Nok Civilization in Modern Day Nigeria


The investigation of the Nok civilization came as a surprise as it was an accidental discovery while mining for tin on the Jos Plateau in 1928 (Nok Culture). At the time of discovery, an Englishman by the name of Lieutenant Colonel John Dent-Young was directing a mining operation in Nok village. One of the miners, whose name and identity is unknown, discovered a terracotta figurine shaped like the head of a monkey (Nok culture). Eleven terracotta statues in excellent condition were also found near the city of Sokoto in 1939 (Nok Culture). Additionally, there were statues discovered in the city of Katsina (Nok Culture). There are similarities between the statues and the stylistic nature of the figurines found in Nok; however, whether or not they are connected to one another is unknown (Nok Culture). During this time, however, they were not the subject of public interest (Nok Culture).

In 1943, in Nok village, during another tin mining expedition, one of the Nigerian miners found a figurine head during the operation (Nok Culture). He took it home and used it as a scarecrow for his family’s yam field (Nok Culture). He had utilized the figurine head for about a year until a mine director noticed it and bought it from the man (Nok Culture). He took the interesting piece to Jos and showed it to an archeologist and civil administrator trainee named Bernard Fagg (Nok Culture). With growing interesting in the figure, Fagg inquired that the miners notify him of any more discoveries and from this he was able to accumulate over 150 figures and fragments (Nok Culture). Fagg led an excavation in the respective areas where he discovered that the site covered an immense area beyond the original site (Nok Culture).

Aprroximately 153 units, in 1977, accounted for the amount of figurines/objects found during mining operations (Nok Culture). They were mostly discovered in Northern and Central Nigeria in riverbeds that had been dried up in savannahs within the secondary deposits (Nok Culture). The soil in which the figures were discovered dated to around 500 B.C.(Atwood, 2011). However, when Fagg used radiocarbon dating on the plant matter found on the terracotta figures the dates came to about 440 B.C. to around 200 A.D. (2011). Fagg dated the scarecrow head, now referred to as “the Jemaa Head,” to around 500 B.C. using a technique called thermoluminescence (2011).

Another very interesting and important finding was the 13 iron furnaces that were found at one of the excavation sites near Taruga village (2011). There were also terracotta figurines found in close proximity (2011). The charcoal within iron furnaces dated back to 280 B.C. by use of carbon dating which puts the Nok civilization as the first people south of the Sahara to practice iron smelting (2011). There were iron tools discovered that dated back to 500 B.C.



Stylistic Brilliance of the Nok

The Nok artisans utilized the coil method for most of the terracotta/clay objects which were made from “local clays and gravel” (Nok Terracottas, 2000). Despite the erosion of the slip on the terracotta, the abilities of the Nok artisans is conveyed in how long they were able to sustain over a millennia in the ground (Nok Terracottas). Many of the Nok figures that were discovered comprised of “portrait heads,” animals, and fragments on account of antiquity (Nok Terracottas, 2000). The bodies depicted individuals standing, sitting down, and kneeling in a prayer-like position (Nok Terracottas, 2000). The heads were usually larger in proportion to the bodies. (Nok Terracottas, 2000). While each head depicts something distinctively different from the other, there are particular stylistic traits associated with the Nok (Nok Terracottas, 2000). Men and women are portrayed with triangular eyes, a small hole the represented pupils, and exaggerated nose, mouth, and ears(Nok Terracottas, 2000). In addition, the heads are cylinder shaped, the eye brows are semi-circular, the ears are small and set back, and the nostrils are flared (Nok Culture, 2009). The figures were once covered with a glossy like finish, or slip; however, it was worn away during the time they spent underground(Nok Culture, 2014). The Nok figures have notably intricate hairstyles and ornate jewelry that may represent societal status (Nok Terracottas).

imagescma__1995_21Nok Queen1


A Culture Coming Together: Hypotheses of the Findings

Based on the artifacts, there has been theories concerning the Nok civilization. It is believed that the Nok civilization thrived from about 900 B.C. to approximately 200 A.D (2011). The figures depict people acting out various situations such as being ill, war and serfdom, romantic intimacy, and live performance (2011). For instance, one of the figures that was discovered portrayed a woman and man, kneeling down in front of one another with their arms wrapped around each other in a romantic clasp (2011). Another figure depicted prisoners with ropes tied around their necks and arms (2011). There was a figure that depicted a person with a skull head holding two instruments that look similar to maracas (2011). Lastly, there was a figure that depicted a man with his mouth open as though he is singing and another man playing the drums (2011). Experts say that this is an early portrayal of musical performance in sub-Saharan Africa (2011). Although this says very little about the social structure of the Nok civilization, it provides just enough insight to form an idea of what type of activities might have went on in this time.

The aforementioned iron furnaces and terracotta figures being so close in proximity suggest that the Nok peoples worshipped the figures to assist with “blacksmithing and smelting” (2011). This indicates that the Nok were perhaps polytheistic and/or animistic peoples. Experts say that because iron tools were found alongside stone tools on the site, they may have isolated a moment where iron tools were making its entrance at the same time that stone tools were being utilized (2011). This is significant because the “Copper Age” is passed over and this is something that very few civilizations throughout the world has been able to do (2011). There has not been any discoveries concerning a “Copper Age” in West Africa yet which is perplexing for Western researchers (2011). Whether or not iron technology was established in West Africa or imported is up for debate; for now, there is little evidence to commit to either theory (2011).

It is believed that a little bit after 200 A.D., the population of the Nok decreased (2011). According to Breunig, the overuse of resources and overreliance on charcoal may have led to the decline of the Nok population (2011). Experts connect extant tribes within the area that the Nok thrived to the ancient civilization by comparing artistic techniques (2011). The Yoruba, for example, is thought to have some connections of the Nok civilization based on the similarities in their art and their location (2011). At this moment information concerning the Nok civilization is limited as it is still being researched and theories are still being developed (2011).

Knowledge of the Nok Civilization positively highlights West Africa and provides a wider sense of ancient African civilization. Until inquiries about the Nok, Egypt was considered the most advanced ancient civilization in Africa. There has been a divide between indigenous Northern Africans (Africans closer to the Mediterranean) and Africans labeled as “Sub-Saharan” on account of biased theories produced in the late 19th century and early 20th century. I found Nok civilization interesting because they are believed to be a highly advanced civilization (Nok Culture, 2014). Something obviously stands out about their shift in tool industries, going from the use of stone tools to iron tools, and the depiction of their social life in the artifacts. I am hoping that in the near future more information will be discovered about Nok social structure, superstructure, and means of subsistence.



Atwood, Roger. “The Nok of Nigeria.” Archaeology. Vol.64, Num 4. 2011. Web. Retrieved from

“Nok Terracottas (500 B.C. – 200 A.D.)” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. Web. Retrieved from

“Nok Culture.” Saylor Academy. N.d. Web. Retrieved from

“Nok Culture.” World Ancient History. 2014. Web. Retrieved from

“Nok Culture.” University of Washington-Madison. 2009. Web. Retrieved from

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