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The making of “Nok terracotta”

La fabrication des terres cuites nok
Peter Breunig et James Ameje
p. 91-102

Résumés

Les fameuses terres cuites de la culture nok du Nigéria central représentent le plus ancien art figuratif de l’Afrique subsaharienne. Cet article décrit la reproduction d’une telle terre cuite par un artisan nigérian. Les aspects techniques – préparation de l’argile, outillage, déroulement de la fabrication –, ainsi que la conception claire du produit fini et des différentes étapes que l’artiste a en tête pendant tout le façonnement sont particulièrement intéressants.

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

Nok, terres cuites, statuaire, art

Keywords :

Nok, terracotta, statuary, art

Index géographique :

Nigéria/Nigeria
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Texte intégral

Introduction

1Since decades, the Nok Culture of Central Nigeria has been known for its outstanding terracotta figurines depicting both humans and animals (Fagg 1990). Radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dating place the figurines to a period of approximately 500 BC, or even earlier (Boullier et al. 2003), until AD 200, thus, classifying the Nok terracotta as the earliest known sculptural art in sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to its importance as the birth of art in Africa south of the Sahara (Boullier 1996 et 2001; Boullier et Person 1999; De Grunne 1998), or as being among a hundred great discoveries in the story of archaeology from a global perspective (Bahn 1996), almost no research has been carried out on its context. For this reason a joint archaeological project of the University of Frankfurt (Germany), the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (Nigeria), and the University of Jos (Nigeria) was initiated to focus primarily on aspects beyond art, like settlement, economy and environment of the Nok Culture (Rupp, Ameje, Breunig 2005).

2In this programme the art is of interest for its potentials to provide information on social aspects like the enigmatic function of the terracotta, of which there are many speculations in the literature but deserves hard facts from archaeological excavations. In this regard, the art is also of particular importance as the earliest evidence of craft specialization in West African prehistory. Although undisputable, the evidence is rather hypothetical and simply concluded from the aesthetics of the art. With the intention to learn more about how the terracotta might have been made in prehistoric times and to evaluate to what extent the technology might be those of specialists, we decided to do an ethnographic study of Nok terracotta production. One of these artists is Audu Washi. He is from the village of Miango, located in the vicinity of Jos (Nigeria), and creates perfect copies of Nok terracotta. During a visit at the end of 2006, we documented the production of the “philosopher”, shown in figure 1a, together with the artist, Audu Washi. In this article we report about what we learned.

Figure 1

Figure 1

A: Audu Washi and the “philosopher”, a figurine of Nok style whose making is described here.
B: Ground fragments of original Nok terracotta are added to the clay and mixed.
C: Shaping the clay and decorating the figurine using only one tool: a slanted piece of hard wood.

© P. Breunig

The artist

3Audu Washi, the artist of our study, has a deep sense of feeling for the expression of the Nok terracotta style, which includes the objects depicted, as well as the shape and ornamental details like the body adornments and hairdo of human figures. Indeed, at a glance, and without scientific tests or trained eyes, his products can hardly be distinguished from the original artworks – see figure 2 as an example, an object depicting a “warrior”, made by him, which he said, took him five days to complete. His inspiration for the type of figurines is derived from copies of a publication he saw in Cotonou (Benin), which he keeps for reference.

Figure 2 - The “warrior” (before firing), a figurine of Nok style, ca. 90 cm height, made by Audu Washi in five days work

Figure 2 - The “warrior” (before firing), a figurine of Nok style, ca. 90 cm height, made by Audu Washi in five days work

© P. Breunig

4His experience in modeling clay goes back to the time when he was a child. In those days he made toys out of clay. Today, his profession is motor mechanic, but he spends most of his time in making Nok terracotta, as well as figurines of other styles like Sokoto and Ife. He acquired the skills from a friend about seven years ago. Another friend also taught him how to match original prehistoric parts from diggings with the new copies he made. It took him some months of practice before he could make perfect reproductions of the original sculptures. Audu Washi’s customers are mainly dealers from Togo and Niger Republic. They probably sell his artworks as originals to overseas buyers. However, the business apparently is declining because his customers do not come often, he says.

