Monday, 16 April 2018

N is for Nok... and... scarecrow Noggins ...and an unfinished Narrative...

is for

Youssou N’dour from Senegal, a multi-awardee (including the Grammy) musician and cultural icon across Africa and the world. 

And also Yannick Noah, of Cameroonian origin and a French resident, he has represented France in world tennis tournaments, then taken up music after retirement from sport - a tennis star turned star musician. 

Nok culture - In the early 1940’s, Bernard Fagg, a British archaeologist working in central Nigeria for the then colonial government, received a visitor who gave him a complete terracotta head which had been found serving as a scarecrow head in a yam field. Fagg immediately caught on to its importance, as he had been working there for some years and had in his possession a similar artefact. Neither artefacts could be explained or matched to any other known cultures in West Africa. Fagg dated the head using a technique called thermo-luminescence which indicates the time that’s lapsed after a terracotta piece has been fired.  And came up with a date that was inconceivable at the time, West Africa wasn’t supposed to have civilisations that old. Fagg was a man of relentless drive and endless curiosity. He collected several other artefacts, got together about 200 other fragments. The terracotta figurines particularly, were of amazing beauty and detail, the artisans were obviously master craftspeople. (Okay, you can avoid the ramble and watch the clip instead, but Fagg's not in it...)

In one excavation site he detected some dozen iron furnaces, and the terracotta figures were in such close proximity to them, that Fagg theorised they were deities related to smelting/blacksmithing. Carbon dating the charcoal inside led to a date of 280 BCE, the earliest for any West African peoples to smelt iron. Both the smelters and the figurines were so profuse that they pointed to a densely populated, settled and sophisticated culture.

Piecing together the evidence through radiocarbon dating and thermo-luminescence, Fagg theorised the existence of a complex West African culture dating back to at least 500 BCE. But he also said that such a sophisticated society does not emerge suddenly or in isolation, it is the built upon earlier, less technologically complex civilisations, implying that the first West African societies went back even further. Which notion at that time the colonial administration refused to entertain. Fagg called this civilisation Nok after the name of the village near which the first pieces were found.

But due to the colonial government’s dismissal and other subsequent challenges, the study of the Nok culture remained neglected. Widespread looting of the Nok artefacts to feed demand outside Africa compounded the problems. For long years, the early work of Bernard Fagg languished.

The Nok culture was finally taken up for systematic research only in the 21st century. The findings have been stunning!  Recent research indicates the Nok culture may have existed for far longer than Fagg initially proposed, estimates vary from 1200-900 BCE. It flourished over 30,000 square miles, an area that’s almost the size of Austria.

Their terracotta figurines have typical almond shaped eyes, parted lips and elaborate hair-dos, characteristics persisting over centuries and over huge tracts of land. Microscopic exams of the clay used shows that it is remarkably uniform, probably sourced from the same, as yet undiscovered, origin. And may have been controlled centrally – either through political authority or a trade guild.

Recent excavations have unearthed figurines of a man and woman kneeling with their arms about each other; groups of prisoners with ropes around their waists and feet; a man playing a drum, possibly the first artistic depiction of a musical performance in West Africa. The Nok have left behind some of the most distinctive terracotta art from Africa, indubitable proof of their skills with the medium.

Apart from figurines the other significant finds are iron ones – spear points, bracelets, small knives. Of monumental importance - as the use/knowledge of iron smelting is a marker of more complex societies and when they transitioned from stone to metal. Evidence also indicates that West Africa transitioned from the Stone Age to Iron Age without an intervening Copper period, which bucks the trend in Europe and Asia. Intriguing, to say the least.

There is a marked decline in the profusion of both the terracotta and iron artefacts from about 200 CE onwards. The Nok may have declined due to overuse of natural resources, but there is no conclusive evidence. Some academics have conjectured the Nok acted as a precursor to the Ife civilisation which rose to great prominence in Southern Nigeria in the 12th century.

Bernard Fagg wrote, “It was the product of a mature tradition, with the probability of a long antecedent history, of which no trace has been found as yet.” 

Well, neither the back story, nor the ending is fully clear, even some plot twists remain somewhat blurry. The story that Bernard Fagg started is not yet completely told, but expect some startling revelations as the research proceeds. Read more here and here.

From the Safaris

~ Thank you for watching! ~

Books n Stuff

Flora Nwapa (1931-93) - was a pioneering writer, educator and publisher from Nigeria, she has been called the mother of modern African Literature. Her works deal with feminist themes though she did not think of herself as a feminist for the most part of her writing life. She is best known for preserving and retelling of a tribal woman’s life and traditions from an Igbo woman’s perspective. Her novel Efuru, the first novel in English by an African woman - is about a woman struggling with the stigma of infertility and the ramifications it has on the social acceptability and identity of women. In spite of a very positive feedback on the manuscript of Ehuru from Chinua Achebe, who was already famous when Nwapa sent it to him, it was met with rejection.  When Efuru was published by Heinemann in 1966 it drew a shocking amount of criticism, that the writing was weak and the story inauthentic, perhaps illustrating the degree of male domination in the industry. 

