Extra Credit: Nok Culture

By Abhinav Agrawal

We have studied the art in much of Europe and Mesopotamia and its development. However, African art has not been examined at all. What was happening in Africa during that time? From around 500 B.C. to 200 A.D., there existed the Nok civilization in Nigeria. It spanned the end of the Neolithic age till the start of the Iron Age. They were thought to be the first peoples in Central Africa to produce terracotta figures. This was the main evidence of advancements of African civilizations. Another advancement was the emergence of iron technology. Evidence for iron smelting date back to 500 B.C., some of the earliest in Africa.[1]

The Nok culture was rediscovered during tin mining in 1928 headed by Lt-Colonel John Dent-Young. As the miners were working, they stumbled across terracotta figures in the ground. They later gave it to archeologists who understood what it was and started an organized excavation of the area. Also, excavations at locations like farming sites was helpful because the figures were not destroyed by illegal excavations.[3]

During the excavation of the area, many terracotta figures of humans and animals were found. Unfortunately, many of the figures were destroyed in excavation or were damaged from the beginning. For example, there were many figures with just heads but it is thought that there should have been an entire body. Terracotta figures in the Nok culture were designed differently from the conventional way. Normally, material is added to the figure to produce the final result. However, in the Nok terracotta figures, the substance was removed, similar to the technique used for sculpting.[2] For most of the terracotta figures, the head is much longer and bigger in proportion to the body. Something common in most of the terracotta figures is the use of triangular eyes and very flat noses with flared nostrils. Also, the ear is often set really far back and away from view or sometimes not even included.

The Nok civilization was one of the first and most important in Africa. It characterized African art for many years to come. Unfortunately, little is known about it because of the small amount of remains left to excavate.

Work Cited

  1. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. “Nok Culture.” African History — Explore the History of Africa. Web. 08 July 2010. <http://africanhistory.about.com/od/kingdoms/a/NokCulture.htm>.
  2. “Nok Terracottas (500 B.C.–200 A.D.) | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Metmuseum.org <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nok/hd_nok.htm>.
  3. “The Nok: A Celebration of Art & Civilization | DRUMTIDE.” DRUMTIDE | AN AFRO CULTURAL, SOCIO-POLITICAL AND ARTS MAGAZINE. Web. 08 July 2010. <http://drumtidemag.com/?p=991>.