Nok Art - The Earliest Sculptural Art in West Africa

The African Iron Age Nok Art Sculptural Tradition is 2500 Years Old

Terracotta Head of Man, Nok Culture 550-50 BC. Kaduna, Nigeria
Terracotta Head of Man, Nok Culture 550-50 BC. Kaduna, Nigeria. Brooklyn Museum

Nok art refers to huge human, animal and other figures made out of terracotta pottery, found throughout Nigeria. They represent the earliest sculptural art in West Africa, dated between 500 BC and AD 500; and they co-occur with the earliest evidence of iron smelting in Africa south of the Sahara desert. Theromluminescence dates produced on the figures themselves have returned dates between between 580 BC-540 AD.

The figures are made of local clays with coarse tempers. They are nearly life size, although few have been found intact: 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 perforations for pupils, geometric indications of eyes and eyebrows, and detailed treatment of heads, noses, nostrils and mouths. Many have exaggerated features such as enormous ears and genitals, which some scholars such as Insoll (2011) have argued are representations of diseases such as elephantiasis. Animals illustrated in Nok art include snakes and elephants; some are human and animal combinations and there is a recurring 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 BC; later connections include the Benin brasses and other Yoruba art.

Lost Contexts

Most of the known examples of Nok Art are fragments found out of context, recovered from alluvial deposits when those deposits were excavated for tin extraction. Only a handful of archaeological sites have been tentatively identified as Nok culture, and scientific excavations are rare. None so far have established absolutely conclusive evidence of the art's context.

Taruga, the first site identified with Nok art fragments, was discovered in the 1960s, by archaeologist Bernard Fagg who made the connection between Nok art and early iron smelting sites.

More recently, however, archaeologists have traced Nok culture by linking excavated coarse-tempered ceramic vessel potsherds with characteristic Nok style decorations. Such characteristics include raised-dot decorations made with a carved roulette and a groove along the edge of the lip of the pot. Others include zoned bands of comb impressions and a dot and line combination covering the whole body of the pot in a net-like structure.

Nok Culture Aspects

Nok art fragments have been recovered throughout what is today Nigeria, including the states of Plateau, Nassarawa, Kaduna, Niger, Kwara and Kogi, as well as the Federal Capital Territory. Sites identified as Nok culture to date include Taruga (aka Takushara), Kochio, Katsina Ala, Nok, Ankiring, Kagara, Wamba, and Abjua.

Those communities first appeared about 500 BC, and flourished through the end of the millennium. The sites include multiple low shaft iron furnaces, with the iron ore sourced locally. Vents at the bottom of the shafts served to collect iron slag; Taruga had bloomery-style furnaces and iron slags, tuyeres, charcoal and iron objects.

The bloomery process was invented in Anatolia about 1800 BC. Other artifacts found at Nok culture sites include palm kernels, beads, stone tools, terracotta objects, pottery, ground stone and iron axes, body ornaments, ear and nose plugs and stone arrow points. Kochio had a massive granite wall setting apart a segment of the settlement. 

Nok Culture in Prehistory

The Nok culture communities were agriculturalists who practiced iron smelting, and traded for quartz nose and ear plugs and some iron implements. The Nok iron smelting process is assumed to have been ritual, based on ethnographic data: West African iron production was organized into guilds in which only member smiths could be engaged in the iron works. Blacksmiths were often among the wealthiest people of Iron Age communities.

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 25 feet deep in the alluvial deposits of tin mining sites.

 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.


This article is a part of the guide to the African Iron Age, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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