Nok terracotta artwork dating back to 1500 BC, which was discovered in modern-day central Nigeria in the 1940s by a British archaeologist, is now famous the world over. But more is on the way. Current research by German archaeological teams on Nok sites covering 240 sq kms northeast of the capital Abuja, is bound to unearth yet more wonders from the Nok world. Curtis Abraham reports.
In August 1987, Nigeria held an elaborate memorial in honour of the British colonial officer, Bernard Fagg. It was one year after his death. The Lagos-based Daily Times newspaper reported on 13 August 1988: “Here was a British colonial officer who, instead of projecting the image and power of the British, reversed all expectations and projected the image and [the] past of the Africans… It is our determination that the light he had lit some 44 years [ago] may never dim.”
Bernard Fagg is widely celebrated as the “discoverer” of Nigeria’s Nok Culture, one of Africa’s first complex societies (evidence is mounting in this direction) and perhaps the earliest culture in sub-Saharan Africa to make and use iron tools.
Fagg arrived in Nigeria in 1939 as a junior administrative officer. His first posting was to the Jos Plateau, the centre of Nigeria’s tin mining industry. There, in his free time, he scoured the spoil heaps and studied the sections looking for evidence of past human activity. He found Acheulian handaxes, ground stone axes, stone querns, and pottery.
A qualified archaeologist, his enthusiasm encouraged the miners to report finds they would otherwise have ignored or, worse, destroyed. It was the report of terracotta being used as a scarecrow in a tin mining area south of the Jos Plateau that led to the recognition, by Fagg, of the artistic tradition that is now known as the Nok Culture.
He became the first government archaeologist in Nigeria when he was appointed assistant surveyor of antiquities in 1947. From then until his retirement in 1963, when he took over the running of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, Fagg lived and worked in Nigeria.
His eldest daughter, Angela Rackham, has fond childhood memories of her father and his work. She recalls his constructing, by direct labour, the first purpose-built government museum in Jos for the preservation, conservation, and display of Nigeria’s rich archaeological and artistic heritage.
“Christmas holidays were the time to go away from the office and concentrate on archaeological field work,” Angela recalls. “Many places were best studied then – during the dry season. The whole family went together – living under canvas or zana mat shelters. Life was never dull.”
Most Nok material was rescued from alluvial sites or from road construction projects. The search for undisturbed evidence of the people who made the Nok terracottas was only rewarded in 1960 with the discovery of a site at Taruga. Excavations there uncovered iron smelting furnaces, terracotta figurines, and the debris of domestic life – dated by radiocarbon to the later half of the first millennium BC.
Angela, like her father, graduated with a degree in archaeology from Cambridge University, England, and later joined the antiquities service in Nigeria in 1967 working, amongst other things, on the Nok material there until 1976.
She was one among many distinguished participants of the Nok Exhibition held in Frankfurt, Germany, on 29 October this year. It was the first time the terracottas were presented within their cultural context of Nok society (the terracottas have been exhibited previously by collectors and museums but without their cultural context). The exhibition will travel to Nigeria in 2014.
“This is a new chapter in the study of those remarkable people who created such striking terracotta figurines and whose history would be lost forever if it were not for the careful scientific work of the archaeologists past and present,” says Angela.
The Nok people thrived on the Northern High Plains northeast of the Nigerian capital Abuja, an area about the size of Switzerland or Portugal. While we may not be able at this point in time to call Nok a “civilisation” (there is an absence of complex architecture, written language, etc), it can be seen as a new type of complex African society.
“We should really not talk about ‘civilisation’ now,” says Dr Nicole Rupp of the J. W. Goethe University in Frankfurt. “Nok represents the first step in this direction. But it is not the ‘final stage’.”
She continues: “We believe that the Nok people were part of a new kind of hierarchical society with specialists such as artists, iron smelters and a flourishing agricultural system as well as a developed ritual system. We have enough evidence to categorise Nok as an example of first complex societies.”
According to Dr Rupp, after the first papers by Bernard Fagg appeared, the Nok sculptures became very well known on the international art market. Later, there were smaller-scale excavations by Joseph Jemkur, which are scientifically well documented, but during the 1990s there were only commercial diggers on the sites and they focused only on terracotta. There was little, if any, interest in the cultural background of the people who made the clay figurines.
Another factor that prevented subsequent research was that any excavation taking place in Nok territory was the subject of suspicion that the terracottas would be sold to international art buyers. It is the reason why Dr Rupp, who has been working in Nigeria since 1996 when she was still a graduate student, and Project Leader Prof Peter Breunig, who began the Nok work there in 2005, have developed a solid relationship with Nigerias’s National Commission for Monuments and Museums.
