When British Archaeologist Bernard Fagg received a terracotta head that had served as a scarecrow for a local clerk in the Jos area, he knew he was up to something. The head resembled sculpture that he had earlier seen- one discovered fifteen years before by a worker at a mine near the village of Nok in the Jos Plateau area. But Fagg had no idea that the piece, like the one which it resembled, was the product of a hitherto unknown culture that dominated the area thousands of years ago.
The scarecrow head was found in 1943. At that time, Fagg was an administrative officer with the British colonial government in Nigeria. His training in archaeology and his love for exploration led him to investigate the terracotta find. He travelled throughout the vicinity of the Jos Plateau in his search for more clues to the origin of the piece and found that the local people had been happening upon similar material for years.
Over time, he collected a significant trove of terracotta, including some from excavations done in the area by his own men. The discoveries were analyzed and dated, and they yielded results which at the time was considered stunning- some of them were at least 2,500 years old. It soon dawned on Fagg and his collaborators that they had discovered the works of a lost civilization, one of the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Area of Nok Culture by NordNordWest via Wikimedia Commons.
Why Nok Matters
Not much is known about the history of West Africa before the rise of the ancient Ghana kingdom in the middle ages. Prior to the discovery of the Nok culture, Historians did not speak of the region as being the centre for any significant activity worthy of being recorded in history books. It was, along with most of sub-Saharan Africa, the backwater of the ancient world, probably populated by hunter-gatherers and nomads- far removed from the exciting events unfolding in such places as Egypt, Babylon, Greece, or Rome. Nok has contributed to a revision of this way of looking at history.
The society that produced the quality of terracotta art found in the Nok sites was, for its age, quite advanced. From around 1000BC-200AD, a 30,000 mile stretch of northern Nigeria was the setting for a boom in art and culture made possible by skilled craftsmen and an organized societal setup. Their terracotta works, in particular, have caught the world’s attention, with their detailed renditions of the human form. Numerous pieces with cylindrical heads, semi-circular eyes, pierced mouth and ears, flared nostrils, body markings, and adornments have been unearthed. They represent the oldest known example of terracotta sculpture in Africa, south of the Sahara.
The unearthing of a piece of Nok art in 2012. Copyright, Peter Breunig
Nok art unearthed in 2012. Copyright, Peter Breunig via pasthorizonspr.com
An aspect of the Nok culture that isn’t talked about that much outside scholarly circles is its iron smelting. The people who inhabited the area at the time of the culture’s flourishing are known to have produced iron. Evidence of this has been found in remains of furnaces dating back as far as 500BC (iron arrowheads, bracelets, and knives have been found as well). This makes Nok one of the oldest iron smelting civilizations in Africa.
For a thousand years, Nok thrived. It must have had a fairly well organized societal structure; it required great skill to smelt iron and create terracotta, and skilled workmen may have been in charge of them. Such groups were probably formed into guilds. Because the clay type used by the sculptors throughout the area occupied by the Nok people appears to have come from a single source, experts have suggested that there may have been some form of rule or (authority) governing its manufacture of terracotta.
Popular female Nok head. Photo credit, unknown.
Nok seems to have vanished as mysteriously as it appeared. Causes proposed range from over-exploitation of natural resources to the destruction of vegetation for charcoal. Whatever the reason, its disappearance left what still looks like a gaping hole in the history of Nigeria’s early peoples.
It is possible that Nok influenced the art of later civilizations further south. Some historians point to similarities between Nok terracotta and the Ife bronze heads as evidence of this. However, the line of continuity from Nok to Ife is, as yet, still only faintly drawn.
Historians and archaeologists might not agree on every detail regarding the history of Nok. But they all speak with certainty about the fact that there remains a lot to be discovered about the Nok culture and what its people have left behind.