(Just as a matter of interest, none of her books were included in my school Literature syllabus, though Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Efuru were both published in the sixties just a few years apart, and TFA was a prescribed Literature text by the mid-seventies, or maybe even earlier. In fact, none of my school texts were by women authors – Peter Abraham, Alan Paton, Chinua Achebe, Kenneth Kaunda, and of course Will Shakespeare…among the West African poets there’s only Grace Casely Hayford. Telling, or what?! ‘It was a different time.’ Indeed!)

Efuru has since passed onto the African canon, and Nwapa went on to publish several other books, first through Heinemann and then through her own publishing company, Tana Books set up in 1974.  She is widely accepted today as a trailblazer, recognising the African woman as a readership demographic when no-one else did. 

Arthur Nortje (1942-70) was a South African poet and activist of mixed parentage. He was born on the eve of the Apartheid, and grew up in a segregated South Africa amidst a high level of racial tension, isolated from both the blacks and the whites because he was a coloured child. Many of his poems deal with indeterminacy, identity issues and racial conflicts that he saw growing up in the 50’s South African society. Unable to stand the harsh environment, he left South Africa first for UK and then Canada, but was unable to settle in either country due to mental health issues and substance abuse. He died tragically young at only 28 from an overdose and was published posthumously.

Poet Dennis Brutus was his teacher and while he initially helped to make Nortje known after his untimely death, later Brutus suppressed/modified many of Nortje’s poems to suit his, Brutus’s, own agenda.  Here is an excerpt from a Nortje poem:

At Rest from the Grim Place

The sergeant laughs with strong teeth,
his jackboots nestle under the springbok horns.
Those bayonets are silent
The spear of the nation gone to the ground.
Warriors prowl in the stars of their dungeons.
I’ve seen the nebulae of a man’s eyes
squirm with pain, he sang his life
through cosmic volleys. They call it
genital therapy, the blond bosses.

There are two more stanzas. The poem ends with the line – ‘I have since forgotten what they call that place.’ 

Powerful or what?

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2018


  1. Poor Bernard Fagg. He was right, and ridiculed. Which is so often true of pioneers.

    1. Pioneers in African history especially. Except in Egypt. No-one would have dreamed of ridiculing Howard Carter!

  2. I'd never heard of the Nok. I wonder if it doesn't somehow tie in with ancient Egypt?

    1. It's quite possible. Trade links likely, though the evidence has yet to be unearthed.

  3. Hari OM
    Fascinating!!! I could not help but think of the Benin Bronzes and of course, when you mention that there was a possible drift into Ife culture, that made a lot of sense. I do have a vague recall of our tame archaeologist, Patrick, who was investigating the Benin walls also being interested in terracotta and the Nok... but if I knew any more than that it had drifted out of memory. Am so glad it is being seriously researched now. That accompanied by N'Dour... well... Nice Nod to end the Night! YAM xx

    1. It's utterly fascinating - the Nok had no copper age and transitioned to iron straight, and then the contrast of the Benin Bronzes further south!

  4. Once again I feel like visiting your post is akin to being set down in front of a treasure chest filled with wonders. I had NO idea about the Nok, and besides being utterly fascinating, I feel a sense of sadness and shame that so many cultural discoveries aren't immediately recognized and celebrated for the wonders they are.

    1. Frustrating that while the so-called authorities were being dismissive, a whole swathe of evidence must have been lost.

  5. Fascinating about the discoveries. I love your video once again! They make me want to book a flight right now!

    Emily In Ecuador | Nets, Fishing Nets made in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

  6. For some reason, this morning, it makes me so tired to read of West African civilizations and women writers and "colored" poets being discounted, disrespected and disbelieved. So tired.

    1. I know exactly how you feel! The constant prejudice is disheartening.

  7. For a place that is considered the birthplace of humanity, people really tend to be skeptical when they hear about civilizations in ancient Africa. Talk about irony.

    The Multicolored Diary: Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales

    1. Ya, it's beyond weird. Apart from ancient Egypt, not one of the African kingdoms is widely known - they can be an A-Z series by themselves!

  8. Hi N for Nila - loved reading about Nok - fascinating culture and I'd never heard of Bernard Fagg ... Jannick Noah singing - and wallowing in water - always easy on the eye! But what another great post ... so much for us to read and link to here ... cheers Hilary

    1. I'm with you on Noah :-) def a treat for the eyes...

  9. Yannick Noah, "a tennis star turned star musician." Very different! And all that info about the Nok was fascinating. It's amazing how archaeologists can weave histories together from various pieces of evidence.

    1. Unusual to find a singing and sports talent combo, isn't it?!