There were also rumours that robbers who were selling the terracottas prevented others from approaching the sites. In fact, it is only recently that after several decades of disinterest in the terracottas’ archaeological importance, serious scientific interest has been rekindled. Two main discoveries of this modern revival are that: Nok society is at the heart of the development of advanced societies and civilisations in sub-Saharan Africa, and that the Nok terracottas go far beyond the international art world.
The Nok revival began in 2005 as part of a project called: “Ecological and Cultural Change in West and Central Africa”, with experts from the German universities of Frankfurt and Tübingen, and Nigerian and Cameroonian experts. This ran until 2009 and was funded by the German Research Foundation.
Its success led to an ongoing 12-year research project under the working title, “The Nigerian Nok Culture: Development of Complex Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa”, which focuses on the economic, environmental and socio-cultural context of Nok society.
The lengthy duration of this project has resulted in it being divided into four stages, which investigate the age of Nok society, settlement structures, diversity within the entire Nok geographic area, and the final analysis and writing.
Under the project, Rupp and his colleague, Prof Breunig, are leading a team of German and Nigerian researchers, students and even former looters of the country’s archaeological sites, excavating sites over 240 sq km in central Nigeria, about two hours’ drive north of Abuja. Their study area is but a microcosm of the Nok world, which covered more than 48,000 sq km, an area the size of Portugal. The prehistoric Nok society is mainly known by its terracotta figurines (depicting animals and humans up to life-size), which, at 2,500 years old, represent the earliest figurative art in sub-Saharan Africa. This makes the Nok terracottas the earliest large-sized figurative art objects of Africa outside Egypt.
A great mystery
But while the Nok terracottas are revered today for their artistic beauty, their actual function during the heyday of the Nok society remains a great mystery.
“At the moment it seems that they had several purposes,” says Dr Rupp. “We find them as part of a deliberate deposition, apparently carelessly dumped (and this is the common case) as numerous fragments are spread all over the sites. Some of them might have been a kind of grave marker. But since no bones are preserved due to the acidic soil, there is no evidence for that. We don’t know the function of the figurines.”
However, the recent excavations have thrown further light on the functions of the terracottas. Hitherto, experts were puzzled about their uses. All they knew was that the terracottas were part and parcel of Nok everyday life, based on their omnipresence at the various sites.
One explanation concerns grave goods in burials. A look into the ethnographic record shows that terracotta and/or figurines in general play a central role within African communities up to today. People might use them as part of a shrine in the house, or to represent powerful gods, ancestors, or the recently deceased. They are also still part of funeral rituals.
Breunig and Rupp discovered that other terracottas function as grave markers, representing outstanding persons like the blacksmith. Figurines could also be part of healing and curing rituals.
For now, the Nok terracottas are in great demand in the Western art market, and scholars such as Rupp believe that the international art market is solely responsible for the looting of almost all Nok sites. Experts estimate that many hundreds, if not thousands, of Nok terracotta figurines – from over 250 sites in Nigeria – were stolen and sold to museums and private collectors in Europe and America.
“Almost from the beginning,” Rupp says, “we came into contact with looters. There are two groups: the real businessmen who are in contact with collectors from Europe and USA, and the farmers and house constructors and so on who accidentally find terracotta fragments. All of them have no connection with archaeology.”
She adds: “The contact with those people is a tricky matter! On the one hand, they are our ‘enemies’ because they are partly responsible for the destruction of the sites. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that without their help, we would never have succeeded! They know the sites, they know how to identify the sites, they have the contacts, and somehow we managed to take advantage of this knowledge.”
When France was caught
Even for Western governments, the possession of Nok terracottas can be a hot potato. In 1998, the government of France, for example, shamed itself by purchasing three Nok terracotta sculptures from a Belgian dealer for 2.5 million francs.
The French authorities were fully aware that under Nigerian law no antiquities should be exported from the country without the permission of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). Adding further insult to injury, the three objects were on the ICOM Red List as well as being on the France-based INTERPOL’s web page of items that were prohibited for export from Nigeria. The French authorities had bought the pieces for the planned Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Perhaps embarrassed by the intervention of ICOM in the matter, the French relented and acknowledged that Nigeria was the rightful owner of the pieces, and signed a bizarre agreement by which Nigeria loaned the pieces to France for a period of 25 years, which was renewable.
The agreement with France shocked those interested in the preservation of African heritage as it sent a wrong message to looters and dampened attempts to prevent looting.
“Just as anyone who has lost property would want to recover it, the good people of Nigeria want to retrieve the illegally exported terracotta sculptures,” says Dr Musa Hambolu, the NCMM’s director of research, planning and publications in Abuja. He is also the principal representative of the NCMM at the Nok Archaeological Research Project.
According to him, “the government of Nigeria, through the office of the NCMM director general, has entered into dialogue with major museums in the West concerning the future of Nigeria`s antiquities in the diaspora. It is believed that dialogue and diplomacy will yield positive results.”
