Nok terracotta has gripped the imagination from the earliest discovery of clay fragments by Bernard Fagg in 1928, to the current discourse surrounding them in 2016.
In this article I provide an overview of these sculptures, discuss their stylistic characteristics and origin. Furthermore, I question the technological skill required to make these pieces, and the discrepancies perceived in the current conclusions drawn about the Nok artistic tradition. I discuss the trade in antiquities and the influence of archaeologists and anthropologists since the year 2000 and an increasingly politicised art world. This explanation includes insight into fake production and describes the current ethical and moral dilemma facing international museums. The conclusion is continued in part 2 and proposes how one might positively engage with the current discourse.
Nok artworks are disquieting and their civilization even more so.. That a culture in the heart of the continent grew to a level of classical perfection 2000 years ago, produced sculptures of astonishing beauty and technical excellence and then disappeared causes one to question who they were and what happened to them. What we do know is that they inhabited the Jos region of Nigeria, from Kagara in the West to Katsina ala in the East, an area roughly the size of Portugal, and today these people are referred to as the Nok. This term was coined from the name of the village where in 1928, the first clay fragments were found. Since then, clay human heads, fragmented body parts, wild and domestic animals, mythical beings and complete human figures have been excavated. The scale of these pieces varies dramatically: It ranges from small necklace pendants, of a few centimetres to sculptures over a meter in height. Fragments show that large architectural items once existed. The human figures, some of them superbly adorned, are portrayed in various poses: Some are kneeling, genuflecting, sitting and standing. Today one speculates as to the sculptures initial function and purpose. Was it spiritual, commemorative or were they somehow used in judgement?
Since 1928, many pieces have been excavated and in the last 16 years new discoveries have been made at Taruga, Katsina ala and Sekoto, usually found between 59 and 394 cm below the surface. Climatic conditions, whether the sculpture moved due to inundation and the geology of the soil influence the preservation of an item. Initially, these terracottas were uncovered by amateur tin miners and their negligent excavation left items broken or destroyed. Another reason for poor condition, is attributed to the scale and the complex poses of the sculpture: the raised v- shaped right arms (possibly clutching lances) of many sculptures are missing.
Archaeologists date sculptures by means of thermoluminescence to roughly between 1000 Bc and 1000 Ad, and there is every indication that these sculptures are the residue of a civilization with a flourishing artistic tradition and a remarkable knowledge of the complex technical skills involved in making and firing large scale ceramic items. lt is possible that this civilization, (purported to have originated in the middle East), based their economy on metalworking and settled in Jos because of the prevalence of tin in the area.
Tin was used at this time in the manufacture of Bronze, a sought after commodity. Ingots were traded throughout West Africa by sailing upriver to Timbuktou or by following routes across the Sahel. The founders of Carthage, directly to the North, due to maritime supremacy, monopolized the tin trade in the Mediterranean, sourcing it from various areas. Copper, also necessary for bronze production was mined in Takedda, just North of the Nok region. Carthage was reached with camel trains from the Nok area via: Katsina-Takedda- ghat- Carthage.
The tin trade generated an economy capable of driving the cultural transformation necessary for this prolific terracotta industry. A disposable income is evident from the portrayal of their material culture in this medium. Detail on sculpture is meticulous. Garments and jewellery rendered with naturalism. This included clay facsimiles of: lip plugs (originally quartz) and jewellery: Depictions include large collars and thick anklets intricately wrought from metal. Beadwork of large coral, carnelian and metal beads (were similar to those later depicted on the later Benin and Ife bronzes). This jewellery, much of it imported (coral from the Mediterranean), is indicative of their extensive trade network and manufacturing capabilities.
Nok sculpture depicts many costume styles and leopard skin garments. This, together with the jewellery may distinguish the status of a variety of people or Gods. If Gods, one could argue that the same image would be repeated amongst the plethora of artefacts, which it is not. One questions how come the evidence provided by their material culture, as seen on their sculptures, is ignored and current thought postulate that these artworks derived merely from a farming community?
Can one conceive of people accustomed to the rigours of hoeing and planting and intense physical labour dressed like that? Have Western archaeologists based their findings merely on the extensive evidence of agriculture, which logically would have been possible to a culture competent in manufacturing metal agricultural tools, or as discussed later in the text, were they unsure when faced with mining technologies defying existing theories.
One of the arguments proposed by experts is based on lack of historical evidence in situ. To quote from settlement archaeology: artefacts retrieved from excavations appear isolated, without significant connections between them and no given geographical configuration making it impossible to recreate the extent to which people exploited the resources within the environment. Archaeologists claim they cannot study this culture as many pieces have been transported to the West. lt is regrettable that pieces were removed by amateurs from the 1930s onwards without archaeological record but evidence indicates that many still remain in situ. At the same time, no artworks, anywhere in the world, are hermetically sealed in time and context. For me one of the most lucid statements in this regard has been made by Sanjay Subramanyam who comments that: ‘’a national culture that does not have the confidence to declare that like all other national cultures it too is a hybrid… a mixture of elements derived from chance encounters and unforeseen consequences, can only take the path of Xenophobia and cultural paranoia’’
Nok sculptures, loved and appreciated for their extraordinary metaphysical presence, naturalism of form, and delicacy of craftsmanship were acquired by collectors and museums in Nigeria and internationally, from the 1930s onwards. Collectively, these pieces portray an incredible range of human expression and their effect on viewers is profound. Figures are aesthetically beautiful and poses striking, but depictions also include the fullness of life, of ill health and deformity. The characteristic large heads with triangular shaped eyes and cut out pupils are visually unsettling. Although built in the artistic style of the Nok, each piece was individual, reinventing a sense of portraiture and commemoration. Nok sculpture is recognised by some as being on a par or greater than classical Greek art, which is considered as the ultimate canon of Western civilization.
