By Abraham, Curtis
New African , Vol. 534
IN AUGUST 1987, NIGERIA HELD AN elaborate memorial in honour of the British colonial officer, Bernard Fagg. It was one year after his death. The Lagos-based Daily Times newspaper reported on 13 August 1988: "Here was a British colonial officer who, instead of projecting the image and power of the British, reversed all expectations and projected the image and [the] past of the Africans ... It is our determination that the light he had lit some 44 years [ago] may never dim."
Bernard Fagg is widely celebrated as the "discoverer" of Nigeria's Nok Culture, one of Africa's first complex societies (evidence is mounting in this direction) and perhaps the earliest culture in sub-Saharan Africa to make and use iron tools.
Fagg arrives in Nigeria in 1939 as a junior administrative officer. His first posting was to the Jos Plateau, the centre of Nigeria's tin mining industry. There, in his free time, he scoured the spoil heaps and studied the sections looking for evidence of past human activity. He found Acheulian handaxes, ground stone axes, stone querns, and pottery.
A qualified archaeologist, his enthusiasm encouraged the miners to report finds they would otherwise have ignored or, worse, destroyed. It was the report of terracotta being used as a scarecrow in a tin mining area south of the Jos Plateau that led to the recognition, by Fagg, of the artistic tradition that is now known as the Nok Culture.
He became the first government archaeologist in Nigeria when he was appointed assistant surveyor of antiquities in 1947. From then until his retirement in 1963, when he took over the running of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, Fagg lived and worked in Nigeria.
His eldest daughter, Angela Rackham, has Fond childhood memories of her father and his work. She recalls his constructing, by direct labour, the first purpose-built government museum in Jos for the preservation, conservation, and display of Nigeria's rich archaeological and artistic heritage.
"Christmas holidays were the time to go away from the office and concentrate on archaeological field work," Angela recalls. "Many places were best studied then--during the dry season. The whole family went together--living under canvas or zana mat shelters. Life was never dull."
Most Nok material was rescued from alluvial sites or from road construction projects. The search for undisturbed evidence of the people who made the Nok terracot-tas was only rewarded in 1960 with the discovery of a site at Taruga. Excavations there uncovered iron smelting furnaces, terracotta figurines, and the debris of domestic life--dated by radiocarbon to the later half of the first millennium BC.
Angela, like her father, graduated with a degree in archaeology from Cambridge University, England, and later joined the antiquities service in Nigeria in 1967 working, amongst other things, on the Nok material there until 1976.
She was one among many distinguished participants of the Nok Exhibition held in Frankfurt, Germany, on 29 October this year. It was the first time the terracottas were presented within their cultural context of Nok society (the terracottas have been exhibited previously by collectors and museums but without their cultural context). The exhibition will travel to Nigeria in 2.014.
"This is a new chapter in the study of those remarkable people who created such striking terracotta figurines and whose history would be lost forever if it were not for the careful scientific work of the archaeologists past and present," says Angela.
The Nok people thrived on the Northern High Plains northeast of the Nigerian capital Abuja, an area about the size of Switzerland or Portugal. While we may not be able at this point in time to call Nok a "civilisation" (there is an absence of complex architecture, written language, etc), it can be seen as a new type of complex African society. …