The Rape of Nok and Kwatakwashi: the crisis in Nigerian Antiquities
Patrick J. Darling
Throughout history, countries commanding strong military or financial power have encouraged a movement of antiquities and art objects from other nations. Recently, there has been a notable acceleration of this movement, with the looting of unexcavated antiquities in Peru and Egypt receiving the most press attention. The situation in West Africa has received less publicity but is just as worrying. In the 1980s, bronzes were being looted from Jenne in Mali, and fifteenth- to seventeenth-century material was being stolen and sold from Komaland in Ghana and from Bankoni in Mali. Apparently, the Bankoni material still appears on the market, but Jenne bronzes are now difficult to find.
The scale of these sales, however, pales into insignificance against the massive influx of 'Nok' and what I will term 'Kwatakwashi' terracottas from Nigeria into Europe in recent times. A few years ago, a Nok head would fetch $20Ð30,000 on the world market: now a similar head fetches less than $100. This report helps to explain how this has happened. It has been given verbally to the Director of Museums and Monuments in Lagos, as well as to the World Heritage Committee Chairman, who has advised me to set it out in writing, together with the range of options to counteract the effects of this organized and systematic rape of some of Nigeria's earliest material culture.
Many of the 'facts' draw heavily on secondhand expatriate gossip in Lagos in 1995 and their veracity would be totally suspect were it not that most 'facts' cross-check well with reports coming from Europe, with odd pieces of unsolicited information, and with previously published data. In the few cases where I have had first-hand experience of the material, I have introduced the personal pronoun to make this clear. This report, therefore, aims to reconstruct what has happened and where, and to suggest various possible remedies: there is neither the data nor the intention to identify any individuals involved.
Archaeological excavations require a legal permit; but this has been by-passed by some people becoming Accreditation Agents in mining, which gives them the right to open the ground in their search for minerals and, therefore, a quasi-legal basis for 'coming across' buried antiquities. It only required a shift in the search focus from cassiterite to surface sherds and past cooking stones (grouped in threes) to considerably increase the incidence of 'coming across' such antiquities. Searching around inselbergs was another fruitful strategy. Numerous diggers, including local villagers, would cover a wide area, then all would converge on sites where terracottas begun to be found.
These strategies became so successful that it is estimated that on average ten terracottas were being discovered in each day of digging, which would have yielded about 3000 terracottas every year. Of these, a few hundred were very good pieces commanding a high market price: they were rapidly removed by key traders to Lome and Cotonou, from where they were sent to Europe. The pieces of secondary value tended to move much more slowly; and many terracottas were broken in situ. Two main 2000-year-old cultures have been affected: Nok, and what I term 'Kwatakwashi' after the hill site from which the best examples of this ancient culture's terracottas have been recovered (Fig. 1).
According to reports from earlier this century, Kwatakwashi was a hill settlement with a shrine of considerable importance (Fig. 3). During the 1994 World Heritage Sites trip, my attention was drawn to this site by Professor Mahdi Adamu (Sokoto), who rated Kwatakwashi second only to Kwiambana in terms of ancient history in Sokoto State. The Head of Station at Kaduna Museum, Dr Chafe, invited me to travel with him to check on reports about illegal excavations at Kwatakwashi: that arrangement fell through but, as I was travelling that way anyhow, I carried out the work and submitted short reports of what I noted on and around Kwatakwashi hill to the National Museums at Kano and Jos; and included illustrations of what I was able to photograph in my 1994 report on World Heritage Sites for Nigeria (Figure 2 & Figure 4).
