The Nok culture appeared in Northern Nigeria around 1000 BC and vanished under unknown circumstances around 300 AD in the region of West Africa. It is thought to have been the product of an ancestral nation that branched to create Benue-Congo peoples such as the Edo, Idoma, Igala, Igbo, Nupe and Yoruba. The Kwaterkwashi Culture or Sokoto Culture located to the northwest of Nok is thought to be related to the Nok. Nok's social system is thought to have been highly advanced. The Nok culture was considered to be the earliest sub-Saharan producer of life-sized Terracotta.
The refinement of this culture is attested to by the image of a Nok dignitary at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The dignitary is portrayed wearing a "crooked baton" (, ). The dignitary is also portrayed sitting with flared nostrils, and an open mouth suggesting performance. Other images show figures on horseback, indicating that the Nok culture possessed the horse.
Iron use, in smelting and forging for tools, appears in Nok culture in Africa at least by 550 BC and possibly earlier. Christopher Ehret has suggested that iron smelting was independently discovered in the region prior to 1000 BC.
Their function is still unknown, but scientific field work has started in 2005 to systematically investigate the archaeological sites. For the most part, the terracotta is preserved in the form of scattered fragments. That is why Nok art is well known today only for the heads, both male and female, whose hairstyles are particularly detailed and refined. The statues are in fragments because the discoveries are usually made from alluvial mud, in terrain made by the erosion of water. The terracotta statues found there are hidden, rolled, polished, and broken. Rarely are works of great size conserved intact making them highly valued on the international art market.
The terracotta figures are hollow, coil built, nearly life sized human heads and bodies that are depicted with highly stylized features, abundant jewellery, and varied postures.
Little is known of the original function of the pieces, but theories include ancestor portrayal, grave markers, and charms to prevent crop failure, infertility, and illness. Also, based on the dome-shaped bases found on several figures, they could have been used as finials for the roofs of ancient structures.
Margaret Young-Sanchez, Associate Curator of Art of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania in The Cleveland Museum of Art, explains that most Nok ceramics were shaped by hand from coarse-grained clay and subtractively sculpted in a manner that suggests an influence from wood carving. After some drying, the sculptures were covered with slip and burnished to produce a smooth, glossy surface. The figures are hollow, with several openings to facilitate thorough drying and firing. The firing process most likely resembled that used today in Nigeria, in which the pieces are covered with grass, twigs, and leaves and burned for several hours.
In 1928, the first find was accidentally unearthed at a level of 24 feet in an alluvial tin mine in the vicinity of the village of Nok near the Jos Plateau region of Nigeria (Folorunso 32). As a result of natural erosion and deposition, Nok terracottas were scattered at various depths throughout the Sahel grasslands, causing difficulty in the dating and classification of the mysterious artifacts.
Luckily, two archaeological sites, Samun Dukiya and Taruga, were found containing Nok art that had remained unmoved. Radiocarbon and thermo-luminescence tests narrowed the sculptures’ age down to between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago, making them some of the oldest in West Africa.
Because of the similarities between the two sites, archaeologist Graham Connah believes that "Nok artwork represents a style that was adopted by a range of iron-using farming societies of varying cultures, rather than being the diagnostic feature of a particular human group as has often been claimed."
Lt-Colonel John Dent-Young, an Englishman, was leading mining operations in the Nigerian village of Nok. During these operations, one of the miners found a small terracotta of a monkey head. Other finds included a terracotta human head and a foot. The colonel, at a later date, had these artifacts placed in a museum in Jos.
In 1932, a group of 11 statues in perfect condition were discovered near the city of Sokoto. Since that time, statues coming from the city of Katsina were brought to light. Although there are similarities to the classical Nok style, the connection between them is not clear yet.
Later still, in 1943, near the village of Nok, in the center of Nigeria, a new series of clay figurines were discovered by accident while mining tin. A worker had found a head and had taken it back to his home for use as a scarecrow, a role that it filled (successfully) for a year in a yam field. It then drew the attention of the director of the mine who bought it. He brought it to the city of Jos and showed it to the trainee civil administrator, Bernard Fagg, an archaeologist who immediately understood its importance. He asked all of the miners to inform him of all of their discoveries and was able to amass more than 150 pieces. Afterwards, Bernard and Angela Fagg ordered systematic excavations that revealed many more profitable lucky finds dispersed over a vast area, much larger than the original site. In 1977, the number of terra cotta objects discovered in the course of the mining excavation amounted to 153 units, mostly from secondary deposits (the statuettes had been carted by floods near the valleys) situated in dried-up riverbeds in savannahs in Northern and Central Nigeria (the Southwestern portion of the Jos Plateau).
The archaeologist Bernard Fagg, in his studies on the Nok culture, identified the Nok culture with central Nigerian groups such as the Ham (Jaba) ethnic group of Southern Kaduna State, based on similarities between some of the cultural practices and dressing of those modern central Nigerian groups and the figures depicted in the Nok art.
In February 2013, Daily Trust reported that the Nigerian Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and National Orientation repossessed five Nok statuettes looted by a French thief in August 2010. The pieces had been seized by French customs agents, and were repatriated following a Nigerian government Directive. Antiquities analysts estimated the sculptures to be between 2,700 and 3,400 years old.
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