'German Archaeologists Labour to Solve Mystery of Nok'
Surprise, surprise: The German news journal Der Spiegel, or rather its English language online version is actually running a story on Nigerian archaeology! More concretely Nok culture and its artefacts. Of course, German archaeologists had to be involved to merit such consideration in a German mainstream paper such as this one. But, as we say in German: “ ‘nem geschenkten
A Sub-Saharan Conundrum
German Archaeologists Labour to Solve Mystery of Nok
Half a ton of pottery shards is piled on the tables in Peter Breunig's workroom on the sixth floor of the
The chipped head of a statue depicts an African man with a moustache, a fixed glare and hair piled high up on his head. He looks gloomy, almost sinister. Just a few days ago, the ceramics travelled 8,000 kilometres (5,000 miles) by sea from
Breunig runs an excavation near the Nigerian highlands of Jos, where the mysterious Nok culture once blossomed. Spanning more than 80,000 square kilometres (31,000 square miles), the tropical region they lived in was larger than
The most astonishing fact about what Breunig calls "a society without writing" is its age. It dates from around 2,500 years ago, a time when a wave of change in belief systems washed over other continents. Nok sculptors were contemporaries of Solon, Buddha and the early Mayans.
For years, people have believed that
This region near the equator is still largely unexplored, and the German Research Foundation has allocated sizable funding toward that task. If the researchers from
With the help of some locals, German researchers set up their base last spring, which consists of nine mud huts in the
Conditions there are hard. Murky water sloshes from the pump, and the solitary light bulb in the main bricked-lined hut is the only one within 100 kilometres (62 miles). At night, owing to the heat, the researchers have gotten used to sleeping under the night sky, as wild dogs howl in the distance.
Shards, Shards Everywhere
Bathed in the light of the morning sun, the team sets forth. With shovels, pickaxes, laptops and GPS navigation devices in tow, the excavators trudge past an enchanting tree savannah and granite hilltops rising like small islands.
In their excavations, the team encounters hardly any other traces of life. There are no skeletons preserved in the earth since the acidic soil dissolved all bones. Like their cemeteries, the temples and huts of the Nok have disappeared without a trace. No one knows what their farm animals, streets or religious ceremonies were like.
But the shards of clay statues are everywhere -- on rock slopes, in ancient refuse pits and in open spaces. Burrowing animals occasionally dislodge them from their original resting places.
The largest of these impressive figures can stand up to one meter (3.3 feet) tall and resemble what might be kings or members of a social elite. Others wear horned helmets or carved-out gourds on their heads. A third of these figures are women.
The clay figures are strangely uniform, almost as if they had been mass produced. The eyes are always triangular, the pupils are pierced, and the eyebrows are high and arched. They look sedate and immersed in their thoughts. Lightning-shaped tattoos adorn their cheeks.
Scientists are puzzled about who could have created this collection of curiosities. How, they ask, could such a fanciful world emerge 10 degrees latitude south of the equator and far away from the rest of the world's civilizations?
Particularly perplexing is the question of how the Nok people smelted iron. Excavators have found iron bracelets, arrowheads and knives. No sub-Saharan people made anything comparable at the time.
The German researchers, which include geologists and paleoethnobotanists, have now used state-of-the-art analytical devices to examine this area. They use X-ray fluorescence devices, for example, to detect shattered bones, and their infrared cameras should make the remnants of buildings visible. In their initial findings, they have learned that the Nok lived on millet, cowpeas and an olive-like fruit. And Breunig now believes that the statues "were made centrally in some large workshops."
Next winter, the high-tech caravan of researchers will move back into the bush with up to 40 excavation assistants. The project could finally shed some light on a phenomenon that is one of the biggest mysteries of early history.
A Startling Discovery
In 1943, the British colonial civil administrator Bernard Fagg was the first to acquire a Nok figure, which had been used as a scarecrow in a yam field. Fagg encouraged the workers in the surrounding tin mines to come forward with any similar finds. Locals from more distant regions soon began bringing Fagg other artifacts, which brought his collection up to 150 pieces. They brought him amulets and clay elephants. They brought him a figure with a gigantic phallus reaching up to its head; another had vampire-like teeth.
For a long time, experts in Europe and the
These findings led the community to ask a puzzling question: Was it possible that, between 600 B.C. and 300 A.D., when the Chinese started building the Great Wall and the Romans dotted their empire with triumphal arches, African master sculptors in faraway
The swiftest reaction to the sensational discovery came from people in the antiquities trade. In the late 1980s, Nok sculptures appeared sporadically in
Then, in 1996, the sculptures came to the attention of the wider public when the exhibition "Africa: the Art of a Continent" travelled to
Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency, noted that the objects were being "systematically stolen" and that
Still, these actions did little to temper the treasure-hunting fever in
"Extremely beautiful and barely damaged statues were discovered there in the tombs of the underground shelters," recounts one insider.
Miners there were constantly finding new choice pieces, including a rider on a fanciful horse and a figure holding a cat in a stranglehold.
Details about the mine are hard to come by. It is located in a semi-autonomous district ruled by Koro chief Yohanna Akaito with an iron fist. Akaito has sealed off the area with his private army, and even Nigerian government officials have no access.
One of the few whites who has been granted access to the area is Gert Chesi, and ethnologist and Voodoo researcher.
"The chief entertained me in his mud palace," Chesi says. "In the morning, trumpet calls woke us up, and then we went to the mine."
Chesi had an ulterior motive in coming here. He runs the "House of the People," a museum in
Most museums purchased Nok artifacts without certificates and now hide them in their repositories. But Chesi makes no secret of his treasures.
"Each of our sculptures has an export license issued by Omotoso Eluyemi, the manager of the national museum," he says. "Everything was done legally."
It is true that the late Nigerian antiquities official's office could issue customs documents. But it would appear that he did this all too gladly -- while stuffing his pockets in the process.
Poison and Corpses
Now and then, you hear mention of bodies. Eluyemi died on February 18, 2006. According to the official version of events, he choked on a glass of water at dinner and suffocated. But insiders are sure that the 58-year-old was poisoned.
These are the circumstances in which the archaeologists are operating.
In describing the situation on the ground, Breunig says that "thieves have rummaged through many thousand square meters of ground; there's one hole next to another."
Still, there is some hope for
The statues found there also contain new details. Some have boils and furuncles on their faces, while others appear to be high dignitaries. Foot rings, loincloths and arm chains ornament their bodies. While their hair is formed into buns and braids, twisted chains adorn necks like thick Christmas wreaths. "The social distinctions are clearly defined," Breunig says.
The researchers are still not sure what these peculiar adornments are supposed to indicate. Since stone pavement is often found near the statues, some have thought that they were situated in holy places or near altars. The archaeologists have found remnants of deliberately deposited jewellery chains alongside them, which might lend some degree of support to this hypothesis.
For the time being, though, the purpose of the Nok statues remains unclear. And then there's still the question of whether these objects have anything to do with the Nok people making contact with other people. Some archaeologists believe that the cultural renaissance resulted from contact with northern peoples, such as the Carthaginians, who might have arrived by desert. Still others point to the so-called "black pharaohs" of
But, for his part, Breunig rejects the idea of such a far-reaching transfer of ideas. "It's 3,000 kilometres from
Still, the mysteries remain. If Breunig is correct, the Nok were isolated geniuses who created a tropical civilization out of nothing.
"There's no doubt that the Nok will continue to baffle us," Breunig says. "We're unearthing a magnificent part of the history of sub-Saharan