Acquisition and moulding of clay

5The first step in the manufacture of Nok figurines is the acquisition of the clay. This may look simple, but it is difficult as one need to be knowledgeable to be able to identify the clay types. Audu Washi prefers clay from a specific area which is located in the Nok region, about 100 kilometers southwest of his Miango village. There is no symbolic relation between the usage of clay from the Nok region and its modeling into Nok terracotta, which were discovered here the first time in the mid last century. Like the original terracotta, the clay from there has a natural micaceous particles “shine-shine”, Audu Washi explained. The “shine-shine” is mixed with the clay from other deposits. The same clay is also used preferably by potters. People from the area dig the clay and sell it for a considerable price of 1500 Naira (approximately 10 Euro) per bag of about 10 kilogram. The provenance of the clay is a secret kept by the Nok people to keep the business running. Another work in the field is to collect fragments of original terracotta.

6After the acquisition of the clay, there follows a process of pre-treatment of the clay, like adding specific components of ground stones from alluvial deposits, most probably feldspar that derived from decayed granite. Beside muscovite, coarse feldspar fragments, white in colour are another typical attribute of the Nok terracotta. The quantity of feldspar is not in a fixed relation to the clay. Of importance and constantly practised is the adding of ground fragments from original terracotta as another tempering material (figure 1b). Again, there is no symbolic meaning behind this practise. Audu Washi explains that this is mainly done to achieve the right reddish colour of the clay. Formerly, he used a red stone for this, but this stone is no longer available. After all components are mixed, the clay is mashed together and beaten to an elastic state. Then, it remains at least one day in a plastic bag to keep it wet.

Modeling the figure

7Modeling of a clay figurine always starts with its base. Audu Washi never will begin with the head, for instance. Parts above the base are added step by step. Each step comprises a final shaping, including the fixing and decoration of adornments and anatomical parts like legs and arms. With regard to the “philosopher” whose creation we observed, four stages of modeling can be distinguished: the base, the lower body with legs, the upper body with belly, breast and arms, and finally the head including the neck and the hairdo. Once one of these sections or any of its components is completed, he never returned to previous sections to modify them.

8Beside his fingers, Audu Washi predominantly uses only one multifunctional type of tool that cannot be represented in the prehistoric record because of its organic nature: a wooden stick, ca. 1 cm thick, with a slanted point (figure 1c). The slanted point of the stick is used to provide the coarse shape of the figurine by pressing it into the clay and to smooth the surface. The edges of the slanted part and the point itself allows the artist to make all kinds of incisions or grooves to decorate parts in a pattern like comb-stamping or to depict toes, segments of bracelets or eyebrows, for instance. Thus, the tool produces incisions or grooves with different breadth simply by changing the angles its point cuts into the clay (figure 3). From time to time, the tool is wetted by a small piece of sponge to avoid the clay sticking to it and to smoothing the spot so created. Plastic sponge was not available in times of the Nok culture, but there were many alternatives to wetting the tool. Audu told us about experiments with iron tools. One might have expected that iron tools could have been used considering the presence of iron smelting that were abundant in the area. But Audu dismissed the use of iron tools, because iron tools, like a knife for instance, are too sharp to produce the soft contours of the terracotta, he claims.

Figure 3 - Different types of usage of the wooden tool

Figure 3 - Different types of usage of the wooden tool

A: Coarse shaping of clay into a desired form as shown by fixing two elongated lumps of clay that will become the bent legs.
B: Using the edge of the tool to make broad grooves indicating a waist band.
C: Using the edge to make narrow grooves to depict anklet.
D: Using the point to produce a pattern looking like a comb-stamping decoration on the waist band.

