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Nok terracotta
from the Bauchi Plateau
and the Katsina
and Sokoto regions



Nok Head, terracotta
National Commission for Museums and Monuments (Nigeria)
Click on the photos to see an enlarged version

Provenance I Charateristics I The urgency of the situation I Legislation I Sources



The regions of the Bauchi Plateau, Northern and Central Nigeria, and the regions around Katsina and Sokoto, North-West Nigeria.


The Nok culture covers an extensive area about 500 km long and 170 km wide on the Bauchi plateau. Terracotta statuettes with common characteristics have been found in more than 20 different sites, Nok being where the first head was discovered in 1928. The towns of Katsina and Sokoto are located at the North-Western end of the region.

These are heads or whole figurines, mainly human effigies, but occasionally representations of animals (in most cases snakes). The size may vary, some heads being life-size, whereas other full-length figurines are only a dozen centimetres high. All have been produced in a relatively unrefined clay containing many small stones.

In most cases, the heads are cylindrical, sometimes conical or spherical. Their main characteristic is the treatment of the eyes, whose lower part is a triangle or half circle, bounded above by an eyebrow formed by a segment of a circle. In many cases, the pupils are represented by round perforations, as are the ears and orifices of the nostrils and mouth. Human figures have elaborate hairstyles, in a shell or braid motif, or if not wear headgear. They are adorned with pearl jewellery.

Other terracotta work from the same regions has appeared on the art market, and has received the name of “Sokoto” or “Katsina” on the basis of purely formal criteria, after the name of the places where some statues were discovered. At present it is impossible to say whether these items stem from different cultures.


--The urgency of the situation  

The objects generally known as Nok are probably of considerable cultural diversity, both in time and geographically. Indeed, while there are traces of the Nok culture from the early 9th century BC, connected with one of the oldest metallurgical technologies of the continent, this culture has also left traces down to the end of the first millennium of the Christian era.

The provenance of items kept in Nigerian museums has been well identified, although their discovery was accidental, and occurred during tin mining or construction work.

Yet the official corpus is in no way representative of the culture as it appears in the artworks now traded on the market. The museums do not own any complete sculptures, although these are plentifully available on the art market, but neither located nor identified. Demand from the European and American art markets, combined with speculation, leads today to looting of archaeological sites, causing irrevocable destruction and final loss of information.


National and international legislation protecting these objects:

- Nigerian Prohibition Law on non-exportation of antiquities, Government decrees of 1974 and 1979 (National Commission for Museums and Monuments Decree N° 77, 1979).

- UNESCO Convention of 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, ratified by Nigeria on 24 January 1972, in force on 24 April 1972.



- Helen Kerri, Director / Directeur, Museums and Monuments, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
- Yashim Isa Bityong, 1993 : « Culture Nok, Nigeria », Catalogue de l'exposition / Exhibition catalogue, Vallées du Niger, Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, pp. 393-413.

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January 2000