The Mystery of the Nok Culture
Only within the last century years has the Western world realized the extent of civilization present in ancient Africa. Up until this time, and throughout most of the colonization of Africa, Europeans had been able to overlook the remarkable civilizations of this continent, quietly believing that the only artifact-producing ancient civilizations were isolated in such known locations as Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle East. Then, in 1936, in a small tin mine near the village of Nok, excavators found a small terra cotta sculpture, apparently the head of a monkey. As Gadalla reports, “We do not know what the people called themselves, so the culture was named after the town of Nok where the first object was found.” (Gadalla, 143) This early name, drawn from a speculative ignorance, prefigured the decades of ignorance to come. To this day, despite the fact that thousands of Nok artifacts have come to light in one way or another, history’s knowledge of the people is limited to bare speculation. What we do know is gleaned from the artifacts themselves, and from speculation based on the traditions, lifestyles, and recollections of neighboring cultures.
As Roy Sieber explains in the preface to Werner Gillon’s analysis of African Art, “the well-known Nok terra cotta sculptures… are supported by remarkably few archeological data… we know next to nothing of the parent culture or of the importance of the sculptures in that culture. Further, nothing is known with confidence of the origins of the culture, its art or its development, or of its influence on later arts…” The historian’s lack of knowledge concerning the original Nok people is a result of several factors: looting of the original sites and lack of concerted effort to excavate them in archeologically sound ways, and the related issue of finding artifacts out of context and out of time. Despite –and in some ways because of– the fact that the unauthorized excavation and sale of Nok antiquities is illegal in Nigeria and globally, the entire area known to be populated by the Nok has been under intense pressure by impoverished natives digging for artifacts and selling them at absurdly low prices on the international market. Even museums are being plundered by curators and thieves for the sake of private collections. “Both dealers and collectors keep their actions covert; and items only very rarely come to light. Consequently, there is almost no record of what Nigeria has lost: almost two complete ancient cultures have been looted, and there are no photographs, no records of associated artifacts, no mapping of past settlement distribution, and no noting of stylistic comparisons or archaeological provenances.” (Darling) The power of Islam and Christianity in Nigeria has made the situation far worse, for both of these religions look with fear and superstition on artifacts of a “pagan” past and may even actively encourage the destruction or disposal of antiquities which were formerly used in pagan cultures. “the value of past material culture is not imbued at an early age… The best elements of Nigeria’s past culture are becoming bulldozered, eroded, burnt or stolen.” (Darling) Purposeful looting and private collecting are not the only threats to study of the Nok, however. The issue is further complicated by the fact that most artifacts which have been preserved for the researcher have been divorced from their original context both by the intervention of time and by the method of their discovery. “Most [non-looter] finds have been accidentally made during tin mining, and the use and purpose of the figures (the heads all appear to have broken off whole figures) can only be guessed. They were rolled and damaged by alluvial washes, and none have ever been found in their original settings…” (Gillan, 66)
From this tragic loss of surrounding data, the interested student is able to retrieve only that which is innate in the artifacts themselves and that which surrounding cultures suggest with their own stories and lives. Comparative understanding can, however, be somewhat difficult because of the ancient nature of the Nok artifacts. The famous terra cotta statuary that has made the Nok culture famous dates from between 500 B.C.E. To A.D. 200, and the degree of sophistication and development shown in these statues points to a derivation and development from significantly earlier ceramic traditions. (Gillan) In the interpretation of these statues, most students will attempt to link their use with that of similar cultures — however, there is a great deal of debate concerning which other cultures most closely approximate the original Nok experience. The most common academic explanations link them with the Yoruba people whose metal statuary shares many traits in common with the Nok terra cotta works, and whose sacred city of Ife is located within a reasonable migratory distance. At the very least, a common ancestry between the modern Yoruba cannot be disproved or discounted. Another common theory follows the Nok’s knowledge of iron-working. “Knowledge of iron-working, they believed, had been acquired from the Middle East, and had been refined between about 500 and 300 BC by metal workers of the Nok culture… Equipped with this “tool kit,” believed historians, speakers of Bantu languages colonized remarkably diverse environments across the southern half of the continent.” (Giblin) However, the colonization theory, has often been discounted by more modern researchers, who suggest that the Bantu language was not spread through ironbound conquest but by a “very gradual, generation-by-generation spread of farming communities in search of fresh soils…. [and possibly] also through the adoption of Bantu languages (perhaps as trade lingua franca) by previously-established populations.” (Giblin) In this case, the Nok may have already been a Bantu speaking people when exposure to Rwandan iron-working people introduced that practice. In either of these explanations, one may draw some explanations for their artwork from the activity of more recent artists throughout this area. In such a case, the statues of the Nok and their other pottery creations may be interpreted in the light of a polytheistic, rather primitive system on ancestor worship and animism which popular Christian imagination has generally understood the African native faiths to be.
