By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Nigeria; Nok peoples

Elephant head


H. 19 cm (7 1/2")

National Museum, Jos, Nigeria, N291.1

Photo by Dirk Bakker


The Nok people also made animals, such as this elephant. Triangular eyes appear on both human and animal figures. We know the dates of these objects from radioactive carbon dating, which tests carbon found in association with the figures, and from thermo-luminescence, which determines when the clay object was fired. We can only guess how the figures were used. They may originally have been erected near fields, perhaps to help supernaturally the fertility of the crops. Others attached to pots perhaps ornamented roof finials, a practice still seen in central Nigeria. Two female figures found in association with the iron smelting probably were intended to help in that difficult process. The ability of women to give birth is often symbolically equated in Africa to the ability of iron furnaces to produce iron.