Nok figure, Nigeria

, c. 3rd century B.C.E.


2 3/4 x 1 3/8 x 1 4/5 in. (7 x 3.5 x 4.5 cm)


About this object

In 1943, in the small village of Nok, a terracotta head was discovered. It was evidence of the oldest known figurative sculpture south of the Sahara. And although stylistically related heads, figures and animals have been found in a number of Nigerian sites since then, such works are identified by the name of the village where the first one was found. Radiocarbon dating ranges from 440 B.C to 200 A.D., which was surprising to some at the time, because the type of complex societies that would have produced such works were not supposed to have existed in sub-Saharan Africa. Because documentation and context of objects that are identified as Nok are often lacking, we have a limited understanding of Nok terracottas and the people that produced them. Therefore, one of the earliest African centers of terracotta figure production remains an enigma.   Scholars returned to the area in 2005 and found that the Nok thrived for longer than was first thought, existing from at least 900 B.C. to about 200 A.D. Their terracottas are now some of the most iconic ancient objects from Africa. They may also be the first society in Africa south of the Sahara to smelt iron.   Little is understood to this day about how Nok society ended. Sometime after 200 A.D., the Nok population declined, as attested to by a sharp drop in the volume of pottery and terracotta in soil layers from that time onward. Overexploitation of natural resources, including heavy reliance on charcoal may have played a role.   The Nok figure in the Bët-bi collection is one of the many terracotta objects that have been found. The object has the Ccharacteristic Nok features of outlined, semicircular, pierced eyes; and an open mouth. Many Nok figures also have elaborate braided and bunned coiffure for both male and female figures.

Several styles of Nok facial features have been distinguished, and all these styles are found throughout the region of discovery, suggesting that they do not represent regional aesthetics, but rather indicate some other distinction, perhaps schools of fabrication that had wide distribution. Also remarkable is the fact that the clay used in the terracotta is uniform over the whole Nok area, suggesting that the clay came from a single source. Almost all terracotta figurines have been found broken, suggesting a ritual process of destruction.

Atwood, Roger. “The NOK of Nigeria.” Archaeology 64, no. 4 (2011): 34-38.

Breunig, Peter; Rupp, Nicole. “An Outline of Recent Studies of the Nigerian Nok Culture.” Journal of African Archaeology 14, no.3 (2016): 237-255.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Nok Terracottas (500 B.C.–200 A.D.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

Lamp, Frederick John. “Ancient Terracotta Figures from Northern Nigeria.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, (2011): 48-57.