Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Intellectual Consequences of Knocked-off Nok "Art"


There is a brief article in New Scientist about an excavated terracotta Nok Culture head which is "one of the best-preserved examples of its kind ever discovered". I think it means in an archaeological investigation, museums and galleries are full of them. The terracottas (especially the knocked-off heads) are eagerly acquired no-questions-asked by collectors as they are among the earliest figurative art in sub-Saharan Africa. The excavated head was found (some 60 cm down, the article insists on telling us), by archaeologists Peter Breunig and Nicole Rupp of the Goethe-University Frankfurt during the 2010 field season at Kushe, a small village about 150 kilometres north of the capital Abuja. The Nok culture flourished in the region of modern Nigeria from about 1000 BC to AD 500 ("when it mysteriously died out").
The Nok terracottas are a mystery. No one knows for sure what they were used for. They may represent dead members of the Nok community and could have been a votive offering at a shrine. Alternatively, the figurines may have been grave goods. Africa has seen a resurgence of archaeological activity to investigate Nok culture. Part of this has to do with interest in Iron Age societies in Africa, which is surging as anthropologists consider how technologies - especially those based on iron - spread. The Nok are considered to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, people to smelt iron on the African continent. However, the research is under threat. Over the past half-century countless Nok terracotta specimens have been looted from hundreds of sites in central Nigeria. The booty has found its way onto the international art and antiquities market, ending up in the hands of private art collectors.
Of course from an archaeological point of view of less importance than the fact that the objects are disappearing into private collections is the fact that so they can "surface" onto the market, the sites which hold them are riddled with holes dug blindly by looters hoping to find saleable items. Any area of the site producing them will be the focus of renewed digging hoping to find others in the vicinity. The potential for the destruction of any and all archaeological context is clear.

Once out of the ground, and country, the potential for these loose artefacts to tell us anything much of use for the real research questions the modern discipline would like to pose of Nok sites (about social structure, economic regimes etc.) simply cannot be addressed by an "art-history" approach to the decontextualised collectable geegaws on the "art" market. Indeed the possibility of even that being contaminated by skilful forgeries made to look old is very high indeed in the case of Nok "art" in particular. There is no possibility of there being a "Good Collector" of such items.

Source: Curtis Abraham, "Look into the eyes of a rare ancient African sculpture", New Scientist (Short, sharp science), 6 January 2012.

Photo: Archaeological artefact, not Knocked-off "art" on a dodgy market (Image: Nicole Rupp/Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Goethe-University Frankfurt).

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