times but no one knows exactly what became of the Nok people. The striking similarities of Nok sculptures and brass and terracotta sculptures of the Ife and Benin cultures in western Nigeria support the theory that the Nok eventually evolved into the Yoruba kingdom, with its epicenter in Ife. However, it is difficult to explain what may have happened artistically in the half-millennium between the end of the Nok and the rise of the Ife kingdom.
An Advanced but Complex Society
The level of intricacy and volume of work, as well as the artistic and technical skills observed in discovered terracotta sculptures suggest that the Nok culture was a complex society. Also, the use of iron smelting skills executed by experts, people who probably had other needs such as food and clothing being met by others, support the theory of a diverse society. Archeological excavations have shown that Nok culture had sedentary farming. Some historians further argue that the homogeneity exhibited by Nok terracotta sculptures indicate a single clay source and is evidence of a centralized state or a complex guild structure.
The construction and manufacture of life-sized sculptures is not the sole evidence of the advancement of the Nok culture. Systemic research done in the 21st century on the Nok culture reveal more stunning details about the Nok people, including the presence of a highly developed system of administration, law and order.
- Alistair Boddy-Evans, “Nok Terracottas: Sub-Saharan Africa’s Earliest Art”. About Education. Web. 2016. <http://africanhistory.about.com/od/kingdoms/a/NokPottery.htm>.
- “Nok Culture”. Creative Commons Attribution. 2016. Web. <http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Nok-Culture.pdf>.
- Roger Atwood, “The Nok of Nigeria”. Archaeological Archive. Archaeological Institute of America. Web. August. 2011. <http://archive.archaeology.org/1107/features/nok_nigeria_africa_terracotta.html>.
- April Holloway, “The highly advanced and mysterious ancient civilization of the Nok”. Ancient Origins. 22 July. 2013. Web. < http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/highly-advanced-and-mysterious-ancient-civilization-nok-00679>.
- “Nok Culture”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 21 September. 2016. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nok_culture#Discovery>.