© P. Breunig

9The manufacture of the “philosopher” commences with the base. Like many Nok terracotta the “philosopher” is placed on a small vessel-like object which is upside down. Two coils of clay and a few minutes of shaping are necessary to complete the base (figure 4a). Coiling is the principal method to produce the body. More coils are used to form the lower body (figure 4b), and two elongated lumps are fixed and shaped into bent legs (figure 3a). Between the legs the penis is fixed and smoothed (figure 4c). Then, a few impressions by the wooden stick produce a waistband around the lower body and a grooved line separates the upper and lower part of the bent legs (figure 4d). The knees are flattened (figure 5c) because the arms would be fixed on them later. The waistband is decorated by a set of vertical and horizontal grooves as well as a line comprised of isolated dots as shown in figure 5a. Audu Washi then forms two small balls of clay, fixed them between base and lower legs, and shapes them into the feet whose toes were indicated by grooving (figure 5b). In the next step he indicates anklets, also by grooving a few horizontal lines into a slightly raised band made after the feet were fixed.

Figure 4 - Stages of making the base and the lower parts of the body

Figure 4 - Stages of making the base and the lower parts of the body

A & B: Coils are used to form the base and the lower body.
C: Shaping the penis between elongated lumps of clay which form the bended legs.
D: Separating lower and upper part of the bent leg by grooving. Around the waist a broad belt was made in a similar way.

© P. Breunig

Figure 5

Figure 5

A: Decoration of the belt.
B: Decoration of a bracelet around the lower right leg after fixing the feet and separating the toes by grooving. The left leg is made in the same style afterwards.
C: Making the upper body with a few coils.
D: Fixing the left arm also made of a coil.

© P. Breunig

10The next stage comprised of the modeling of the upper body up to the shoulders by adding coils on top of the parts completed before (figure 5c). In less than ten minutes this stage was finished, including the smoothing of the surface. Another few minutes require the production of the arms which are made by a coil, smoothed with several passes of the wooden stick. Figure 5d shows how the left arm is arranged. The right arm follows in a similar position. After both arms are fixed and shaped, bracelets are made above the wrist and decorated by grooved lines (figure 6a). The arms are completed by indicating the hands’ fingers, also made by grooved lines (figure 6b). After depicting the breast with a few lines, Audu Washi added a coil for the neck and another one for a necklace around it (figure 6b).Within few minutes he shaped a coil of clay into a horizontal wavy band below the neck on the upper back (figure 6c). The band has a vertical extension in the centre. This part is meant as a collar of the neck, Audu Washi explained. It is nicely decorated by dotted lines (figure 6d).

Figure 6

Figure 6

A: Bracelets above the wrist are made and decorated by grooved lines.
B: Making the neck and a necklace that surrounds it by shaping two coils.
C: Application of a wavy band indicating a collar of the neck.
D: Decoration of the upper part of the clothing by stamping with the point of the wooden tool.

© P. Breunig

11The next stage comprises the modeling of the head. It begins with a lump of clay that is fixed on the neck (figure 7a). The front of this lump serves as the base for the face. It is made out of a coil of clay and placed with its lower part on the arms (figure 7b). Ten minutes later the face was finally shaped, and the hairdo was worked out. It consists of a ball-like form on top of the head, based on a slightly raised headband, and a semi-circular ball carrying the hairdo on the backside of the head (figure 7c). Small lumps are added here and there to achieve the required dimensions.

Figure 7

Figure 7

A: A lump of clay is fixed on the neck to be formed into the head.
B: A clay coil between head and arms will become the face of the “philosopher”.
C: Smoothing the face and modeling the hairdo.
D: Making the mouth and the nose.

© P. Breunig

12After smoothing the face very carefully, Audu Washi brings life into his figurine by giving it sensitive organs. He begins with the mouth and the nose. Just a few passes on the figurine, he made grooves with only the wooden stick he still uses, to shape them perfectly (figure 7d). Then the eyes are made by grooving a triangular form which is the most characteristic attribute of all Nok terracotta (figure 8a). With a few strokes he worked out the eyelid (figure 8b), and adds a grooved line above the eye to indicate the eyebrow (figure 8c). The eyes are still blind, and stay like this until all remaining modelings are completed. Giving the eyes symbolically real life by stitching the pupils (figure 8d) and grooving the eyelashes (figure 8e) is the very last act in the creation of the “philosopher”. Stitching the pupils requires a separate tool. For the first time Audu Washi puts his wood with the slanted point aside and takes a thin stalk of grass which he sticks into the centre of the eye and moves it circularly until the pupils have the desired size. Before this took place, the ears are made by a simple stitch of the point of the wooden tool into the clay (figure 8f), as well as the headband (visible in figure 1a), the necklace and the hairdo in a way shown in figures 8g and 8h.

