Beyond Art

The Nok culture is famous for its clay figurines, some even almost life-sized, which are one of the oldest examples of sculptural art in West Africa. Beyond this, the smelting furnaces from Nok sites that were excavated in the 1960s still are an evidence for early application of metallurgy in West Africa. As the processes of producing even life-sized terracotta figurines and smelting ores are sophisticated, the knowledge of specialized persons is necessary. To study the socio-cultural backgrounds of this development a long-term project, financened by the German Research Foundation has been established.

For a long time, the Nok culture mostly was being noted for the gorgeous sculptures and well-known in the international art scene since they have been sold for sizeable amounts of money. A typical feature for the representation of animals and humans is the elliptic or triangular shape of the eyes with dimples or holes to depict the pupil. Individual attributes like beards, adornments and extravagant hairstyles or headgears are parts of the elaborated terracottas and attest the skills of the manufacturer. The rough and granular surface is caused by erosion. Due to the weathering the former smooth slip was peeled off. Beside miniatures, which are only a few centimeters large, the terracotta figurines were produced by adding clay successively, and hence they are hollow. The temper is very rough as they used granitic grit for the clay. Only exceptionally the figures are whole. At sites that were documented scientifically only fragments have been found.

History of discovery

For a long period of time there wasn't any base to describe Nok as a ‘culture'. ‘Culture' requires a structure with recurring elements that are clearly defined and reappear among the finds as well as in the manner of the economy system and settlement patterns. Actually, nothing was known about the cultural background of the Nok culture since only the terracottas from illicit diggings have been noted – and for those the context of the find situation doesn't exist. Therefore any assumptions concerning the purpose of the terracottas or its cultural context are exceedingly speculative. There are proper arguments to understand them as “royal art” or as antecedents of the famous Ife figurines, but they still lack evidence.

The spare scientifically founded information about the Nok culture is due to the British archaeologist Bernard Fagg. In the mid of the 1960s he excavated Nok sites close to the Nigerian capital Abuja together with his daughter Angela. The most famous site is Taruga. There they found several iron smelting furnaces that are 2500 years old. They are still one of the oldest indication for metallurgy in West Africa. Nevertheless, afterwards there was no endeavor to research the cultural background of the Nok culture. Nevertheless, amazingly at first no efforts were made to get to know ?? the cultural background of the Nok culture.

New Research on the Nok Culture

In 2005, when we discovered the first sites the consequences of the international art trade got visible. Almost all of the sites were affected by illegal diggings and some of them were totally destroyed. Yet small scale excavations in the intact areas are possible in most cases. Nowadays we know some sites that are almost or even entirely undisturbed. Numerous excavations enabled the creation of a chronology of the pottery and insights into the economy, population density and metallurgy.

The beginning of complex societies: The Nok Culture in Central Nigeria (long-term project of the DFG)

Since 2009 the focus of the long-term project of the German Research Foundation (DFG) has been the research of the Nok culture. The base for it was established during the archaeological investigations of the DFG Research Group 510 “Ecological and cultural change in West and Central Africa”. Main topic were the socio-cultural changes that were occurring in the mid of the first millennium B. C. in the Nigerian Chad Basin and Cameroon.

Some of the characteristics of these changes like increased population density, a solid agriculture and specialized handcraft could also be documented in the Nok culture. Promising results were crucial to draft a concept for investigations for the next 12 years and the funding was granted by the DFG as a long-term project. Considering the dimensions of the study area we concentrated on a small area (app. 340 km²) in the centre of the distribution area. In later stages of the project the information acquired from the key study area should be verified in the remaining distribution area. The project consists of four stages:


Stage 1: Prospection, chronology and infrastructure

Intensive prospection relieved about 250 Nok sites. More than 50 sites were studied in a small scale excavation to provide information for a chronology of the pottery. The construction of a research station has had utterly positive effects. During the fieldwork numerous people provided information about new sites.

Stage 2: Settlement structures

Since the first excavations of Nok sites the interpretation of the site e. g. as a settlement was very problematic due to the poor occurrence of the features. Regarding the density of the settlement some questions remain unanswered: were there several, contiguous settlements, larger settlements with different activity zones and areas of life or widely spread homesteads? This should be answered in the second stage with large scale excavations and systematic arranged test pits. Using those methods several contiguous sites should be relieved.

Stage 3: Regional diversity

The knowledge from the stages one and two should be verified in the remaining study area of the Nok culture.

Stage 4: Completion of the project