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The ancient Nok settlement and its sculptures

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By Abraham Adekunle

It is known for terracotta sculptures of human heads, human figures and animals.

The ancient Nok settlement is located at a village called Nok in present-day Jaba, Local Government Area of Southern Kaduna in Kaduna State, Nigeria. The Nok culture’s material remains have been named after the Ham People of Nok. They are known for their terracotta sculptures, which were first discovered in 1928. The Culture is one of the earliest known West African societies that existed in modern-day Nigeria between around 500 BCE and 200 CE. However, archaeologists claim that they may have been around since as far back as 1500 BCE.

They were known to farm crops and make sculptures using iron tools. Historians and archaeologists call this culture Nok because the artifacts were found near the modern Nigerian village of Nok. The settlement frequently attracts visitors and tourists. The Nok is famous in the world and even the academia. Antiquities and artifacts from the culture are found in various museums and galleries across the world. However, despite the popularity of the Nok in the world, the little village remains a rustic hamlet till the present day.

Terracotta discovery in 1928 was accidentally unearthed, showing the skills of the first Nok.

Colonel Dent Young, a co-owner of Mining partnership company near Nok in Kaduna State, discovered the first Nok terracotta in 1928 when he accidentally unearthed it at a level of 24 ft (7m) from an alluvial tin mine. Colonel Young sent the sculptures to the Jos Museum of the Department of Mines. Fifteen years later, a new series of clay figurines were discovered while mining tin near the village of Nok in 1943. A clerk in charge of the mine had taken a head of one of the figurines home to serve as a scarecrow and an archaeologist and administrative officer named Bernard Fagg noticed it.

Fagg and his colleagues eventually determined that the unique-looking artifacts belong to the then unknown culture, which is now called Nok. They were mostly sculptures of human heads, human figures and animals. An identifying feature of Nok sculptures is the triangular or oval-shaped eyes on human faces and elaborate hair styles on human figures. Typically, humans are depicted as seated with their hands on their knees. The function of the sculptures is still unknown. They are preserved in scattered fragments.

Little is known about their function in the expansive civilization.

Archaeologists and historians know little about the original function of the pieces, but assumptions 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 buildings. Margaret Young-Sanchez, Associate Curator of Art of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania at The Cleveland Museum of Art, reveals that most Nok ceramics were shaped by hand from coarse-grained clay and sculpted in a manner that suggests that they had an influence from wood carving.

The clay used by the Nok people has been analyzed by archaeologists. They discovered that all clays likely came from the same source, which suggests that there was a central authority controlling the supply of the clay. The Nok sculptures have been unearthed across an area of about 78,000 square kilometers (more than 30,000 square miles). It suggests that the artists, although got their clay from one source, were part of an expansive civilization and culture.

Large scale looting and repatriation of terracotta sculptures.

Terracotta figurines have been heavily looted since the 1970s. It is reported that even larger-scale looting commenced in the Nok settlement in the 1990s. By 1995, two main local traders emerged. Each of these traders reportedly employ about 1000 diggers a day to work for them. Although they unearthed fragments, most of the sculptures were intact and sellable. Hundreds of the Nok cultural sites have been illegally dug in search of these terracotta sculptures. Historical studies carried out show that over 1000 terracotta sculptures have been looted and smuggled into Europe and the US. In February 2013, the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Information and National Orientation re-claimed five Nok statuettes looted by a French thief in August 2010. They had been seized by French customs agents and were repatriated following a Nigerian government directive.


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