“Here was a British colonial officer who, instead of projecting the image and power of the British reversed all expectations and projected the image and past of the Africans ...it is our determination that the light he had lit some forty four years may never dim”
So wrote the Nigerian Daily Times of 13th August 1988, one year following the death of British archeologist and curator of the Federal Department of Antiquities in Nigeria Bernard Evelyn Buller Fagg. Fagg is widely credited as having “discovered” Nigeria's Nok Culture, one of Africa’s first complex societies and perhaps the earliest culture in sub-Saharan Africa to use iron tools.
In 1939, Fagg arrived in Nigeria as a junior administrative officer. His first posting was to the Jos Plateau where he started excavating the Rop rock shelter in 1944, a site that contained both early Stone Age implements and later artifacts including pottery dating back about 2000 years old.
The son of an antiquarian bookseller and younger brother of ethnologist/art historian William Buller Fagg, who would later purchase Benin art for the new Lagos museum his brother established during a trip to Nigeria in the late 1950s, Bernard Fagg made further archeological discoveries of Nok terracotta figurines in open air tin mines surrounding the village of Nok (the first discoveries were made in 1928 and subsequently in 1943 when a visitor presented Fagg with a terracotta monkey head that had been part of a scarecrow).
The figurines depict animals and humans, sometimes up to life-size. However, the majority has a height between 30 and 70 cm, and very small ones (~ 10 cm) are also common. All have distinctive attributes, like pierced pupils set into shallow triangles, applied eye brows or extravagant hairdos or headgears
Nigeria’s Northern High Plains and the Jos Plateau, northeast of the Nigerian capital of Abuja, was the epicenter of Nok civilization (a combined area about the size of Myanmar). Thermo-luminescence dating of the sculptures indicate that they were made about 2500 years ago, which makes them the earliest large-sized figurative art objects of Africa outside Egypt (this method of dating measures the accumulated radiation dose in order to determine the amount of time that has passed since material containing crystalline minerals was either heated, in this instance the terracotta figurines, or exposed to sunlight, such as sediments.)The clay that was used to make the terracotta figurines probably originated from the same source according to researchers who have analyzed the clay.
Besides the terracotta figurines, Nok society is also known for its culture of iron smelting and blacksmiths sites. In fact, these sites are still among the earliest remains of iron metallurgy in sub-Saharan Africa. Fagg found iron slag with radiocarbon dates from about the Fourth and Third centuries BC (perhaps earlier) or about 2,500-2,600 years ago -evidence of very early iron-working on the African continent (Europeans began using iron technology 3,220 years ago).
In the village of Taruga, an archeological site about 60 kilometers southeast of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, archaeologists found 13 iron-smelting furnaces. Experts have also discovered other iron artifacts from the Nok, like farming tools and weapons. Nok peoples either independently invented the production of iron or Nok territory was the cradle of iron-working in sub-Saharan Africa. Radiocarbon measurements dated the site to the mid-first millennium BC.
Interestingly, while the Nok possessed iron-smelting technology, they also used stone tools as well as metal. The Nok are also unusual in that they are one of the very few cultures that went from using from stone tools straight to iron tools without first learning how to make copper or bronze implements.
In 1942, Fagg returned to Nigeria from a stint in East Africa, where he made contact with famed paleoanthropologist Louis S.B. Leakey (a fellow University of Cambridge alumnus) and archeologist Mary D. Leakey who were busily scouring the arid badlands of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in search of our hominids ancestors. It was during this period that he met his future wife.
Five years later, Fagg was appointed the first government archeologist; later rising to become Director of the Antiquities Service for Nigeria. He continued to live in Nigeria with his family until the end of 1963 when he took charge of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford - continuing with his research on the Nok material during the long vacations.
“Christmas holidays were time to go away from the office and concentrate on archaeological field work”, remembers Angela Rackham, Fagg’s daughter. “Many places were best studied then - during the dry season. The whole family went together - living under canvas or zana mat shelters. Life was never dull”.
Angela, like her father before her, is an alumnus of the University of Cambridge where she specialized in archeology. Later, she joined the antiquities service in Nigeria in 1967 working, amongst other things, on the Nok material until 1976.
Archeologist Angela Rackham
While we may not be able at this point in time to call Nok a “civilization” (there is an absence of complex architecture, written language, etc.), it can be seen as a new type of complex African society.
“We should really not talk about ‘civilization’ now. Nok represents the first step in this direction. But it is not the ‘final stage’.”, says Nicole Rupp, an archeologist formerly of the J. W. Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany who participated in numerous archeological excavations with project leader and university colleague Dr. Peter Breunig in Nok territory in Nigeria.
“We believe that the Nok people were part of a new kind of hierarchical society with specialists such as artists, iron smelters and a flourishing agricultural system as well as a developed ritual system. We have enough evidence to categorize Nok as an example of first complex societies.”
According to Nicole, after the first papers by Bernard Fagg appeared, the Nok sculptures became very well known on the international art market. Later, there were smaller-scale excavations by Joseph Jemkur, which are scientifically well documented, but during the 1990s there were only commercial diggers on the sites and they focused only on the rare and lucrative terracottas. There was little, if any, interest in the cultural background of the people who made the clay figurines.
Another factor that prevented subsequent research was that any excavation taking place in Nok territory was the subject of suspicion that the terracottas would be sold to international art buyers. It is the reason why Nicole, who has been working in Nigeria since 1996 while still a graduate student, and Peter Breunig, who began researching the Nok there in 2005, have developed a solid relationship with Nigeria’s National Commission for Monuments and Museums.
