Nok Culture
 
    In 1943 Nigerian tin miners discovered a small terracotta head near the town of Nok. This discovery led to the identification of an entire ancient culture. The culture was named Nok after the place the first artifacts were found. (9) The study of Nok culture is diverse and at times frustrating. In this essay you will learn about the first Nok discoveries, dating techniques, how the figures were made, and their stylistic characteristics.
    Nok Discovery
    The first Nok figurines found depicted a monkey head and human head and foot. These artifacts were given to the Museum of Jos and then shown to Bernard Fagg,(7) an archeologist that worked for the British colonial administration. Fagg arrived in Nigeria in 1939, but did not begin working on the Nok artifacts until 1943. From seeing the first terracotta head, Fagg began to think that he might be looking at an undiscovered culture. Fagg was the first archeologist to study this culture and write extensively about it. Fagg was an influential archeologist in Nigerian artifacts(7) and in 1947 he was selected as the assistant surveyor of antiquities of the Department of Antiquities of the British colonial administration.
    Fagg spent a considerable amount time and research determining Nok culture’s place in prehistoric times (5) He found,
        “Nok is not only the oldest known culture in western Africa to have             created sculpture, but…the oldest sub-Saharan culture to have produced             iron in smelting furnaces.”
This suggests the Nok culture knew how to work with metal even before the Meroëns or Egyptians (7).  Fagg concluded that Nok culture should be considered as an Iron Age civilization. Even though Nok is given the titled of the oldest African culture it is still not considered the first. Many anthropologists believe that there are still older undiscovered cultures in Africa (6).
    Determining the age of Nok figures was a problem from the beginning. Fagg had difficulty in dating Nok figures with radiocarbon dating since there was a possibility the artifacts had been moved from their original sediment by sludging. Sludging is a term used to describe when layers of sediment shift out of chronological order, this can be caused by flooding or mining. Initial radiocarbon testing done in 1944 placed the figurines at 200 AD +\- 80. However in the late 1960’s an area was discovered that had undisturbed soil layers. It was the first instance when an untouched site of Nok artifacts had been located and creditable radiocarbon dating could be performed.
    At this site they found two terracotta figurines with heads missing. Miners discovered the figurines while they were digging for tantalite in an isolated valley. Plans were made to excavate in January of 1961. There was an eight day trial excavation, during which archeologists discovered “smelting operations, iron, a quantity of iron slage, fragments of tuyere, large quantities of domestic pottery, a number of figurine fragments, red ochre, quartz hammer stones, worn-out querns and small concentrations of charcoal.” These artifacts date back to 280 +\- 120 BC. The sight is important because it gave archeologists the first pieces of reliable dating data. (5)
    Before the discovery of this site radiocarbon data came from carbonized material found in the riverbank near Nok. This information was very vague and only told archeologist that the terra cottas were older than 200 AD. Thermo-luminescence dating was helpful in narrowing down the time gap. Now it is generally accepted that the Nok figures date from 1400 BC to 600 AD. This technology helped to legitimize the dating of these figures and prove this artistic practice lasted over a millennium with only slight modifications.(3)
    
    Nok Culture
    Nok images as a whole were created over a period of 2,400 years, 1400 BC to 600 AD. Most terra cotta heads found today date from 500 BC to the early Christian times. Sadly most Nok artifacts have been moved from their original sediments, this makes it difficult to accurately date Nok artifacts. As a result archeologists understand little about why or how the terra cottas became imbedded in the sediment. Freelance mining has played a large role in Nok excavation. These miners both hinder and help archeologists’ work. Miners have found numerous Nok styled objects but their digs are damaging to the contextual data that would have been collected by archaeologists. If archeologists discovered these artifacts they would have taken the time to record the type of sediment the artifact was found in to better understand the age and history of the artifact. It is also hard for archeologists to protect the area where Nok artifacts are found. Hundreds of clay fragments have been found in a 300 mile radius around Nok. This distance leads archeologist to believe that these terra cottas were traded with other tribes living in the Plateau. (12) The area is too large to properly monitor with any efficiency. Professor Joseph f. Jemkur, author of The Nok Culture, commented,
        “There are no excavations run by archaeologists. Everything that is found             comes to light as a result of tilling the soil. Farmers who find Nok                 fragments in their fields when ploughing try to sell them. There must be             several thousand people looking for Nok figures in many widely scattered             places.”
Another problem Nok archeologist face are African art dealers who employ locals to look for Nok artifacts to sell illegally. Because there is no way to standardize or monitor the excavation of all Nok figures there is a great deal of skepticism among archeologists, museum curators, collectors, and dealers. It is unknown how the figures in this collection were found. It is documented that Mr. Gelb purchased them from African deals and it is unlikely they were found by archaeologies. (3)
    A majority of Nok artifacts are large self-supporting figures, 9 out of 10 depict humans. These figures are often seated on a stool, some are bent on one knee, while others stand on round platforms. Chesi states that, “terra cottas range in size from a complete kneeling figure, only 10 cm high, to head which are themselves up to 37 cm and more in height”
It is common for the head of a figure to be separated from the body. Nok heads are shown to be consistent with the African proportion, the head being one-third the size of the body. The natural proportion for humans is one to seven. It is believed, based on large head and leg fragments, that the largest Nok figure was about 120 cm tall. Most Nok heads have survived the test of time because have no protruding parts that are easily broken. Additionally the heads are easier for miners to identify. Nok figures were made without the use of a potter’s wheel, and almost all the figures are hollow with the exceptions of a few smaller solid figurines. The walls of the hollow structures are less than a centimeter thick. The clay used to make these figures is similar to modern clay used in Nigeria.  Gert Chesi author Art of Nok Culture: art in Nigeria 2,500 years ago describes the clay as “a matrix of clay containing hard grains of quartz, mica, granite or other suitable material.” The materials used are most visible in the more warn pieces where the smooth exterior has been worn away. The benefit of this kind of clay is outsized pots and figures can be made waterproof through being placed in an open fire for several hours at temperatures of more than 700 degrees C. (3)
    Nok Stylistic Features
    The most stylistically united aspect of Nok figures are their facial features. The eyes are typically downward slopping triangles. The eyebrows are often connected looking like it was make from a single piece of round clay. This treatment of the eye is consistent throughout all Nok figures, Chesi notes, “Foreheads tend to be high and the hairline most commonly runs vertically from the basin of the ear over the top of the head.”
    Hairstyles on Nok figures are depicted in numerous ways. The ‘top-knot’ is a style made when different sections of hair are
 
