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They may have been the first complex civilization in West Africa, existing from at least 900 B. In 1959, anthropologist George Murdock quipped that for every ton of earth moved by archaeologists on the Nile, a teaspoon is moved on the Niger.
Scholarship has also been hampered by an almost 40-year campaign of looting at Nok sites fed by the growing appetite for African antiquities among collectors in the United States and Europe. Instead of scientific exploration, the Nok became a victim of illegal digging and international art dealers," says Peter Breunig, of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.
He set up shop in a whitewashed cottage that still stands outside the village of Nok and soon gathered nearly 200 terracottas through purchase, persuasion, and his own excavations. Through a combination of luck, legwork, and new dating techniques, Fagg and his collaborators had apparently discovered a hitherto unknown civilization, which he named Nok.
Soil analysis from the spots where the artifacts were found dated them to around 500 B. This seemed impossible since the type of complex societies that would have produced such works were not supposed to have existed in West Africa that early. One excavation site, near the village of Taruga, revealed something else Fagg had not expected: iron furnaces.
Another figure, which has a skull for a head and wears an amulet around his neck, is shaking two instruments resembling maracas.
Fagg, a man of boundless curiosity and energy, traveled across central Nigeria looking for similar artifacts.
As he recounted later, Fagg discovered local people had been finding terracottas in odd places for years—buried under a hockey field, perched on a rocky hilltop, protruding from piles of gravel released by power-hoses in tin mining. He later dated the scarecrow head—now called the Jemaa Head after the village where it was found—to about 500 B. using a process called thermoluminescence which gauges the time since baked clay was fired.
For more than 2,000 years since the start of the Nok period, Nigerians have been building stone house bases like this one.(Courtesy Roger Atwood) Thus, in short order, Fagg had discovered some of the key markers of an advanced civilization: refined art and organized worship, metal smelting, and sufficient population to support these activities.
But he knew such a society did not appear in isolation. Their terracottas are now some of the most iconic ancient objects from Africa.