There were also rumors that robbers who were selling the terracottas prevented others from approaching the sites. In fact, it is only recently that after several decades of disinterest in the terracottas’ archaeological importance, serious scientific interest has been rekindled. Two main discoveries of this modern revival are that: Nok society is at the heart of the development of advanced societies and civilizations in sub-Saharan Africa, and that the Nok terracottas go far beyond the international art world.
The Nok revival began in 2005 as part of a project called: “Ecological and Cultural Change in West and Central Africa”, with experts from the German universities of Frankfurt and Tübingen, and Nigerian and Cameroonian experts. This ran until 2009 and was funded by the German Research Foundation.
Its success led to an ongoing 12-year research project under the working title, “The Nigerian Nok Culture: Development of Complex Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa”, which focuses on the economic, environmental and socio-cultural context of Nok society.
The lengthy duration of this project has resulted in it being divided into four stages, which investigate the age of Nok society, settlement structures, diversity within the entire Nok geographic area, and the final analysis and writing.
Under the project, Rupp and Peter Breunig, led a team of German and Nigerian researchers, students and even former looters of the country’s archaeological sites, excavating sites over 240 sq km in central Nigeria, about two hours’ drive north of Abuja. Their study area is but a microcosm of the Nok world, which covered more than 48,000 sq km, an area the size of Portugal (during one excavation Dr. Breunig was kidnapped by gangsters but was subsequently released.)
But while the Nok terracottas are revered today for their artistic beauty, their actual function during the heyday of the Nok society remains a great mystery.
“At the moment it seems that they had several purposes,” says Nicole. “We find them as part of a deliberate deposition, apparently carelessly dumped (and this is the common case) as numerous fragments are spread all over the sites. Some of them might have been a kind of grave marker. But since no bones are preserved due to the acidic soil, there is no evidence for that. We don’t know the function of the figurines.”
However, excavations in recent times have thrown further light on the functions of the terracottas. Hitherto, experts were puzzled about their uses. All they knew was that the terracottas were part and parcel of Nok everyday life, based on their presence at various sites. But through the years theories abound. Some suggest they were shrines, which stood in farmers’ fields to ensure a rich harvest. Others believe them to have an architectural function, as decorative capstones on the roof of round straw huts.
One explanation concerns grave goods in burials. A look into the ethnographic record shows that terracotta and/or figurines in general play a central role within African communities up to today. People might use them as part of a shrine in the house, or to represent powerful gods, ancestors, or the recently deceased. They are also still part of funeral rituals. Breunig and Rupp discovered that other terracottas function as grave markers, representing outstanding persons like the blacksmith. Figurines could also be part of healing and curing rituals.
On the 29 October 2013, Angela Rackham was among many distinguished participants of the Nok Exhibition held in Frankfurt, Germany, on. It was the first time the terracottas were presented within their cultural context of Nok society (the terracottas have been exhibited previously by collectors and museums but without their cultural context).
“This is a new chapter in the study of those remarkable people who created such striking terracotta figurines and whose history would be lost forever if it were not for the careful scientific work of the archaeologists past and present,” says Angela.
For now, the Nok terracottas are in great demand in the Western art market, and scholars such as Rupp believe that the international art market is solely responsible for the looting of almost all Nok sites. Experts estimate that many hundreds, if not thousands, of Nok terracotta figurines – from over 250 sites in Nigeria – were stolen and sold to museums and private collectors in Europe and America.
“Almost from the beginning,” Nicole says, “we came into contact with looters. There are two groups: the real businessmen who are in contact with collectors from Europe and USA, and the farmers and house constructors and so on who accidentally find terracotta fragments. All of them have no connection with archaeology.”
“The contact with those people is a tricky matter! On the one hand, they are our ‘enemies’ because they are partly responsible for the destruction of the sites. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that without their help, we would never have succeeded! They know the sites, they know how to identify the sites, they have the contacts, and somehow we managed to take advantage of this knowledge.”
Dr Musa Hambolu with Nok terracottas in the field
Even for Western governments, the possession of Nok terracottas can be a hot potato. In 1998, for example, the government of France embarrassed itself by purchasing three Nok terracotta sculptures from a Belgian dealer for 2.5 million francs at the time before the establishing of the Euro.
The French authorities were fully aware that under Nigerian law no antiquities should be exported from the country without the permission of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). Adding insult to injury, the three objects were on the ICOM Red List as well as being on the France-based INTERPOL’s web page of items that were prohibited for export from Nigeria. The French authorities had bought the pieces for the planned Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Perhaps embarrassed by the intervention of ICOM in the matter, the French relented and acknowledged that Nigeria was the rightful owner of the pieces, and signed a bizarre agreement by which Nigeria loaned the pieces to France for a period of 25 years, which was renewable.
The agreement with France, at the time, shocked those interested in the preservation of African heritage as it sent a wrong message to looters and dampened attempts to prevent looting.
“Just as anyone who has lost property would want to recover it, the good people of Nigeria want to retrieve the illegally exported terracotta sculptures,” says Dr Musa Hambolu, a former NCMM’s Director of Research, Planning and Publications in Abuja who was also the principal representative of the NCMM at the Nok Archaeological Research Project.
“the government of Nigeria, through the office of the NCMM director general, has entered into dialogue with major museums in the West concerning the future of Nigeria`s antiquities in the diaspora. It is believed that dialogue and diplomacy will yield positive results.”
But protecting Nok sites from antiquity looters is a herculean task – the sites cover an area of about 1,000 sq km. However, the NCMM has initiated a multi-pronged strategy for addressing the problem. This includes educating the Nigerian public on the value of the terracottas, conducting and facilitating archaeological research, and working in close collaboration with security agencies to stop illicit trafficking.