In this study, we will take a look at three different cultures in the pre-colonial era, we will be able to spot out their origin and the way the survived in pre- colonial period before the coming of the colonial masters to colonize Nigeria.


Yoruba traditions claim that Ife is the centre of the world and it was at Ife that the world was created. Since earliest times, Ife had been the religious centre of the Yoruba and centre of origin of the Yoruba people. Due to some religious affiliations, some Yoruba historians still doubt about Ife been the centre of origin. Some ascribed their origin to

Arabia (Johnson).

Ife first attracted the attention of modern scholars in 1910-1911, when the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius discovered ancient artistic tradition in terracotta and bronze which included life-size representations of human heads. He collected in Ife both by purchase and crude excavation. He thought that he had found traces of a Greek colony on the West African coast in the 13th century B.C. His discoveries were to trigger off years of speculation as to the cultural context of Ife art. Since 1956, an archaeologist was engaged in research in Ife. This has resulted not only in the collection of more objects but it was shown that Ife art was a genuine cultural expression of the early Yoruba people unassisted by outsiders.


Cire Perdue was the method employed in the production of Ife arts. An important feature revealed through excavation was the potsherd pavements either laid or edge on. Similarly, Daima in Borno had similar architectural features. Some of the potsherds had impressed decorations. The pavements were dated to 11th or 12th century AD.

One curious feature of archaeology of Ife is the degree to which archaeological materials had been found closely associated with shrines. It is suspected that some of these objects may indeed had probably remained in these shrines from time immemorial.

Around Ife are the remains of town walls, in the form of earthen banks and ditches, which are concentric defensive system. It has been suggested that the Ife heads were actual portraits of rulers of Ife and members of their families, based on ethnographic evidence drawn from Owo (Willet).

The style used in the production of Ife art was argued among scholars, that it was derived from Nok art. It has been claimed that at least from the point of view of Cire Perdue casting techniques, it was Ife that taught Benin to produce its master pieces.



In 1939 a man was digging a cistern in his compound on the outskirts of Igbo-Ukwu, 125 miles S-E of Onitsha when he struck on valuable archaeological objects mostly made up of bronzes. This is also an archaeological discovery made by a layman, a non-archaeologist.

The most interesting thing about the bronze was the nature of their style and decoration which was distinct from the bronze of Benin and Ife.


Between 1559-66 Thurstan Shaw was invited to excavate the site, assisted by Liman Ciroma. The first site was “Igbo Isaiah” situated within the compound of Isaiah. In this compound as a result of the excavation an iron blade, highly decorated pot set on its own open work stand was later recognised as the characteristics ancient Igbo Ukwu ware later copied and repeated in a number of bronzes.

The second site is christened ‘Igbo Richard’ a neighbour and relative of Isaiah who also reported of strange things in his compound. The third one was that of “Igbo Jonah” revealed several objects.


The contents from the excavation consisted of highly decorated bronzes such as large bowls, bronze shells, ornamental, bosses, large pendant ornaments, three staff heads, spiral snake ornaments, scabbard support, and other miscellaneous objects. A number of highly ornamented complete pots characterised by deep channelling were found together with large number of beads mostly of coloured glass but some of carnelian. The nature of the bronzes was strongly suggestive of sacred vessels used for some ceremonial or ritual purpose and of ornaments and regalia for some important person or persons.

The Burial Chamber

As a result of excavation at Igbo-Ukwu, roughly about one meter, a number of pots were met on a pedestal, with characteristic deep grooving, decorated with snakes and some are of skeuomorphic of basket work. This irregularly pile of pots probably represented a shrine associated with offerings made to the spirit of the dignitary buried in the burial chamber. A peculiar feature of this shrine, was that among the pots and broken pots-herds were a larger number of pieces of pottery which had been rubbed down to a special shape. There were some 1500 of these little pottery pegs in the shrine, perhaps they represented votive offerings of some kind.


Royalty was depicted in some of the contents of the excavation. Three ivory tusks possibly carved as horns in association with copper bosses closed to a human skull surrounded with beads was obtained. The skull was also associated with a decorated pectoral plate, a crown with several ornaments which conclusively was a burial chamber of someone of great social importance. The chamber was lined up with traces of matting and textiles in contact with some of the copper objects. By noticing carefully, the positions of the bones and all the other objects, it was possible to conclude that the corpse had been buried in sitting positions upon a stool, the arms supported by the copper brackets and fan-holder and a fly switch set in its hands, richly dressed in beads surmounted by a crown and a pectoral plate on the chest, close by, were the remains of at least five individuals, perhaps slaves buried to accompany their lord in the next world.

