Nok culture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the water spirits, see Nokke. For other uses, see NOK (disambiguation).
Nok culture
Geographical range West Africa
Period Iron Age
Dates circa 1000 B.C.E. — circa 300 C.E.
Type site Nok
Major sites Samun Dukiya, Taruga, Jos
Followed by Kwararafa
Nok sculpture, terracotta, Louvre
Female Statue
48 cm tall
Age: 900 to 1,500 years
Map of Nigeria showing the major sites of the Nok culture (clickable map)
Nok rider and horse
53 cm tall
Age: 1,400 to 2,000 years
Part of a series on the
History of Northern Nigeria
Northern Nigeria

Coordinates: 9°30′N 8°0′E / 9.500°N 8.000°E / 9.500; 8.000

The Nok culture appeared in Northern Nigeria around 1000 BCE and vanished under unknown circumstances around 300 CE in the region of West Africa. It is thought to have been the product of an ancestral nation that branched to create the Hausa, Gwari, Birom, Kanuri, Nupe and Jukun peoples. The Kwatarkwashi Culture or Sokoto Culture located to the North west of Nok is thought to be the same as or an earlier ancestor of the Nok.

Nok's social system is thought to have been highly advanced. The Nok culture was considered to be one of the earliest African producers 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" ([3], [4]). 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 BCE and possibly earlier. Christopher Ehret has suggested that iron smelting was independently discovered in the region prior to 1000 BCE.[1][2][3]


Their function is still unknown, but scientific field work has started in 2005 to systematically investigate the archaeological sites and to understand these sculptures within their archaeological context.[4][5][6] 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. Many further dates were retrieved in the course of new archaeological excavations, extending the beginnings of the Nok tradition even further back in time.[7]

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."


The Nok culture was discovered by Europeans in 1928 on the Jos Plateau during tin mining.[8]

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.[9][10]

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.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jared Diamond, 'Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies' (1997) Chapter 19
  2. ^ Duncan E. Miller and N.J. Van Der Merwe, 'Early Metal Working in Sub Saharan Africa' Journal of African History 35 (1994) 1-36
  3. ^ Minze Stuiver and N.J. Van Der Merwe, 'Radiocarbon Chronology of the Iron Age in Sub-Saharan Africa' Current Anthropology 1968. Tylecote 1975 (see below)
  4. ^ Breunig, P. (2014). Nok. African Sculpture in Archaeological Context. Frankfurt: Africa Magna.
  5. ^ Breunig, P. (2013). Nok - Ein Ursprung afrikanischer Skulptur. Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag.
  6. ^ Breunig, Peter, Kahlheber, Stefanie, and Rupp, Nicole. Exploring the Nok enigma. In: Antiquity Vol 82 Issue 316 June 2008
  7. ^ Breunig, P. (2014). Nok. African Sculpture in Archaeological Context. Frankfurt: Africa Magna.
  8. ^ Chesi, G. & Merzeder, G. (2006). The NOK Culture: Art in Nigeria 2500 Years Ago
  9. ^ "African Art nok Culture"[1]. Retrieved January 16, 2009
  10. ^ "New African/Black History Month", October 2006, [2]. Retrieved January 16, 2009
  11. ^ Mustapha Suleiman (February 3, 2013), France Hands Over Stolen Nigerian Artifacts Daily Trust.


  • Atwood, R. (2011). The NOK of Nigeria. Archaeology July/August 2011, 34-38.
  • Breunig, P. (ed.) (2014). Nok. African Sculpture in Archaeological Context. Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag. ISBN 978-3-937248-46-2
  • Breunig, P. & Rupp, N. (2006). Nichts als Kunst. Archäologische Forschungen zur früheisenzeitlichen Nok-Kultur in Zentral-Nigeria. Forschung Frankfurt 2-3, 73-76.
  • Boullier, C.; A. Person; J.-F. Saliège & J. Polet (2001). Bilan chronologique de la culture Nok et nouvelle datations sur des sculptures. Afrique: Archéologie & Arts 2, 9-28.
  • Fagg, A. (1972). A preliminary report on an occupation site in the Nok valley, Nigeria: Samun Dukiya, AF/70/1. West African Journal of Archaeology 2, 75-79.
  • Fagg, B. (1959). The Nok Culture in prehistory. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 1 (4), 288-293.
  • Fagg, B. (1968). The Nok Culture: Excavations at Taruga. The West African Archaeological Newsletter 10, 27-30.
  • Fagg, B. (1969). Recent work in West Africa: new light on the Nok Culture. World Archaeology 1 (1), 41-50.
  • Fagg, B., (1990): Nok terracottas. Lagos: National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
  • Jemkur, J. (1992). Aspects of the Nok Culture. Zaria.
  • Rupp, N.; Ameje, J.; Breunig, P. (2005). New studies on the Nok Culture of Central Nigeria. Journal of African Archaeology 3, 2: 283-290.
  • Rupp, N.; Breunig, P.; Kahlheber, S. (2008). Exploring the Nok enigma. Antiquity, Project gallery. Online publication:
  • Shaw, T., (1981). The Nok sculptures of Nigeria. Scientific American 244(2): 154-166.
  • Tylecote, R. (1975a). The origin of iron smelting in Africa. Westafrican Journal of Archaeology. 5, 1-9.
  • Tylecote, R. (1975b). Iron smelting at Taruga, Nigeria. Journal of Historical Metallurgy 9 (2), 49-56.
  • Olubunmi A.O.(2007) The Rise and Fall of The Yoruba Race, The 199 Publishing Palace ISBN 978-2457-38-8
  • Olubunmi A.O.(2009) On Ijesa Racial Purity, The 199 Publishing Palace ISBN 978-2458-17-1
  • Ayoade J.O.(1983) Introduction To Climatology For The Tropics, John Wiley & Sons ltd UK ISBN 0-471-10407-8