The Nok Kingdom (900/1000 BC – 200/300 AD, approximate dates) was an early Iron Age civilisation in Western Africa. The civilisation was located in modern day Nigeria in the area known as the Jos Plateau. The kingdom covered an area that was roughly 48,000 square kilometres. The civilisation is known for its terracotta sculptures, the development of iron tools and for its judicial system.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE NOK KINGDOM’S TERRACOTTA ARTEFACTS
The Nok civilisation is possibly the most artistic place on the entire continent that lies south of the Sahara. In 1928, the Nok civilisation was discovered when miners found multiple terracotta artefacts in the Kanduna state of central Nigeria. Much like their contemporaries, the soldier builders of Xian in China, the Nok civilisation was advanced in their terracotta construction. The terracotta’s depicted figures in love, those that enjoyed music, slaves and those engaged in warfare.
Archaeologists have found figures where a man and woman have their arms wrapped around each other in a loving embrace. There is also a man with a moustache, with an open mouth as though he is singing or possibly talking. There is also a figure of a man playing the drums between his legs. This is possibly the first time a musical performance was represented in a figure in sub-Saharan Africa.
While these figures may be doing different things, what is common is that these figures always have elongated heads, with almond shaped hollow eyes and parted lips. These features are also seen in African sculptures from across the continent. It is important to note that the head fragments of these figures were all cast individually as opposed to from a cast or frame, which leads each figure that has been discovered to be unique. This shows a high level of attention to detail and the intelligence of the Nok civilisation. Hundreds of figures have been discovered already and the search is still ongoing.
The clay used to construct these terracotta’s seems to have come from a single clay source because these figures have a consistency, which is impressive. These figures seem to have been created for lots of different purposes. For example, they were used as grave markers for people of wealth and importance and charms to prevent crop failure, illness and infertility.
The detailing and level of skill shown in these terracotta’s leads us to believe that there was a high level of specialisation in the Nok society. The Nigerian Professor Ekpo Eyo has claimed that a class of noblemen probably ruled the Nok civilisation. There must have therefore been a division of labour into ironworkers, farmers and so on. The civilisation was thus wealthy enough to support artists that made these terracotta’s. These artists would have had patrons who would have paid for their skills, much like Hans Holbein the Younger from Henry VIII’s court in Tudor England (16th century). Professor Eyo goes further and says that some members of the Nok society must have been prominent, which therefore led to them being recorded through the terracotta’s by the artists.
THE NOK KINGDOM’S AGRICULTURE
The Nok Kingdom was the first to cultivate and establish pearl millet in the region. Pearl millet is a type of seeded grass and is important because it can withstand strong weather conditions such as flooding. This grain is gaining popularity today as a ‘superfood’ (a very healthy grain) around the globe. The civilisation extracted oil from plants as well and this was used in cooking. They also grew yams. With the increase in food production the population of the Kingdom increased. With an increase in the population, people could develop and specialise in different skills, such as terracotta sculpting.
THE NOK KINGDOM’S CULTURE
The Nok Kingdom had a sophisticated culture. They had a hierarchical society, and different people specialised in different areas, art, agriculture or ironwork. They are believed to have had kings and queens, noblemen and priests. They wore cotton clothing and their collars were made of stone beads. Interestingly, the Nok Kingdom’s judicial system is older than the Western judicial system. The Nok civilisation had courts where they dealt with criminal cases and family disputes.
WHY IS THE NOK KINGDOM IMPORTANT?
The Nok Kingdom is important because it is one of the most Ancient Nigerian cultures known to us today. But, it is one of those cultures about which we have the least amount of knowledge available. The Nok population were experts at crafting using terracotta and their figurines are some of the most unique in the world. We can only assume how advanced the society must have been to support the artists. In the future, more archaeological work must be done to unearth the many artefacts that will give us important insights into this advanced civilisation and what caused it to rise, flourish and eventually disappear.