The extraordinary Nok civilization first appeared in Nigeria in 1,000 B.C. and mysteriously died out at the end of the first millennium for some obscure reason, possibly following an epidemic or a devastating famine. It appears to have been a very advanced civilization both in its social organization and its refinement, at a time when the rest of southern Africa was entering its Neolithic era, or the Stone Age.
At that time hunters and farmers were using simple tools like axes and stone ploughshares. A close linkage with the Ancient Egypt could partly explain the maturity of this civilization, considered to be the oldest producer of terracotta in subsaharan Africa.
The technological advancement of the civilization is evidenced by their works of art, preserved by time, the sumptuous terracotta pieces expressing their potters' mastery of the firing process as well as the high quality of sculpture and artistry. The subject matter of their representations is mainly dignitaries, animals and other reliquaries and is preserved, for the most part, in the form of scattered pieces.
It is for this reason that Nok art is known today only by the heads of figures, both masculine and feminine, whose hairstyles are particularly detailed and refined. The reason the statues were found broken is that the discovery of these terracottas was generally made by digging into the alluvial mud resulting from water erosion. The terracotta statues had been buried there, rolled, polished and broken. Therefore tall works preserved intact are quite rare, explaining their value on the modern black market of art.
The Royal Company of Niger had become interested in the ore deposits in the area in the 1880s. In 1928, Colonel J. Dent Young, manager of the ore partnership in the Nok area, noticed the debris of terracotta as workers were washing down mud and gravel containing iron ore: the first discovery, the head of a monkey was found.
The culture of the Nok people was truly rediscovered while making more intensive mining efforts for ore deposits on the Jos plateau in 1929. Arising from the mists of time, the first pieces were unearthed, and a particular interest emerged surrounding these astonishing pieces, but unfortunately without formal classification or listing. From then on however, these terracottas from Nigeria would no longer go unnoticed.
In 1932, a group of 11 statues in perfect condition was discovered near the town of Sokoto. Since that date, statues from the town of Katsina, south of the Benue river, have also been brought to light. Art historians would be inspired by these two villages and the one to follow, to distinguish three distinct terracotta styles.
Still later, in 1943, near the village of Nok in the center of Nigeria, a new series of clay statues was excavated by chance, while exploiting a tin mine. This story is better known to us and deserves to be told: a worker had found a head, near the village of Jemaa. He took it home and made a scarecrow out of it, a part it played perfectly in a yam field for one year. Eventually, it caught the attention of the mine manager who succeeded in buying it. He took it to the town of Jos and showed it to the civil administrator, Bernard Fagg, a professional archeologist, who immediately understood its importance. Fagg then asked all the miners to inform him of their discoveries. In 1944, a seated monkey was discovered in the embankments of a tin mine. In 1947, another small head of a man... from then on, Bernard and Angela Fagg supervised systematic excavations which turned out to be all the more fruitful because the findings, dispersed across a vast zone, reached well beyond the initial site.
The inventory of statues grew to over 150 pieces by 1977, most of them coming from secondary deposits (the small statues had been washed along by the floods towards the valleys) located in dry river beds in the savannahs in the center and north of Nigeria, south west of the Jos plateau.
Subsequently, new discoveries have been made in an even larger zone covering a surface area of 480 km by 320 km, including the middle valley of the Niger and the lower valley of the Benue.