Some may comment that the adornments are too luxurious, seductive even, and that items were specifically faked and altered for the art market. Perhaps in a lot of cases they were. But these body adornments are evident even on those pieces excavated early on, before reproductions. Mark Rasmussen in his book: original-copy-fake proposes that unrelated items of age appropriate matter, were added to ground up clay dust and binders to create pieces.
This happened, especially post 2005. Fakery is not a recent development in either the African or the European art market, as those who were burnt buying dodgy renaissance paintings decades ago, could testify. African dealers identified by name on the internet as forgers have their own recipes for creating faux and their tactics have been known about for years by their counterparts, who utilize technological advancements to assist detection.
When sought after artworks command top dollar, it would be naive to think that all pieces are kosher. Dealers, collectors and laymen acknowledge this fact as they do that Nike shoes and Rolex watches are sometimes faked in Chinese back yards.
In recent times, it is common for the Nigerian authorities to endorse the fact that Nok is faked in order to disrupt the confidence of collectors thereby halting the demand and flow of antiquities to the West. However for a more balanced view, there is evidence contradicting the above documenting that “complete” figures with adornment were excavated early on. For example: ln 1932, eleven perfect figures were found at Sekoto by John Dent Young.
Recently, at Samun Dukiya and Taruga, Nok sculptures were found that had remained undisturbed for centuries. In the article entitled: The Nok of Nigeria, appearing in archaeology magazine, the author describes Breunig, an archaeologist from Goethe University, Frankfurt, as uncovering complete Nok figures and I deal with some of the extent of Breunig’s discoveries later in the text.
Archaeologists have searched for the source of the clay used for sculpture production throughout the Jos area, characterized by its gritty appearance, proposing that due to its uniform nature, ceramic production was centralised in a certain area. They have hereto been unsuccessful in locating the exact source. Considering the extent of architectural and sculptural production, I propose that these artworks were built from a manipulation of clay material and that it did not originate from a single source, or deposit.: clay was collected from riverbanks and intentionally mixed by a sculptor or a middle man, with crushed mica, quarz and grog which added strength, gave a characteristic grainy texture and more importantly increased the refractory index of the clay body so that they could be fired to a higher temperature rendering increased durability to these works. Otherwise, is it possible that terracotta heads and body parts be partially preserved for two thousand years despite water erosion?
Artworks were hand-built using the coil technique. Quite a feat considering the scale and formal arrangement of the limbs, some extending outwards from the body in active poses, other limbs folded into a series of triangular shapes. Large figures were built first and limbs and heads were finished separately and later joined. Facial features, coiffures and details of jewellery were modelled by means of both an additive and subtractive sculptural technique. Finely ground red slip was applied to limbs, and burnished to a glossy finish, imparting a smooth skin-like surface to the figure
Archaeologists speculate that the open pit firing used by women for baking pots today, reaching 5-600 degrees, in a reduction atmosphere, is the same as that used over 2000 years ago for large scale items. Both logic and evidence contradicts this. Traditionally men in Africa make figurative sculpture (and the scale and weight of these terracottas, would require men to move), whereas women mostly make pots. Nothing indicates that both sculptural genres at this time, shared the same firing technique, otherwise more pots would have survived at Nok sites.
The durability, scale and complexity of Nok sculpture necessitates it being fired to a higher temperature. Blacksmiths in Africa were often sculptors and they would require the technical skill, to moderate and control a uniform temperature of large scale pieces otherwise breakages would have occurred at critical times during the firing. The development of the cut out pupils, nostrils and open mouths on these sculptures were as much an expedient feature to assist in the firing process and the release of vapour, as it was a development of their signature style. None of the intricacies related to firing clay, or the technical mastery of the Nok sculptors, has been commented on by experts.
Archaeologists discovered evidence of Nok figures inside and around the 13 furnaces used for tin smelting at Teruga and propose that they were deities for smelting processes. This may be so, but it is possible that furnaces and shafts used for generating intense heat and smelting tin, may have also been efficiently harnessed for firing clay.
The technological advancement of this civilization is attested to by Tom Fenn, University of Arizona who states that according to research, both stone and iron tools are also found at Nok sites indicating that this civilization clearly skipped the copper age and may have been considered amongst the most technologically innovative in the world, at that time.