Figure 8

Figure 8

A-E: Stages of giving the figurine its eyes.
F: Indicating ears by stitching the point of the wooden tool into the clay.
G: Decoration of the necklace by crossed grooved lines.
H: Indicating the hairdo on the backside of the head by grooved lines. The form above on top of the head remains undecorated.

© P. Breunig

13After Audu Washi has completed the eyes by stitching the pupils, he abruptly terminates his work and announces its completion. No corrections are necessary anywhere. The whole modeling took about three hours and was carried out without any break.

Firing the figurine

14Before firing, the figurine has to be sun-dried for about four to five days. Therefore, it was only possible to document the firing of the “warrior”, shown in figure 2, which was already sun-dried for five days before we came.

15The way this terracotta was fired is a modern version of a process, which must have been rather different in prehistoric times. However, the basic requirement is simply a high temperature of about 600 to 800 degrees centigrade. Of course, there is a variety of methods to achieve this. In our version, the procedure begins with the construction of an oven. It consists of metal sheets, originally used for roofing houses, arranged into a rectangular pattern along the wall of a hut. Ceramic pots are placed outside the oven to support the roofing sheets (figure 9a). The size of the oven roughly corresponds to the size of the figurine that was to be fired.

Figure 9

Figure 9

A: Placing the figurine in a bed of charcoal, fixed by a case made of sheet metal stabilized by pots on one side and the wall of a hut on the other side.
B: Lightning of the charcoal with straw.
C: Taking out the burnt figurine from the oven after five hours of constant heat.

© P. Breunig

16The base of the oven is filled with charcoal, and the figurine is placed on the charcoal (figure 9a). Then, the figurine is completely covered with more charcoal. Some dry grasses were put on top and some kerosene spread on the charcoal (figure 9b). This was then lit with a match. The charcoal soon burns down to the bottom and produces considerable temperatures over several hours. The figurine stayed approximately five hours in the oven; and was red-hot before it was removed (figure 9c). The charcoal was still burning significantly.

17At the end of the firing, there was no evidence of cracking. For that reason, the firing can be said to be successful. In contrast to the unfired figurine (figure 2), it now has the typical red colour of the prehistoric Nok terracotta. This is the result of the reddish components of the clay as well as the burning in an oxidizing environment.

Conclusion

18The process of making a modern figurine of Nok style, and its artistic expression which is similar to prehistoric pieces, convinced us of the necessity of sophisticated skills. Although the work consumes much time, probably more than one can afford as a part-time job (five days for the “warrior” alone!), the way of modeling the clay appears highly effective and artistic. With a few flicks of the wrist, the artist achieved impressive results which hardly can be gained without long standing experience. Most impressive is the precision and steadfastness in which the artist realized what he had in mind to create. There never was any modification of any part during the process of modeling. The desired shape was achieved immediately without experiments or trial and error. This points to a very clear concept of how each part of a terracotta has to look like, a concept that might have existed also among the prehistoric Nok artists, explaining the great uniformity of the art in a considerable span of time and space.

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Bibliographie

Bahn P. (ed.) (1996) - The story of archaeology: The 100 Great Discoveries. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Boullier C. (1996) - Les sculptures en terre cuite de style Nok : approche pluridisciplinaire. Mémoire de D.E.A., Université de Paris I - Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Boullier C. (2001) - Recherches méthodologiques sur la statuaire en terre cuite africaine : application à un corpus de sculptures archéologiques - en contexte et hors contexte - de la culture Nok (Nigéria). Thèse de doctorat, Université Paris I - Panthéon Sorbonne.