The torsos and heads of these Kwatakwashi figures came from villages some kilometres away from the main high inselberg. They seem to be less finely executed than most Nok ware. One figure has curious horn-like protuberances and may be an effigy of a goat or monkey; another figure is bearded and has been made with distorted legs but no arms; whilst incision has been widely used on a third figurine to indicate fingers and to emphasize features including what may be an umbilical hernia. The rudimentary fingers and shapes are similar to figurines excavated in Yelwa and dated to 1700 years ago. The umbilical hernia feature has been noted on one of the terracottas deliberately smashed by the people of Dan Baure (the fragments being placed in Gidan Makama Museum, Kano by me in 1985), as well as a terracotta from Gashua recently donated to the National Museum, Lagos.
It is said that the best quality complete figurines up to a metre high were dug from the main Kwatakwashi hill, including one of an old man with an elongated neck and beard; and there were many bowls abandoned by the looters at the site. Similar figurines have been reported from closer to Sokoto and as far north as Kaura Namode; and systematic digging has taken place in inselberg environs over much of northwestern and north-central Nigeria. European art collectors had the figurines thermoluminescence (TL) dated to about 1500Ð2000 years ago; but there was a limited market for Kwatakwashi ware, which was perceived as being cruder than Nok: its price fell, and searches concentrated on the Nok area again.
The significance of the Kwatakwashi culture lies in its geographical distribution and in its dating. If the findings of 'grave goods' and odd figurines from Zaria and Kano are included with the other similar terracottas noted above, then their distribution is roughly coincident with that of all the later Hausa States (see Fig. 1). It would be premature to state definitely that this culture belonged to the ancestors of those now living in Hausaland; but interpretations suggesting otherwise would have to invoke events more traumatic than the nineteenth-century Jihad to displace complete populations over such a vast area. The dating is contemporaneous with the latter part of the Nok culture adjacent to the southeast; and this raises some interesting questions about Early Iron Age cultural dispersion and/or migrations from the Nok northwest to the Kwatakwashi areas. The 1994 spate of looting has caused much damage; but it has also uncovered enough new material to identify the most extensive culture in Nigeria's early history - and that is a significant positive discovery.
The market shift back to Nok figurines meant that all the half-dozen or so main traders moved to work in roughly the same Nok culture areas by mid-1994. Some excellent pieces were dug out from the area around Mupa Upare Hill between Kachia and Kakarko, and the diggers moved systematically southwards into the Katuga/Kakargo area and then towards Suleja in 1995. Most of the terracottas came from under flat stone slabs laid horizontally about 60 cm or so below the surface; but, curiously, there were no reports of buried skeletons in their vicinity. The finds included complete figurines about a metre high and considerably better than anything previously excavated. There were 'action pieces' of women grinding, and of men leaning elbows on their knees. There were face masks 60Ð90 cm in diameter. Humanized heads of various animals included dog and snake effigies (the most common) and some much rarer ones of cat and rhinocerous. Snakes were a common decoration on many pots. As the diggers worked new areas, regional variations in Nok culture art were revealed; but no record was made of which variation came from which region, and there were no photographs to record the supreme examples or the width of variation of ancient Nok art.
In May or June 1994, the work in the Katuga/Kakarko area was halted and it is claimed that there was police and/or army intervention. Digging resumed in early October 1994. By this stage, those who had heeded the ban on illegal excavation found themselves with severe cash-flow problems, and their scale of operation declined. Two main traders emerged, each being able to employ about a thousand diggers to systematically loot the rest of the Nok culture. Apparently, they both had ostentatious houses; and by July 1995 both had been hit by armed robbers.
The attitudes of local communities to terracotta figurines is important. At Dan Baure (west of Zaria) in 1983, local people told me they had smashed terracottas because they were idols. Similar ideas underlie some thinking at higher levels, which shows little interest in pre-Islamic Hausa history (there are parallels for pre-Christian artefacts in southern Nigeria). At Kwatakwashi, I found the local leaders puzzled over the age and meaning of the figurines; but most of their people welcomed the opportunity of making money from the mass diggings - each worker then received N1000 for any good find, and the dealers were selling each terracotta for about N35,000. However, at Chafe, the local chief refused to allow any digging. In the Nok culture areas, the price of the best pieces reach a few hundred thousand naira or perhaps more; but it is not clear whether there is any significant feedback of this revenue to local communities. There have been more refusals by local communities to allow digging in the areas further south towards Suleja; and this has been a major factor in slowing down the mass diggings. It is not certain whether economic or cultural reasons underlie these increasing refusals; but they provide a ray of hope for future conservation of the remaining Nok culture.
