Many incredible works of art have been made using terracotta, including the world famous Terracotta Army created for the first emperor of China. But because terracotta is often simply unglazed clay, many of the finest works were lost long ago.
Although all terracotta pottery is fired in order to harden and preserve it – otherwise, it technically wouldn’t be pottery at all – it almost always isn’t glazed. Without that protective coating, the pottery is much more vulnerable to the elements, particularly water erosion.
The Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang survived in large part because it was buried underground straight after completion, and even then its colors have faded, the warriors’ weapons have rotted or been looted, and lots of little pieces have been broken off and washed away in the centuries. Because the overall work was so gargantuan to begin with, quite a bit could be lost while still retaining its basic feel and impressiveness.
The terracotta sculpture of the Nok culture hasn’t been so lucky. The Nok flourished in what is now Nigeria from 1000 BCE to 500 CE, at which point all evidence of their culture seemingly vanished. It’s generally thought that the Nok people evolved into the Yoruba, which to this day is one of West Africa’s largest ethnic groups, but what exactly prompted the sudden disappearance of the original culture remains a mystery.
The Nok were an Iron Age culture and so had mastered the forging and smelting of tools. But clay was their preferred medium for art, and that has meant most of their greatest works only endure as fragments. Many of the sculptures are found in water-soaked mud, which isn’t the best environment for unglazed clay pottery to spend multiple millenniums.
That’s what makes the head you see up top so completely remarkable. Recently excavated near a Nigerian village, it’s one of the most perfectly preserved pieces of Nok art ever discovered. Writing in New Scientist, Curtis Abraham describes the find:
Archaeologists Peter Breunig and Nicole Rupp of the Goethe-University Frankfurt in Germany uncovered the head during the 2010 field season. It was found in Kushe, a small village about 150 kilometres north of the capital Abuja. Amazingly, this specimen was very close to the surface – only 60 centimetres down. 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.