Only within the last century years has the Western world realized the extent of civilization present in ancient Africa. Up until this time, and throughout most of the colonization of Africa, Europeans had been able to overlook the remarkable civilizations of this continent, quietly believing that the only artifact-producing ancient civilizations were isolated in such known locations as Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle East. Then, in 1936, in a small tin mine near the village of Nok, excavators found a small terra cotta sculpture, apparently the head of a monkey. As Gadalla reports, "We do not know what the people called themselves, so the culture was named after the town of Nok where the first object was found." (Gadalla, 143) This early name, drawn from a speculative ignorance, prefigured the decades of ignorance to come. To this day, despite the fact that thousands of Nok artifacts have come to light in one way or another, history's knowledge of the people is limited to bare speculation. What we do know is gleaned from the artifacts themselves, and from speculation based on the traditions, lifestyles, and recollections of neighboring cultures.
As Roy Sieber explains in the preface to Werner Gillon's analysis of African Art, "the well-known Nok terra cotta sculptures... are supported by remarkably few archeological data... we know next to nothing of the parent culture or of the importance of the sculptures in that culture. Further, nothing is known with confidence of the origins of the culture, its art or its development, or of its influence on later arts..." The historian's lack of knowledge concerning the original Nok people is a result of several factors: looting of the original sites and lack of concerted effort to excavate them in archeologically sound ways, and the related issue of finding artifacts out of context and out of time. Despite --and in some ways because of-- the fact that the unauthorized excavation and sale of Nok antiquities is illegal in Nigeria and globally, the entire area known to be populated by the Nok has been under intense pressure by impoverished natives digging for artifacts and selling them at absurdly low prices on the international market. Even museums are being plundered by curators and thieves for the sake of private collections. "Both dealers and collectors keep their actions covert; and items only very rarely come to light. Consequently, there is almost no record of what Nigeria has lost: almost two complete ancient cultures have been looted, and there are no photographs, no records of associated artifacts, no mapping of past settlement distribution, and no noting of stylistic comparisons or archaeological provenances." (Darling) The power of Islam and Christianity in Nigeria has made the situation far worse, for both of these religions look with fear and superstition on artifacts of a "pagan" past and may even actively encourage the destruction or disposal of antiquities which were formerly used in pagan cultures. "the value of past material culture is not imbued at an early age... The best elements of Nigeria's past culture are becoming bulldozered, eroded, burnt or stolen." (Darling) Purposeful looting and private collecting are not the only threats to study of the Nok, however. The issue is further complicated by the fact that most artifacts which have been preserved for the researcher have been divorced from their original context both by the intervention of time and by the method of their discovery. "Most [non-looter] finds have been accidentally made during tin mining, and the use and purpose of the figures (the heads all appear to have broken off whole figures) can only be guessed. They were rolled and damaged by alluvial washes, and none have ever been found in their original settings..." (Gillan, 66)
From this tragic loss of surrounding data, the interested student is able to retrieve only that which is innate in the artifacts themselves and that which surrounding cultures suggest with their own stories and lives. Comparative understanding can, however, be somewhat difficult because of the ancient nature of the Nok artifacts. The famous terra cotta statuary that has made the Nok culture famous dates from between 500 B.C.E. To A.D. 200, and the degree of sophistication and development shown in these statues points to a derivation and development from significantly earlier ceramic traditions. (Gillan) In the interpretation of these statues, most students will attempt to link their use with that of similar cultures -- however, there is a great deal of debate concerning which other cultures most closely approximate the original Nok experience. The most common academic explanations link them with the Yoruba people whose metal statuary shares many traits in common with the Nok terra cotta works, and whose sacred city of Ife is located within a reasonable migratory distance. At the very least, a common ancestry between the modern Yoruba cannot be disproved or discounted. Another common theory follows the Nok's knowledge of iron-working. "Knowledge of iron-working, they believed, had been acquired from the Middle East, and had been refined between about 500 and 300 BC by metal workers of the Nok culture... Equipped with this "tool kit," believed historians, speakers of Bantu languages colonized remarkably diverse environments across the southern half of the continent." (Giblin) However, the colonization theory, has often been discounted by more modern researchers, who suggest that the Bantu language was not spread through ironbound conquest but by a "very gradual, generation-by-generation spread of farming communities in search of fresh soils.... [and possibly] also through the adoption of Bantu languages (perhaps as trade lingua franca) by previously-established populations." (Giblin) In this case, the Nok may have already been a Bantu speaking people when exposure to Rwandan iron-working people introduced that practice. In either of these explanations, one may draw some explanations for their artwork from the activity of more recent artists throughout this area. In such a case, the statues of the Nok and their other pottery creations may be interpreted in the light of a polytheistic, rather primitive system on ancestor worship and animism which popular Christian imagination has generally understood the African native faiths to be.
However, there is yet another theory which throws a more complicated look at the Nok artistic culture. African researcher Moustafa Gadalla suggests in his book Exiled Egyptians: the Heart of Africa that the Nok people, like many other tribes throughout Africa, were inspired and guided in their artistic and scientific and cultural experience by the presence of African-Egyptian peoples who had come into this land fleeing religious and political persecution in their own country. Gadalla suggests that Africa and Egypt were always joined in many complicated ways, and that what is left of Egyptian culture in the world today exists in Africa. The appearance of sophisticated terra cotta and metalworking in Nok culture appears to roughly coincide with a period of exile in Egypt created by outside invasion, and so this may have some basis in reality. In fact, some of the most convincing evidence for Gadalla's perspective is drawn from an analysis of the methods and themes of the art in places like Nok. The importance of this theory for understanding the art of the Nok is that the generally artistic purpose of Egyptian art was often very different than that which is perceived to be true of "primitive" African cultures.
So in approaching an understanding of Nok culture through their art, one may draw either upon Egypt-based interpretations, or on those of the surrounding latter-day tribes. Either way, certain elements are clear and deserve to be explicated. First, the Nok sculptures are clearly the earliest known sculptures to have been found in Sub-Sahara Africa, but many later sculpture traditions such as those in Ife and Benin appear to be related. (Gadalla) Secondly, even among much later artistic traditions, the Nok remain distinctive for the high quality and sophistication of their work. They have a "distinctive tradition of terra cotta sculpture, which is abstractly stylized and geometric in conception, and is admired both for its artistic expression and for the high technical standards of its production." (Gadalla, 142) In addition to their terra cotta work, they appear to have some knowledge of metal working, and "the Nok culture affords evidence of metallurgical skills in tin, as well as in iron. The lost wax process of casting was used for tim products. To repeat, this method of casting was only known in ancient Egypt." (Gadalla, 143) Whether or not they descended from the Egyptians, this at least showed a significant degree of sophistication. Thirdly, the Nok had a very particular and unique style which is not exactly duplicated elsewhere, either in Egypt or in the surrounding cultures. For example, "the modeling was always very expert, the figures built up from elements: with head, torso, coiffure, jewelry and other parts being fashioned seperately... joined by scoring or key grooving..." (Gillan, 66) The stylization of the characters has already been mentioned, but it is worth further pointing out that while…