In the 1970s, Victoria Island in Lagos had been the main centre of art dealers. When Nigerian legislation on antiquities became enforced, this activity moved to Lome and Cotonou (in neighbouring Togo & Benin), where the laws permit the exporting of antiques. Tightening up on border controls has inhibited some movement of antiquities; but alternative routes through Nigeria's 'porous borders', including diplomatic bags, have been used to by-pass such measures.
Art dealers in Brussels and Paris appear to be the main recipients; but Germany, Holland, Switzerland and England have been cited as other countries in which dealers are collecting Nok and Kwatakwashi terracotta figurines. These collections are illegal and, therefore, the items are kept secret. As dealers have been stung by fakes from Nigeria, each terracotta is dated by thermoluminescence: a small hole is drilled in the back of the terracotta and a pottery fragment is taken away for dating together with a polaroid picture of the object concerned. As Nigerian traders wash all the soil out of the terracottas, there is no background soil count and this may affect the reliability and standard deviation of the TL results. The use of the polaroid picture for the resulting dating certificate means that the private art collector in Europe has the only record of the piece that he has secretly bought. The illegality of the Nok and Kwatakwashi terracottas means that both dealers and collectors keep their actions covert; and items only very rarely come to light. Consequently, there is almost no record of what Nigeria has lost: almost two complete ancient cultures have been looted, and there are no photographs, no records of associated artefacts, no mapping of past settlement distribution, and no noting of stylistic comparisons or archaeological provenances. In this respect, it could be argued that the law is counterproductive.
Museum thefts are on the increase worldwide and Nigeria has not been unaffected. There have been at least two thefts of objects from the Jos museum public displays; and the pottery museum has also been affected. Recently, other museums have been hard hit. Ife has lost all but a dented bronze head; and Esie, Nigeria's first museum, has lost many of its pieces: both museums have been closed. Less spectacular has been the steady drain of lesser thefts which, in the past, has included the non-return of items loaned out for exhibition elsewhere. In many cases, photographic records and descriptions of the missing objects are poor; and there has been little public outcry over these tragic losses.
Museums and art collections are foreign concepts to most Nigerians. Much of Nigerian art belongs to cultures now being actively rejected by those espousing Islamic or Christian faiths, which are growing at the expense of traditional religions. In a period of austerity, the urgency of meeting daily needs is the main concern of many Nigerians; and the conservation of past culture is regarded as something of a luxury. Most public primary school children never see a museum; so the value of past material culture is not imbued at an early age. As the processes of development and change take place, many of the best elements of Nigeria's past culture are becoming bulldozered, eroded, burnt or stolen. Future generations of Nigerians may be better informed and appreciate the value of what has been lost - albeit too late. The question is not simply one of preventing antiquities being exported or stolen. The value of recorded knowledge of Nigeria's past cultures should outweigh the value of the cultural objects themselves; for such knowledge leads to a better understanding and appreciation of Nigeria's past culture.
Options involve processes of choice, prioritorization and compromise in the pursuit of multiple, and sometimes conflicting objectives. In the case of the above problems, the range of objectives could include:
When it comes to policy formulation, though, the present law endorses only objectives (a), (b) and (c) and makes no provision for the objectives (d) and (e). Indeed, the pursuance of objective (b) would be perceived as being hypocritical if there were not strong parallel efforts to meet objective (d); and objectives (a) and (e) appear to be directly contradictory. National Museum policy, therefore, has to decide which are its most important and realizable objectives.