But protecting Nok sites from antiquity looters is a herculean task – the sites cover an area of about 1,000 sq km. However, the NCMM has initiated a multi-pronged strategy for addressing the problem. This includes educating the Nigerian public on the value of the terracottas, conducting and facilitating archaeological research, and working in close collaboration with security agencies to stop illicit trafficking.
Besides the terracotta figurines, Nok society is also known for its culture of iron smelting and blacksmith sites. In fact, the German team has confirmed a discovery made by Fagg that these Nok sites provide among the earliest remains of iron metallurgy in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Rupp believes that the Nok people either independently invented the production of iron or Nok territory was the cradle of iron-smithing in sub-Saharan Africa.
“In my personal opinion, and it is only a question of time before it’s proven, the Nok people might have invented a completely new technology, which finally covered the whole continent,” says Dr Rupp.
Radiocarbon dating on charcoal that the German team has gathered from a Nok iron smelter at a site called Intini yielded a date of between 519 and 410 BC, suggesting that iron technology was established earlier than previously thought by experts.
How and when Africans developed iron is important because metallurgy is considered a crucial marker in the shift to complex societies. Manufacturing metal means better tools for farming, hunting, and preparing food, as well as better weapons for waging war and gaining resources.
The production of iron needs technological knowledge as it is time-consuming and a lot of resources. Iron-working would have been done only by specialists whose daily needs would have been taken care of by the larger community, which is an important indicator of a complex society. These specialists might also have had prominent social and political positions.
Breunig and Rupp’s excavations have confirmed that iron and stone implements coexisted. Excavators are regularly finding iron tools, from some 70 Nok sites they have excavated so far. They found 16 fragments only a short distance from Nok stone axes, suggesting they were used in the same communities, maybe even in the same households. Breunig’s evidence proves that ancient West Africans moved from stone tools directly to iron, without an intervening copper age. In sub-Saharan Africa generally, people never experimented with copper or bronze – this is a leap that a few other parts of the world appear to have made. This belief is reinforced by the fact that researchers are yet to find evidence of copper smelting before iron smelting anywhere in West Africa.
Rupp and her colleagues were the first (and so far the only) scientists to discover Nok settlements. The number of hitherto unknown settlement sites they later found (characterised by an abundance of terracotta remains, potsherds, grinding stones, polished stone axes, and domestic structures made of stone) between Nok and Abuja, mostly located on mountain peaks, exceeded all expectations.
“If the density of sites is similar all over the Nok area, far more than a hundred new sites might be a realistic estimate,” says Rupp. Radiocarbon dating shows the sites around Kagarko, Janruwa, Janjala, and Akura stem from a period around 500 BC, thus underlining their contemporaneity and consequently revealing a high population density to have existed in the region.
Another important discovery relating to the Nok settlements was pearl millet cultivation, which was confirmed at all the sites. Thus, the Nok culture represents the earliest evidence of a sedentary farming complex in central Nigeria. The population increase and the existence of an efficient farming system are substantial arguments to hypothesise on Nok prosperity.
More than 7,500 artifacts were excavated in total, marking out the assemblages of Ungwar Kura as the most substantial collection of Nok cultural materials scientifically excavated and recorded to date.
The finds comprise pottery shards, fragments of terracotta figurines, and a few complete pieces, stone artifacts, mainly huge grinding stones and grinders, as well as ground stone axes.
Of particular importance are iron objects, which represent not only the first iron tools from a clear Nok context, but also belonging to the earliest finds of iron in West Africa. Breunig and Rupp have also discovered through recent excavations that Nok culture thrived for longer than scientists had previously thought. Data collected from excavations conducted during the 1960s and 70s placed the Nok culture, existing from 500 BCE to 200 AD.
But thanks to Breunig and Rupp’s recent archaeological investigations, they believe that Nok’s advanced society thrived from 1500 BCE to 400 AD (some of the figurines were dated with thermoluminescence, while others are the result of radiocarbon dates, made using associated seeds).
Breunig and Rupp’s research is beginning to answer the question of what existed before the Nok people and what followed.
Experts agree that there must have been an intermediary phase of development that the Nok society passed through before reaching the exalted heights of the terracottas. The evidence of this is now being tested scientifically.
According to the German researchers, they have discovered, at the centre of their survey area, figurines which differ from the classic Nok terracotta sculptures due to a rather crude styling, even though some attributes like the shape of the eyes, a conspicuous execution of the hairstyle, and the coarse inorganic temper of the clay clearly point to a relationship.
Says Rupp: “Whether this art pushes back the roots of Nok further in time or manifests the disappearance of the Nok tradition is currently being tested by OSL-dating of crystals extracted from the temper of one of these sculptures.”
For now, the world can only cross its fingers and wait expectantly as the tests go on.