The first discoveries concerning the Nok Culture were made at the beginning of the last century. They consisted of fragments of clay figurines that were found, with few exceptions, during the open-cast mining of tin. These elaborately done, up to life-sized sculptures were the basis of the prominence of the Nok Culture. Adding to this was the discovery from an excavation that the Nok people produced iron as early as ca. 500 BCE – at that time one of the earliest indications of iron metallurgy in West Africa.
The artistic terracottas as an expression of a developed ritual culture, iron metallurgy without any known precursors, and the evidence of a stable agricultural economy as known by now all are indications of specialization and social change, which can be observed in connection with the development of complex societies in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to its importance in this respect and because of the threat of the complete destruction of Nok sites by illegal digging, the Nok Culture as a prominent example of such processes is studied in the scope of a long-term project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).
The project is divided into four phases with thematic priorities (chronology, settlement patterns, regional diversity, and conclusion). With regard to the research on chronology and settlement patterns, the project concentrates on case studies within a region of about 350 km2 in the center of the known distribution area of the Nok Culture. The results of these case studies will then be compared with investigations in other regions, aimed at testing the cultural unity, which is reflected in the strict integrity of the terracotta figurines, in other areas such as settlement patterns, economy, pottery, stone tools, and iron metallurgy.