One way of coming to terms with conflicting objectives is to examine the various practical options available to achieve each objective, then aim for what economists term a 'second-best solution', i.e. a pragmatic acceptance that some ideals will be impossible to achieve, and that pursuing them will be of less overall benefit than attempting the issues that can be achieved. The matrix listing helps towards this (see Table 1).
A temporary amnesty on all Nigerian antiquities in Europe would allow art collectors and art dealers to register all major items and to provide a good photographs and TL dates of the finest pieces. Nigeria would then know much more about its early past cultures; major items could be traced back to their original sites and their archaeological provenances reconstructed. A key incentive of such an amnesty would be that registered items could then be sold at public auction. This would encourage collectors to register their items and also provide an opportunity for the Nigerian government to buy back particularly fine pieces at nominal or market rates. It is envisaged that the amnesty would operate for only a limited period of about 6-12 months - after which time any unregistered objects would be declared stolen property. The primary objective would be the recording of what has otherwise been lost, with recovery as a secondary objective, as indicated by sub-options (i) and (ii). It is envisaged that an amnesty would yield better results than any immediate moves to step up Interpol policing. Effecting a temporary amnesty would need very efficient follow-up work with art dealers throughout Europe, as well as keeping to a tight time schedule, otherwise the wrong signals could be sent out. Dealers would be responsible for contacting private art collectors to register their items and, to be effective, measures could be taken to protect the anonymity of most collectors and dealers. The National Commision for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), ICCROM, ICOM and key auction houses would keep copies of the final register; and the relevent page entries would be sent to those who had contributed photographs and dates, even if via an intermediate address.
Rescue archaeology of the looted Nok sites has already been proposed by NCMM archaeologists at the National Museum, Jos. Their proposal could be taken a step further to link in looted sites of the Kwatakwashi culture. Such a project would aim to plot the main areas of digging and the precise sites where the main finds were made. These site spoil heaps would then be rapidly sieved for associated sherds and other artefacts. It would involve liaison with local people who had been engaged in the digging; and this raises a conflict of interests if there is also to be strict enforcement of the law elsewhere. The descriptions of the main finds by local people provide the best hope of linking sites to the finest terracottas photographed from Europe. If a good record of what is lost is considered as being as or more important than intermittent efforts at law enforcement against powerful vested interests, then any conflict of interests can be resolved by separating recording teams from law enforcement teams in time, space and personnel. The conflict would then occur only in areas where mass digging was still taking place.
In the long-run, the problems being experienced in Nigeria and many other parts of the Third World can only be resolved by two factors - an upturn in standards of living for the bulk of the population, and an increased appreciation of the value of past culture. In the short-run, it may well be more productive to employ a positive strategy mix, as noted above; as this is probably the only way of recording the lost data. However, future prevention and conservation should not be neglected. To achieve a strategy mix without confusing or alienating public opinion is a challenge to any Cultural Resource Management policy. The alternative is to continue with policies which merely chastise offenders without actually rectifying the situation, without recording any substantial data, and without recovering much of what is lost.
The above report was submitted to Nigeria's NCMM in August 1995. In October 1995 they replied with a thinly-veiled legal threat against the author but no promise of action. Nevertheless, a very senior NCMM official went up to deal with the looters (who all bowed down in greeting to him) and a committee was set up with the ministry of Mines and Power to sort out the overlap of interests. However, five years later, that the scale of looting is worse than ever. In the face of the personal greed of the powerful, laws alone are inadequate. All this points strongly to the inadequacy of laws in isolation.
The major cause of economic disequilibrium which underlies the sale of antiquities is capital flight. Over £150 billion has come out of Nigeria into European and US bank accounts in the last few years: i.e. the western economy is propped up partly by Africa - precisely the opposite of what development agencies have been stating. Ultimately, this silent issue will have to be addressed. If not, there will be nothing of cultural value left in Africa: and that would be to the detriment of the whole world.
First posted September 2000; Page design updated September 2006