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The Nok of Nigeria

By Roger Atwood
Unlocking the secrets of West Africas earliest known civilization.
British archaeologist Bernard Fagg had spent several years
gathering and identifying ancient artifacts in an area near the
central Nigerian town of Jos. In 1943, a visitor brought Fagg a
A terracotta head created by the Nok culture, one of ancient
terracotta head that was found sitting on top of a scarecrow in a
West Africas most advanced civilizations, emerges at a dig
nearby yam field. Fagg was fascinated. The terracotta head looked
site near Janjala, Nigeria.
similar to a terracotta monkey head that he had seen a few years
earlier and neither of these two pieces matched the artifacts of any known ancient African civilization.
Fagg was full of curiosity and energy. He traveled across central Nigeria looking for similar artifacts, trying to
discover where these artifacts came from and from which ancient African civilization. He realized that the
people living in central Nigeria had been finding these terracotta pieces in strange places for years: buried under
a hockey field, resting on a rocky hilltop, or poking out from piles of stones.
He soon gathered around 200 terracottas through purchase, persuasion, and his own excavations. When he
analyzed the soil from the spots where these artifacts were found, the soil dated to around 500 B.C. This
seemed impossible since the type of complex societies that would have produced these terracottas were not
supposed to have existed in West Africa that early. Through a combination of luck, legwork, and dating
techniques, Fagg and his teammates had apparently discovered a society that was previously unknownthe
Nok people.
He also discovered iron furnaces in an excavation sight. He found 13 iron furnaces and
terracotta figurines located inside and around the furnaces. He postulated that the
terracotta figurines were objects of worship to help the blacksmiths in their ironmaking.
The high amount of furnaces and terracottas suggested to Fagg that he had found
evidence of a populated and settled society.
Fagg had discovered some of the key signs of an advanced civilization: refined art and
organized worship, metal smelting, and enough people to work at these jobs to support
these activities.
The Nok were expert terracottamakers and their human figurines are
one of the most distinctive artifacts
they left behind.

artifact: an object made by a human being

terracotta: an object made out of clay
excavation: the act of digging
furnace: an enclosed structure in which heat is produced (for heating a house, etc.)
postulate: to assume or claim as true
settled: to establish long-term residence
refined: skillful
smelting: melting to make iron or other metal tools