Nok Artists Develop Terra-cotta Sculpture

The Iron Age African culture that flourished near the tin-mining village of Nok in Nigeria produced finely crafted figurative sculpture out of clay, using sophisticated firing techniques.

Summary of Event

Some of the earliest ironworking communities in Africa were those of the Nok culture in northern Nigeria. Their knowledge of furnaces and iron smelting apparently carried over into the firing of pottery and clay sculpture, as relics of this little-known group of people have shown. The most striking of the pieces unearthed from this area are figurative terra-cotta sculptures representing distinct individuals and crafted with a high degree of sophistication. They are unique in African art history for both their technical mastery and their artistic expression.

While the period during which the Nok sculptures were created is generally accepted to be between 800 b.c.e. and 500 c.e., recent improvements in technology are extending this time range. The radiocarbon dating system used to analyze the pieces has recently been recalibrated to more current standards. This process has expanded the chronology of the Nok culture to a period of around 900 b.c.e. to 875 c.e. Another dating technique known as thermoluminescence has been added to cross-date the objects for a more accurate history of the Nok culture. Using this cross-dating system, some scholars place the earliest emergence of the Nok at 1000 b.c.e.

The name Nok refers to a village in a region known as the Jos Plateau, which lies between the Niger and Benue Rivers. It was there, in 1928, that the first small terra-cotta head was uncovered by a worker at a tin mine. In 1942 a larger and more elaborately sculpted head was found some 40 miles (65 kilometers) away, near Jemaa. The find was reported to local administrative officer Bernard Fagg, who had experience in archaeology. Fagg sent out an appeal to all who worked in the minefields of the region to preserve any more examples found. Further excavations brought to light more fragments that revealed the heads were once part of complete figures. They displayed a wide range of facial characteristics and gestures; some pieces were in the form of animals. Despite the variety of characters and poses the Nok terra-cottas portray, there is strong stylistic continuity that makes them immediately recognizable as a group.

Close examination of Nok sculptures has revealed their method of construction. They were made from local clay, employing the same coiling method used in bowls and cooking vessels found nearby. The clay was mixed with gravel containing rock and quartz fragments, perhaps to add strength. In some of the larger sculptures, the head and other appendages were crafted separately and then joined to a hollow body. Finger marks of the artist are visible on the interior of the clay forms. The eyes and sometimes the ears are pierced. Details such as elaborate hairstyles, facial hair, necklaces, amulets, beads, armbands, and bracelets were carefully modeled and attached next. Liquid clay (slip) was applied as a final step to achieve a smooth surface. In order to support the soft clay for the larger pieces, they were built around a simple wooden frame with branches for the arms. This support would burn away during the firing process.

The precise function of the Nok terra-cottas is still being researched. The majority of sculptures found have been in soils deposited over time by flooding, which makes an accurate archaeological context difficult to establish. Excavations have not shown that the sculptures were buried with human remains. They seem to be representations of royalty and important members of society, such as priests and diviners. It is most likely that they were placed in altars, similar to the way native cultures of more recent times displayed their ancestor figures.

Many technical and stylistic factors in Nok sculpture point to a connection with later generations of African art, though a direct link has yet to be established. Terra-cotta figures of a style different from Nok have been discovered in the northern Nigerian state of Sokoto. They date from between 200 b.c.e. and 200 c.e. Still another style from the same time period may originate from the region of Katsina, also in the north. Both share certain technical features with those of Nok. There are also similarities in technique with the highly realistic terra-cotta sculpture of Ife, created between the eleventh and fourteenth century c.e. in southern Nigeria. Specific details such as hairstyles and headbands are found in both groups. The Ife tradition, which also included bronze portrait heads, is known to have had a direct influence on the bronze sculpture produced in Benin starting around the fourteenth century c.e. Masks still being made up to the present day by the Yoruba people of Nigeria use a method of facial stylization that has much in common with Nok examples. Eyes are enlarged and slightly bulging, with holes for the pupils, a detail that has no practical function because the masks are worn on the top of the head.


One constant within the design of Nok sculptures is a proportional standard. The head is used as a unit of measure, and the total piece is three or four times this length. African art historian William Fagg termed this “the African Proportion.” It is used in many sculptures throughout Africa, regardless of the materials chosen. It is possible that elements of this Nok style spread gradually throughout what is now Nigeria and Cameroon. Linguists working in this region have traced a two-thousand-year movement of Bantu languages from a cradle area that includes the Jos Plateau. As those early people migrated, they brought with them cultural traditions including pottery techniques and modes of artistic expression. Gestures and proportions that are repeated in the Nok terra-cottas are also found in sculptures from the tribes of this Bantu language group, which range as far as the Congo and beyond. The absence of any similar art in Africa before the Nok culture’s advances in terra-cotta sculpture places it as a seminal event in the artistic development of the continent.

Further Reading

  • De Grunne, Bernard. The Birth of Art in Black Africa: Nok Statuary in Nigeria. Paris: Adam Biro, 1998. A comprehensive study of the Nok culture, including archaeological history, theories on functions of the objects, influence on other cultures, and recent dating methodology. Bibliography.
  • Fagg, Bernard. Nok Terracottas. London: Ethnographica, 1990. A detailed account of the author’s discovery, excavation, documentation, and interpretation of the Nok terra-cottas. Index and bibliography.
  • Jemkur, J. F. Aspects of Nok Culture. Zaria, Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1992. Covers what is known about Nok culture, particularly their sculpture.
  • Willet, Frank. African Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993. A survey of African art history with a discussion of Nok art that covers its archaeological origins, dating, meaning, and influence on later cultures. Index and bibliography.