In the last ten years the quantity and variety of Nok artefacts indicates a larger production and population than first imagined. Archaeologists Breunig of Goethe University, Frankfurt and Rupp are purported to have found 1700 pieces of terracotta in 450 sqr yards, in one morning at a particular site. Naturally, news of discoveries like this, was swiftly disseminated, and due to the lack of adequate government strategy and resources for conservation and security, areas such as Taruga, Kafanchan, Kagarko became inundated by large numbers of unemployed people looking for Nok pieces.
Nigerian art Dealers recognising the value of these extraordinary artworks, organise themselves to benefit from bonanzas like this, collecting and selling these items on to European dealers. Journalist Patrick Darling has reported on a syndicate of Europeans responsible for colluding with locals, and the disappearance of heritage is voiced with dismay by journalist Kwame Opoku.
At the same time the discovery of new sites after 2000 resulted in an influx of archaeologists from Western countries arriving in Nigeria to make a name for themselves. Many of these were unfamiliar with local conditions and customs. The problem was highlighted by Dr. Ogundele of Okayama University in 1996, who wrote that all archaeologists in Nigeria are mainly European, on short term contracts, and unable to embark on consistent long term surveys. The geological character of the country is complex, making field work an obstacle, with the acidity of the soil adversely affecting wooden archaeological remains, and the paucity of data encouraging unrestrained speculation resulting in insupportable hypotheses by pioneer archaeologists concerning the nature of cultural change in Nigeria.
Lack of funding and dating facilities were noted, with samples being sent to Europe for processing. Do academics in Nigeria on research grants from American or other universities, have the financial backing, and the man power necessary to collect, collate and adequately investigate all the excavated pieces or perform a consistent analysis of this work.
After 2000, the role Western foreign policy played in Africa changed and on the one hand it advanced the politicization of heritage. At the same time, anthropologists moved into a new field of study – that of art making. Due to the publicity, the Nigerian government became alerted to the extent of sculptures leaving the country. Besides the obvious loss of its heritage it was also a perception of lost government revenue.
Local Nigerians became aware of these new cultural concepts and web terminology regarding Nok became associated with repatriation. Nok was entered on the icom (international council of museums) red list that institutes common policy for fighting against the illicit traffic in African cultural property, and banned from sale. But the Nok debate was about to become more complex: There has been a ban on export of antiquities from Nigeria without permission since 1953. Consolidated in the Museum and Monuments act 1990 section 25 (1) provides that no antiquity shall be exported from Nigeria without a permit issued on that behalf by the commission.
ln 1998 the French government bought 3 Nok sculptures from a Brussels dealer, for 2.5 million franc intended for the new Musee du Branlv opened in 2006. The French were aware of both the icom list and the lack of museum permits for these pieces from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. President Chirac intervened in the ensuing fracas over the Nok pieces and signed an agreement with Nigeria acknowledging ownership, renewable every 25 yrs.
Besides the various possibilities raised by Western experts on how Nigeria should cope with the heritage problem it was exacerbated by examples such as the following; On 27 Oct, 2013, Modern Ghana carried a story concerning an exhibition of 100 Nok items organized by Frankfurt University of pieces “recovered by Frankfurt University archaeologists”. Let’s point out that this 2013 exhibition follows a protracted argument in 2012 of Nigerian archaeologists accusing the German team of stealing Nok pieces and sending them to Germany without controls on the Nigerian side. At the time the Germans responded that pieces were being sent to Germany for examination and repair.
In 2012 French authorities opened a crate destined for America and alerted U.S customs regarding the transportation of Nok items. These were impounded, in New York, the dealer Moutala Diop was arrested and the Nigerian spokesman stated that the pieces disappeared from Lagos museum and that the director general of the Commission for Museums and Monuments was under investigation. lt was never proved the items were stolen from the museum, due to lack of evidence.
Construction Company Julius Berger was alleged to have carted away 50 collections of Nok terracotta worth 2 million dollars and it was alleged that staff corruption in the National Commission for Museums and Monuments abetted this procedure. Nigerian dealers also stated that sculptures in Lagos museum have been substituted. In the light of this, the complex issue regarding the security and restitution of pieces becomes problematic, and Frank Willet advised. “..that disputed items in Western museums not be returned to Nigeria unless they were properly protected”.
On the other hand however, should African countries be dictated to by archaeologists and anthropologists from the West? The sale of artefacts, some excavated, has been a source of income for local populations in times of uncertainty all over Africa for centuries. This is an accepted custom especially amongst nomadic people, who have a mobile economy and for example buy silver as investment in times of plenty and sell their jewellery to traders in times of necessity, drought and famine. This sort of economic model existed placidly for centuries and is an accepted means of transacting business.
The difference between the implementation of this ancient custom and Western moralizing led to the following media embarrassment for the French government:
French archaeologists located evidence of stone tools in the Termit hills region, Niger dating from circa 1400 BC. In 2O12/13 the French government attempted to compel the Northern Warlord in Niger to stop the exportation of prehistoric stone tools from this area. His televised response was that these items had been in the ground for millennia, and those excavating them are earning an income in an honest way, to feed their families, and therefore he would do nothing to impede their employment. This view, clearly relevant to those living in Africa, requires careful consideration.