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Unlocking the secrets of West Africa's earliest known civilization A terracotta head created by the Nok culture, one of ancient West Africa's most advanced civilizations, emerges at a dig site near Janjala, Nigeria.(Courtesy Peter Breunig) In 1943, British archaeologist Bernard Fagg received a visitor in the central Nigerian town of Jos, where he had spent the previous few years gathering and classifying ancient artifacts found on a rugged plateau.

The visitor carried a terracotta head that, he said, had been perched atop a scarecrow in a nearby yam field. The piece resembled a terracotta monkey head he had seen a few years earlier, and neither piece matched the artifacts of any known ancient African civilization.

They often have grand headdresses or hairdos, which may indicate high status.

A common pose, and one much imitated by forgers, shows a man sitting with his arms resting on his knees, gazing outward.

Despite the thematic variety, Nok terracotta has some characteristics that persist over hundreds of square miles and centuries of production.

Figures almost always show large-headed people with almond-shaped eyes and parted lips.

C., giving Nok the earliest dates for iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa up to that time.

The high number of smelters and quantity of terracottas suggested he had found evidence of a dense, settled population.

But he knew such a society did not appear in isolation. Their terracottas are now some of the most iconic ancient objects from Africa.But when Fagg subjected plant matter found embedded in the terracotta to the then-new technique of radiocarbon dating, the dates ranged from 440 B. He found 13 such furnaces, and terracotta figurines were in such close association—inside the furnaces and around them—that he postulated the terracottas were objects of worship to aid blacksmithing and smelting.Carbon dating of charcoal inside the furnaces revealed dates as far back as 280 B.Within an hour, the excavators have filled three big Ziploc bags with artifacts.Among them is a terracotta arm broken off of a larger statue.

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