Boullier C., Person A. (1999) - La statuaire masculine Nok. Iconographie des personnages assis, Le Monde de l’Art Tribal, Été-Automne, p. 98-113.

Boullier C., Person A. , Saliège J.-F., Polet J. (2002-2003) - Bilan chronologique de la culture Nok et nouvelles datations sur des sculptures, Afrique : Archéologie & Arts 2, p. 9-28.

De Grunne B. (1998) - The Birth of Art in Black Africa: Nok Statuary. Banque Générale du Luxembourg.

Fagg B. (1990) - Nok terracottas. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

Rupp N., Ameje J. and Breunig P. (2005) - New studies on the Nok Culture of Central Nigeria, Journal of African Archaeology 3, 2: 283-290.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende A: Audu Washi and the “philosopher”, a figurine of Nok style whose making is described here. B: Ground fragments of original Nok terracotta are added to the clay and mixed. C: Shaping the clay and decorating the figurine using only one tool: a slanted piece of hard wood.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Figure 2 - The “warrior” (before firing), a figurine of Nok style, ca. 90 cm height, made by Audu Washi in five days work
Crédits © P. Breunig
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
Titre Figure 3 - Different types of usage of the wooden tool
Légende A: Coarse shaping of clay into a desired form as shown by fixing two elongated lumps of clay that will become the bent legs. B: Using the edge of the tool to make broad grooves indicating a waist band. C: Using the edge to make narrow grooves to depict anklet. D: Using the point to produce a pattern looking like a comb-stamping decoration on the waist band.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Figure 4 - Stages of making the base and the lower parts of the body
Légende A & B: Coils are used to form the base and the lower body.C: Shaping the penis between elongated lumps of clay which form the bended legs.D: Separating lower and upper part of the bent leg by grooving. Around the waist a broad belt was made in a similar way.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Titre Figure 5
Légende A: Decoration of the belt. B: Decoration of a bracelet around the lower right leg after fixing the feet and separating the toes by grooving. The left leg is made in the same style afterwards.C: Making the upper body with a few coils.D: Fixing the left arm also made of a coil.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Titre Figure 6
Légende A: Bracelets above the wrist are made and decorated by grooved lines.B: Making the neck and a necklace that surrounds it by shaping two coils.C: Application of a wavy band indicating a collar of the neck.D: Decoration of the upper part of the clothing by stamping with the point of the wooden tool.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Figure 7
Légende A: A lump of clay is fixed on the neck to be formed into the head.B: A clay coil between head and arms will become the face of the “philosopher”.C: Smoothing the face and modeling the hairdo.D: Making the mouth and the nose.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 196k
Titre Figure 8
Légende A-E: Stages of giving the figurine its eyes. F: Indicating ears by stitching the point of the wooden tool into the clay. G: Decoration of the necklace by crossed grooved lines. H: Indicating the hairdo on the backside of the head by grooved lines. The form above on top of the head remains undecorated.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure 9
Légende A: Placing the figurine in a bed of charcoal, fixed by a case made of sheet metal stabilized by pots on one side and the wall of a hut on the other side.B: Lightning of the charcoal with straw.C: Taking out the burnt figurine from the oven after five hours of constant heat.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/docannexe/image/1398/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 275k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Peter Breunig et James Ameje, « The making of “Nok terracotta” », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 4 | 2006, 91-102.

Référence électronique

Peter Breunig et James Ameje, « The making of “Nok terracotta” », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts [En ligne], 4 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 juin 2018, consulté le 18 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aaa/1398 ; DOI : 10.4000/aaa.1398

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Auteurs

Peter Breunig

breunig@em.uni-frankfurt.de – Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Archäologie & Archäobotanik Afrikas, Grüneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

James Ameje

National Commission for Museums and Monuments
Headquarters - Plot 2018 Cotonou Crescent
Wuse Zone 6, P.M.B. 171
Garki, Abuja
Nigeria
ameje2002@yahoo.com

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Droits d’auteur

CNRS - ArScAn. Cartographie d’après www.geoatlas.fr

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