twisted to form several buns. This hairstyle is still popular in modern Nigeria. Sometimes a hat covers the figures hair and no
 
hairstyle is seen. Just below the head on the neck and chin beads are sometimes placed on the jaw of a figure and occasionally a
 
braded goatee or mustaches.
    Even though there are some variations in size and subject matter, Nok heads have similar facial features that unite them as a style and culture. The middle of the eyes are hollowed out to form a dark hole in the face. Triangles or half circles frame the eyes, while the eyebrows are simplified to a semi circle or straight line. The mouth is wide with full lips that are frequently open but seldom show teeth. The nose is broad and flared and the nostrils are perforated like the pupils. Ears on Nok figures are abnormally large and positioned low on the head. (7) Due to the precise nature on the lines of the heads art historians believe these heads were carved. It is believed that the Nok people used clay that was air- dried to a leather- like consistency then they used a subtractive method to carve out facial features. This method implies that the artists that created these figurines were trained as woodcarvers. (12)   Archeologists have discovered the coiling method was sometimes used to form cylindrical parts of the figures by looking at broken Nok figures. From time to time strands of hair and jewelry were also fixed to the figure using coiling. (3)
    It is believed Nok terra cottas were fired over an open oven. There is no evidence Nok artisans had technology like a kiln. The perforation of the pupil and nostril might have been more practical than aesthetic. The holes in the eye and nose would lessen the chance of the clay cracking when it was being fired, because the holes allow moisture to leave the clay without damaging the figure. (7)
    The shape of Nok figurines can be greatly diverse even within a single excavation site. Gillon describes in his book A Shot History of African Art that, heads are round or oblong while others range from organic to geometric, and the explanation for this is not clear. It is speculated that the different shapes of figurines could indicate a period change or just a different school or art from the same period. Because of the use of ochre or slip these figures still have a smooth exterior even after a two millennia. (7)
    A small number of Nok artifacts are found in one piece. There is one notable figure that was discovered along a river by the down of Bwari. It is very small and is made of solid clay unlike other Nok figurines. There is an empty cavity between the arm and body of the figure that implies that it might have been worn on a necklace. The figure is bent over on its knees and the figure is adorned with “ a broad collar, heavy bracelets and anklets, and distinctive chest ornaments.” In later centuries the same type of ornamentation is seen in the heads and figurines of the Yoruban Civilization. (12)
    Figure types
    Nok terra cottas depict two main subjects, animals and humans. Human figures are very stylized while the animals have more naturalistic qualities. The depiction of the eye is similar in both types of figures. (9) Nok animal figurines depict creatures such as: monkeys, elephants, rams, but mostly snakes. The snake is a popular religious symbol of rebirth for many tribes across Africa.
    Janus figures have also been found. This figure depicts a two-faced person, one male and one female. They are often used to illustrate the importance of male and female duality in the universe, a common in many African cultures. (7)
    Both sexes of figurines are adorned with pubic coverings, hats, and caps, however none of the figures wear shoes or sandals. It is believed that the Nok culture did not produce woven fabrics and instead they made different types of knotted or plaited fibers.  Bracelets, necklaces, anklets and beaded items were found on the figures but they lacked rings and earrings. These characteristics are similar to decorations found on Ife and Yoruban sculptures. (7) In this collection there are several figures adorned with similar types of jewelry and headwear.
    There is no definitive evidence supporting an idea about what Nok figures were used for, but historians have various
 
theories. Some Nok figures portray ill or misshapen people. It is thought these figures were used for “magico-medical” ceremonies.  
 
It is very unusual for African cultures to depict anything but perfection in these figures. This illustration of imperfection makes these
 
Nok figures unique among other African figures.
    It is also speculated that the figures could have been used in “funeral ceremonies, ancestor cults or other religious rituals” Some historians believe these figures could symbolically represent chiefs. It is known that in present day Nigeria these types of statues are used on thatched roofs and as shrines. (7)
    Today there is not enough evidence to know decisively what the functions of these figures were. However there are many different theories. It is thought that the shape and design of the figures were connected with religious, economic, and political values of the community.  These figures were used to reinforce important values and help insure their longevity. Because the figures come in many different sizes archeologists believe the function of the figure correlated with its size. Smaller figures were possibly used on roofs as thatch finials; figures with round bases were appropriate for this.  Several of these types of figures are in the collection. Modern tribes living in the Nok area still use similar figures in these ways. Some have linked these figures with the Nok cultures ability in iron-smelting. In many African cultures those who work with iron are seen as spiritual powerful people. They believe a great amount of life force and skill is needed to mold the iron. In many cultures blacksmiths have a similar status to a priest. To be a blacksmith takes a lot of training and he must be put through many initiation tasks. The link between iron smelting and these figures suggests the figures had spiritual meaning. (3)
    Even thought there is a great deal of research it is obvious historians still know little about the function of these figures in Nok culture.