Nok Art Was Early Sculptural Pottery in West Africa

Nok sculpture on display at a museum.

Jeremy Weate / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Nok art refers to huge human, animal, and other figures made out of terracotta pottery, made by the Nok culture and found throughout Nigeria. The terracottas represent the earliest sculptural art in West Africa and were made between 900 B.C.E. and 0 C.E., concurrent with the earliest evidence of iron smelting in Africa south of the Sahara desert.

Nok Terracottas

The famous terracotta figurines were made of local clays with coarse tempers. Although very few of the sculptures have been found intact, it is clear that they were nearly life-sized. Most are known from broken fragments, representing human heads and other body parts wearing a profusion of beads, anklets, and bracelets. Artistic conventions recognized as Nok art by scholars include geometric indications of eyes and eyebrows with perforations for pupils and detailed treatment of heads, noses, nostrils, and mouths.

Many have exaggerated features, such as enormous ears and genitals, leading some scholars to argue that they are representations of diseases like elephantiasis. Animals illustrated in Nok art include snakes and elephants. Their human-animal combinations (called therianthropic creatures) include human/bird and human/feline mixes. One recurring type is a two-headed Janus theme.

A possible precursor to the art are figurines depicting cattle found throughout the Sahara-Sahel region of North Africa beginning in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. Later connections include the Benin brasses and other Yoruba art.

Chronology

Over 160 archaeological sites have been found in central Nigeria that are associated with the Nok figures, including villages, towns, smelting furnaces, and ritual sites. The people who made the fantastic figures were farmers and iron smelters who lived in central Nigeria beginning about 1500 B.C.E. and flourishing until about 300 B.C.E.

Preservation of bone at Nok culture sites is dismal, and radiocarbon dates are limited to charred seeds or materials found within the interior of Nok ceramics. The following chronology is a recent revision of previous dates based on combining thermoluminescence, optically stimulated luminescence, and radiocarbon dating where possible.

  • Early Nok (1500-900 B.C.E.)
  • Middle Nok (900-300 B.C.E.)
  • Late Nok (300 B.C.E.-1 C.E.)
  • Post Nok (1 C.E.-500 C.E.)

Early Arrivals

The earliest pre-iron settlements occurred in central Nigeria beginning about the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. These represent the villages of migrants to the area, farmers who lived in small, kin-based groups. Early Nok farmers raised goats and cattle and cultivated pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), a diet supplemented by game hunting and the gathering of wild plants.

Pottery styles for the Early Nok are called Puntun Dutse pottery, which has clear similarities to later styles, including very fine comb-drawn lines in horizontal, wavy, and spiral patterns, as well as rocker comb impressions and cross-hatching.

The earliest sites are located near or on hilltops at the edges between gallery forests and savanna woodlands. No evidence of iron smelting has been found associated with Early Nok settlements.

Middle Nok Art

The height of Nok society occurred during the Middle Nok period. There was a steep increase in the number of settlements, and terracotta production was well established by 830-760 B.C.E. Varieties of pottery continue from the earlier period. The earliest iron smelting furnaces likely date from 700 B.C.E. Farming of millet and trade with neighbors flourished.

Middle Nok society included farmers who may have practiced iron smelting on a part-time basis. They traded for quartz nose and earplugs, along with some iron implements outside of the region. The medium-distance trade network supplied the communities with stone tools or the raw materials for making the tools. The iron technology brought improved agricultural tools, warring techniques, and perhaps some level of social stratification, with iron objects used as status symbols.

Around 500 B.C.E., large Nok settlements of between 10 and 30 hectares (25 to 75 acres) in size with populations of about 1,000 were established, with roughly contemporaneous smaller settlements of one to three hectares (2.5 to 7.5 acres). The large settlements farmed pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), storing grains within the settlements in large pits. They likely had a decreasing emphasis on domestic livestock compared to the early Nok farmers.

Evidence for social stratification is implied rather than explicit. Some of the large communities are surrounded by defensive trenches up to six meters in width and two meters deep, likely the result of cooperative labor supervised by elites.

The End of the Nok Culture

The Late Nok saw a sharp and fairly abrupt decrease in the size and number of sites, occurring between 400 to 300 B.C.E. Terracotta sculptures and decorative pottery continued sporadically in farther-flung locations. Scholars believe the central Nigerian hills were abandoned and people moved into the valleys, perhaps as a result of climate change.

Iron-smelting involves a great deal of wood and charcoal to be successful. In addition, a growing population required more sustained clearing of woods for farmland. Around 400 B.C.E., dry seasons became longer and rains became concentrated in shorter, intensive periods. In recently forested hillslopes, that would have led to the erosion of topsoil.

Both cowpeas and millet do well in savannah areas, but the farmers switched to fonio (Digitaria exilis), which copes with eroded soils better and can also be grown in valleys where deep soils can become waterlogged.

The Post-Nok period shows a complete absence of Nok sculptures, a marked difference in pottery decoration and clay choices. The people continued ironworking and farming but apart from that, there is no cultural connection to the earlier Nok society cultural material.

Archaeological History

Nok art was first brought to light in the 1940s when archaeologist Bernard Fagg learned that tin miners had encountered examples of animal and human sculptures eight meters (25 feet) deep in the alluvial deposits of tin mining sites. Fagg excavated at Nok and Taruga. More research was conducted by Fagg's daughter Angela Fagg Rackham and Nigerian archaeologist Joseph Jemkur.

The German Goethe University Frankfurt/Main began an international study in three phases between 2005 and 2017 to investigate Nok Culture. They have identified many new sites but nearly all of them have been affected by looting, most dug up and destroyed entirely.

The reason for the extensive looting in the region is that the Nok art terracotta figures, along with the much later Benin brasses and soapstone figures from Zimbabwe, have been targeted by illicit trafficking in cultural antiquities, which has been tied to other criminal activities, including drug and human trafficking.

Sources

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