Nok Culture the Mystery Term Paper

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"The completed sculptures all have disproportionately large heads. In nature the ratio of head to body is about one to seven, whereas in Nok sculptures it is about one to three or four. These are the so-called 'African proportions." (Gillan, 66) In addition to finding statues of humans and animals, excavators have also recovered "small, baked clay bowls and cooking pots... besides a few iron implements and the remains of smelting furnaces." (Shillington, 47)Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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There appear to be three basic approaches to Nok statuary and culture. The first interpretation is very practical and focuses only on reporting what is seen and what can be obviously inferred from the artifacts while admitting that nothing is actually known of the culture. In this vein, we can discover such things as dress style: "the people of the culture had no woven textiles but used various knotted or plaited fibres. No shoes or sandals are indicated on any figures so far. / Much jewelry adorns the sculptures: bracelets, necklets, anklets, and beads of various types, but no rings or fingers and no earrings." (Gillan, 63) We may also learn from the existence of such complicated work that the culture was "past the 'hunter and gatherer' stage in which the art images reflect animals and hunt, [because it] tended to portray human beings... although the purpose of the art may be funerary, ceremonial, religious, political and so on. The art is also used to mark the important events and times in individuals and the community's life." (Hoover) The development of artists as tradesmen and the creation of many artifacts tends to indicate a division of labor generally associated with more advanced agriculture and herding lifestyles, and the existence of metal implements indicates a sufficient division of labor to allow for mining and possibly other trade. As Harris records, "where Nok culture developed, cultivators existed as early as 2000-1000 B.C." The presence of metal farming tools in the same territories as sculptures tends to strengthen the evidence for a more advanced agricultural environment. Additionally the presence of stylization and naturalism side by side indicates a certain philosophical or religious element in the creation of art, indicating that these are not mere representations but important symbols of some sort. A perspective which does not take into account other cultural norms may be far less likely than any other approach to suggest that these statues were used for funeral purposes, simply because they have never been located in the vicinity of human remains, and what is known of their place of discovery tends to point to more household-type usage:

Most of the terra cottas [found and stolen by looters] came from under flat stone slabs laid horizontally about 60 cm or so below the surface; but, curiously, there were no reports of buried skeletons in their vicinity. The finds included complete figurines about a metre high and considerably better than anything previously excavated. There were 'action pieces' of women grinding, and of men leaning elbows on their knees. There were face masks...[and] Humanized heads of various animals included dog and snake effigies (the most common) and some much rarer ones of cat and rhinocerous. Snakes were a common decoration on many pots." (Darling)

The second vein of interpretation is based on surrounding tribes. For example, Gillan takes this tactic when he writes: "A number of heads and bodies, depicting deformities or ailments (similar to diseases portrayed in Ibibio masks), may well have been used for magico-medical purposes" (66) Taking this approach, there seem to be indications that the statues were used for a variety of religious purposes. Surrounding tribes in Benin have frequently used lifelike statues, not unlike the terra cottas found in Nok, as part of ancestral altars through which they either invoked the spirits of their ancestors or prayed for them. Statues may also have been used as representations of the divine. There are other options as well. They could have been used "with funeral ceremonies, ancestor cults or other religious rituals. They might have been conceived as representations of chiefs -- though not as their portraits -- or as mythical beings and spirits... Others may have served as grave figures...charms and fertility amulets, possibly worn as pendents. (Gillan, 66) Most surrounding cultures have been polytheistic/animistic and either worship or placate a wide range of deities. "Janus figures" found in Nok may have been used like those in surrounding cultures, to "express the male/female duality of human nature." (Gillan, 66) Additionally, even today ceramic figures are used as finials on many roofs and shrines, and Gillan speculates that terra cotta figures might have taken this place centuries before.

The third vein of interpretation looks at the Nok statues and culture in the context of Egyptian history. This approach could point to the use of small clay figures in Egyptian funerary work -- these objects, called Bushapti, were used to represent servants or family members for the dead in the afterlife, and were not always buried immediately with the body. The common findings of beads and snakes in Nok work has also been linked to Egyptian traditions of creating "mummy beads" and using the snake as a primal cultic imagery. The frequency of Zoomorphic figures could also be linked to Egyptian traditions. It is interesting to note that the Jukon (who claim, with some evidence, to be descended from the Nok) refer to the Bennu river as Anu (the Egyptian name for the worship center of the sung god Ra), speak of themselves as the sun worshippers, and speak of their ancestral king as the son of the sun god (an Egyptian tradition). This link might lend some credence to interpreting the Nok works in the light of Egyptian traditions, linking their statuary with ideas concerning the survival of the soul in the afterlife.

As this survey has no doubt made clear, there is not complete consensus on the relationship between the Nok art and their long lost culture. The tragedy of looting and the loss of cultural/archeological context for surviving artifacts has made a true exploration of the Nok history extremely difficult and speculative. What can be known for certain is that prior to 500 B.C.E, at a time when Africa was once thought to be completely plagued by intellectual darkness, there existed a civilization with the ability to create advanced and symbolic relics of a civilization where hierarchy, art, and science prevailed.


Darling, Patrick. "The Rape of Nok and Kwatakwashi: the crisis in Nigerian Antiquities." Culture Without Context: The Newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Center, Issue 6 Spring 2000.

Davidson, Basil. Africa in History. New York: Touchstone, 1991.

Harris, Joseph. Africans and the History. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Hoover, M. "South from the Sahara: Early African Art " Art History Home. San Antonio College.

Gaddalla, Moustaffa. Exiled Egyptians. Greensboro, NC: Tehuti Research Foundation, 1999.

Giblin, James. "Issues in African History." Art and Life in Africa. University of Iowa.

Gillan, Werner. A Short History of African Art. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995 [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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