Antiquity of Igbo-Ukwu Finds

At one time it was said that the Igbo-Ukwu finds could not be very old because of the presence of textiles. But this is not necessarily true because textile in close association with copper objects inhibits termite and bacterial activity, which have acted as a preservative.

Some of the wood from the stool decorated with copper bosses from the burial chamber in Igbo Richard were used for radio carbon dating and yielded a date of AD 850 + 120. Charcoal from Igbo Jonah yielded a date of AD 875 + 130. This means the Igbo Ukwu finds were dated to around 9th century AD.



The Nok culture was discovered in 1928 as a result of tin mining operation. The finds from the site revealed an early Iron Age population at a village called Nok where they were first found. The remains consist of terracotta figurines. The first terracotta figurine discovered was that of head of a monkey which was deposited at the mines Museum in Jos by Col. J. D. Young. That discovery remained unique until 1943 when another terracotta head was discovered in Jema’a at Tsauni. Mr. Bernard Fagg who was appointed Government Archaeologist inspected the tin mining areas and a number of figurines and other archaeological objects were rescued and this formed the basis of the Jos Museum. Fagg made his first publication on the terracotta in 1945 where he categorised them in to “The Nok series” and “the Jema’a series”. It was observed that the figurines were made of clay mixed with small grains of quartz and silica derived from the surrounding hills and the Jos plateau. From 1947 – 1951 several discoveries of the terracotta figurines were made either at Nok proper, Wamba or Tsauni.

Spatial distribution

The terracotta figurines were found greatly concentrated around Nok and Jema’a. The distribution radiated to all directions. It reaches Katsina Ala in the south east including Ankiring, Jema’a, Tare and Wamba. Udegi is directly south, while in the south-west are Bwari, Kawu, Samban, Shere Koro and Taruga. West and North-west are Kuchamfa, Kutofo and Kagara, while Kachia is on the northernmost point and Amban and Maitumbi are in the east.

Description of the Nok Figurines

The figurines were all modelled in clay. The Nok figurines are hollow and coil-built and reworked from the outside. The fabric consists of clay with grain of mica, quartz or granite. The height of the Nok terracotta varies from 10cm to 120cm. The majority of the terracotta represents human heads and figures; and several representations of parts of animals such as elephant head, monkey head, and several snakes.


Other finds from the Nok culture include polished stone axes and adzes, probably meant for wood carving, before the introduction of iron to the area. Grindstones were common, suggestive of the use of vegetable food. Tin beads were found in the deposits of the Nok valley. Quartz beads and domestic pottery occurred.

Functions of the Terracotta

At the moment scholars are not sure about the functions of the terracottas. Since we do not have direct association with the prehistoric populations who made them, we can only speculate about their functions. It must be noted that their functions may differ from place to place.

It is possible that the figurines could have been used as thatch finials of round huts, those having circulars bases like an inverted pot would have been well suited for this purpose. The practice is still current with Gbagyi and Ham ethnic groups within the Nok culture area. Investigation among the above ethnic groups indicates that they are used as thatch finials to indicate huts which are shrines such that women and initiated young men do not go close to them. In some dwellings huts, they are used for decorations on newly thatched huts.

The association of terracottas with iron smelting furnaces at Taruga would suggest a magico-religious link which certainly accompanies the technical procedure for a successful smelt. Iron smelting is not without hazard and the terracotta could have served as a protection. The terracottas could also have been used as grave goods or personal offerings for the dead. This practice was common among the Dakarkari and Mumuye groups until recently.

Relationship of Nok Arts and Other Cultures

Most archaeologists and Art historians are of the view that the Nok art may be ancestral to some of the former art traditions found in central Nigeria. Many of the terracottas rest on upturned pots, a form which is still found in Thatch finials among the Jaba and other ethnic groups within the Nok culture area today. The Nok terracotta and that of Ife are similar in that they were often adorned with elaborate beadwork and most importantly is that they are the only two ancient styles of terracotta sculpture known to date in Africa ever to attempt to represent human beings approaching life size.

Contributed by:- Oladele Oluwabori Joshua
Faculty: Faculty of Humanities
Department: History and diplomatic studies,Auchor University Lagos


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