However, there is yet another theory which throws a more complicated look at the Nok artistic culture. African researcher Moustafa Gadalla suggests in his book Exiled Egyptians: the Heart of Africa that the Nok people, like many other tribes throughout Africa, were inspired and guided in their artistic and scientific and cultural experience by the presence of African-Egyptian peoples who had come into this land fleeing religious and political persecution in their own country. Gadalla suggests that Africa and Egypt were always joined in many complicated ways, and that what is left of Egyptian culture in the world today exists in Africa. The appearance of sophisticated terra cotta and metalworking in Nok culture appears to roughly coincide with a period of exile in Egypt created by outside invasion, and so this may have some basis in reality. In fact, some of the most convincing evidence for Gadalla’s perspective is drawn from an analysis of the methods and themes of the art in places like Nok. The importance of this theory for understanding the art of the Nok is that the generally artistic purpose of Egyptian art was often very different than that which is perceived to be true of “primitive” African cultures.
So in approaching an understanding of Nok culture through their art, one may draw either upon Egypt-based interpretations, or on those of the surrounding latter-day tribes. Either way, certain elements are clear and deserve to be explicated. First, the Nok sculptures are clearly the earliest known sculptures to have been found in Sub-Sahara Africa, but many later sculpture traditions such as those in Ife and Benin appear to be related. (Gadalla) Secondly, even among much later artistic traditions, the Nok remain distinctive for the high quality and sophistication of their work. They have a “distinctive tradition of terra cotta sculpture, which is abstractly stylized and geometric in conception, and is admired both for its artistic expression and for the high technical standards of its production.” (Gadalla, 142) In addition to their terra cotta work, they appear to have some knowledge of metal working, and “the Nok culture affords evidence of metallurgical skills in tin, as well as in iron. The lost wax process of casting was used for tim products. To repeat, this method of casting was only known in ancient Egypt.” (Gadalla, 143) Whether or not they descended from the Egyptians, this at least showed a significant degree of sophistication. Thirdly, the Nok had a very particular and unique style which is not exactly duplicated elsewhere, either in Egypt or in the surrounding cultures. For example, “the modeling was always very expert, the figures built up from elements: with head, torso, coiffure, jewelry and other parts being fashioned seperately… joined by scoring or key grooving…” (Gillan, 66) The stylization of the characters has already been mentioned, but it is worth further pointing out that while animals were generally carved in a very naturalistic and proportional way, humans were shown disproportionately and with uniquely African features. “The completed sculptures all have disproportionately large heads. In nature the ratio of head to body is about one to seven, whereas in Nok sculptures it is about one to three or four. These are the so-called ‘African proportions.” (Gillan, 66) In addition to finding statues of humans and animals, excavators have also recovered “small, baked clay bowls and cooking pots… besides a few iron implements and the remains of smelting furnaces.” (Shillington, 47)
There appear to be three basic approaches to Nok statuary and culture. The first interpretation is very practical and focuses only on reporting what is seen and what can be obviously inferred from the artifacts while admitting that nothing is actually known of the culture. In this vein, we can discover such things as dress style: “the people of the culture had no woven textiles but used various knotted or plaited fibres. No shoes or sandals are indicated on any figures so far. / Much jewelry adorns the sculptures: bracelets, necklets, anklets, and beads of various types, but no rings or fingers and no earrings.” (Gillan, 63) We may also learn from the existence of such complicated work that the culture was “past the ‘hunter and gatherer’ stage in which the art images reflect animals and hunt, [because it] tended to portray human beings… although the purpose of the art may be funerary, ceremonial, religious, political and so on. The art is also used to mark the important events and times in individuals and the community’s life.” (Hoover) The development of artists as tradesmen and the creation of many artifacts tends to indicate a division of labor generally associated with more advanced agriculture and herding lifestyles, and the existence of metal implements indicates a sufficient division of labor to allow for mining and possibly other trade. As Harris records, “where Nok culture developed, cultivators existed as early as 2000-1000 B.C.” The presence of metal farming tools in the same territories as sculptures tends to strengthen the evidence for a more advanced agricultural environment. Additionally the presence of stylization and naturalism side by side indicates a certain philosophical or religious element in the creation of art, indicating that these are not mere representations but important symbols of some sort. A perspective which does not take into account other cultural norms may be far less likely than any other approach to suggest that these statues were used for funeral purposes, simply because they have never been located in the vicinity of human remains, and what is known of their place of discovery tends to point to more household-type usage:
Most of the terra cottas [found and stolen by looters] came from under flat stone slabs laid horizontally about 60 cm or so below the surface; but, curiously, there were no reports of buried skeletons in their vicinity. The finds included complete figurines about a metre high and considerably better than anything previously excavated. There were ‘action pieces’ of women grinding, and of men leaning elbows on their knees. There were face masks…[and] Humanized heads of various animals included dog and snake effigies (the most common) and some much rarer ones of cat and rhinocerous. Snakes were a common decoration on many pots.” (Darling)
The second vein of interpretation is based on surrounding tribes. For example, Gillan takes this tactic when he writes: “A number of heads and bodies, depicting deformities or ailments (similar to diseases portrayed in Ibibio masks), may well have been used for magico-medical purposes” (66) Taking this approach, there seem to be indications that the statues were used for a variety of religious purposes. Surrounding tribes in Benin have frequently used lifelike statues, not unlike the terra cottas found in Nok, as part of ancestral altars through which they either invoked the spirits of their ancestors or prayed for them. Statues may also have been used as representations of the divine. There are other options as well. They could have been used “with funeral ceremonies, ancestor cults or other religious rituals. They might have been conceived as representations of chiefs — though not as their portraits — or as mythical beings and spirits… Others may have served as grave figures…charms and fertility amulets, possibly worn as pendents. (Gillan, 66) Most surrounding cultures have been polytheistic/animistic and either worship or placate a wide range of deities. “Janus figures” found in Nok may have been used like those in surrounding cultures, to “express the male/female duality of human nature.” (Gillan, 66) Additionally, even today ceramic figures are used as finials on many roofs and shrines, and Gillan speculates that terra cotta figures might have taken this place centuries before.
The third vein of interpretation looks at the Nok statues and culture in the context of Egyptian history. This approach could point to the use of small clay figures in Egyptian funerary work — these objects, called Bushapti, were used to represent servants or family members for the dead in the afterlife, and were not always buried immediately with the body. The common findings of beads and snakes in Nok work has also been linked to Egyptian traditions of creating “mummy beads” and using the snake as a primal cultic imagery. The frequency of Zoomorphic figures could also be linked to Egyptian traditions. It is interesting to note that the Jukon (who claim, with some evidence, to be descended from the Nok) refer to the Bennu river as Anu (the Egyptian name for the worship center of the sung god Ra), speak of themselves as the sun worshippers, and speak of their ancestral king as the son of the sun god (an Egyptian tradition). This link might lend some credence to interpreting the Nok works in the light of Egyptian traditions, linking their statuary with ideas concerning the survival of the soul in the afterlife.
As this survey has no doubt made clear, there is not complete consensus on the relationship between the Nok art and their long lost culture. The tragedy of looting and the loss of cultural/archeological context for surviving artifacts has made a true exploration of the Nok history extremely difficult and speculative. What can be known for certain is that prior to 500 B.C.E, at a time when Africa was once thought to be completely plagued by intellectual darkness, there existed a civilization with the ability to create advanced and symbolic relics of a civilization where hierarchy, art, and science prevailed.
Darling, Patrick. “The Rape of Nok and Kwatakwashi: the crisis in Nigerian Antiquities.” Culture Without Context: The Newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Center, Issue 6 Spring 2000. http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/IARC/cwoc/issue6/Nok-Kwatakwashi.htm
Davidson, Basil. Africa in History. New York: Touchstone, 1991.
Harris, Joseph. Africans and the History. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
Hoover, M. “South from the Sahara: Early African Art ” Art History Home. San Antonio College. http://www.accd.edu/sac/vat/arthistory/arts1303/Africa.htm
Gaddalla, Moustaffa. Exiled Egyptians. Greensboro, NC: Tehuti Research Foundation, 1999.
Giblin, James. “Issues in African History.” Art and Life in Africa. University of Iowa. http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/history/giblinhistory.html
Gillan, Werner. A Short History of African Art. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995
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