By Adefoyeke Ajao
When Nigeria’s indigenous artefacts are mentioned, you’re most likely to hear about the busts of Benin and Ife, and you’re left wondering if these are the only pre-colonial artefacts that were found in Nigeria. Despite gracing many local and international museums, the terracotta statuettes that are peculiar to Northern Nigeria’s Nok culture often fall into these overlooked groups.

 

 

The Nok terracottas are regarded as one of the most ancient African artworks, dating back to a civilization that existed between 500BC – 200AD. They acquired their name from the small village, in present-day Kaduna State, where the first sculpture was discovered in 1928 by Lt. Col.

 

 

 

 

John Dent-Young, an Englishman who was leading in tin mining operations around the area. In 1943, the sculptures were brought to the attention of Bernard Fagg, a British archaeologist who began to research the statuettes and their history. Fagg had discovered a terracotta head that was being used as a scarecrow in a yam field and realised that it bore a striking resemblance to the one Dent-Young had discovered earlier.

 

 

Since then, many more sculptures have been discovered and excavations are still ongoing to date. Most recently, the Nok artefacts were in the news for the wrong reasons when two German archaeologists were abducted in Kaduna, in 2017.
The sculptures are made from terracotta (fired clay) and are usually of humans or animals. The humans have complex hairstyles or sometimes, headdresses; their heads are usually spherical/round while their eyes look like upside-down triangles with holes in them. Their noses are flat and broad, while their ears are quite exaggerated. Some historians believe that these sculptures were part of ancient funeral rituals. However, while some are a beauty to behold, some are quite grotesque, depicting a variety of ailments.
It is uncertain where exactly the culture that produced these terracotta sculptures originated from. Since most of the artworks have been excavated from sites spread out within Nigeria’s North Central region, it is believed that they developed across multiple areas with shared commerce, tradition and relationships.
Image credits: Okefenokee Heritage Centre
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