Half a ton of pottery shards is piled on the tables in Peter Breunig's workroom on the sixth floor of the University of Frankfurt am Main. There are broken pots, other storage vessels, a clay lizard and fragments of clay faces with immense nostrils.
The chipped head of a statue depicts an African man with a moustache, a fixed glare and hair piled high up on his head. He looks gloomy, almost sinister. Just a few days ago, the ceramics traveled 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) by sea from Nigeria, where they were unearthed.
Breunig runs an excavation near the Nigerian highlands of Jos, where the mysterious Nok culture once blossomed. Spanning more than 80,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles), the tropical region they lived in was larger than Ireland. Its inhabitants lived in wooden huts and ate porridge made from pearl millet. Some women subjected themselves to bloody "scar ornaments" scratched into their breasts with knives. And, as archaeologists imagine it, smoke hung in the air as people fired masterly terracotta creations in kilns heated to 700 degrees Celsius (1,300 degrees Fahrenheit).
The most astonishing fact about what Breunig calls "a society without writing" is its age. It dates from around 2,500 years ago, a time when a wave of change in belief systems washed over other continents. Nok sculptors were contemporaries of Solon, Buddha and the early Mayans.
For years, people have believed that Africa was left behind at that time -- but Breunig knows better. "Around 500 B.C., the population exploded," he says. People that had been living a Stone Age-like nomadic existence suddenly settled. Breunig speaks of a "cultural Big Bang."
This region near the equator is still largely unexplored, and the German Research Foundation has allocated sizable funding toward that task. If the researchers from Frankfurt deliver promising results, they will continue to receive state funding until 2020.
With the help of some locals, German researchers set up their base last spring, which consists of nine mud huts in the village of Janjala. A flag with the image of Goethe, the symbol of Breunig's university, flutters on a mast. The Germans have drilled wells, and solar panels provide electricity.
Conditions there are hard. Murky water sloshes from the pump, and the solitary lightbulb in the main bricked-lined hut is the only one within 100 kilometers (62 miles). At night, owing to the heat, the researchers have gotten used to sleeping under the night sky, as wild dogs howl in the distance.
Shards, Shards Everywhere
Bathed in the light of the morning sun, the team sets forth. With shovels, pickaxes, laptops and GPS navigation devices in tow, the excavators trudge past an enchanting tree savannah and granite hilltops rising like small islands.
In their excavations, the team encounters hardly any other traces of life. There are no skeletons preserved in the earth since the acidic soil dissolved all bones. Like their cemeteries, the temples and huts of the Nok have disappeared without a trace. No one knows what their farm animals, streets or religious ceremonies were like.
But the shards of clay statues are everywhere -- on rock slopes, in ancient refuse pits and in open spaces. Burrowing animals occasionally dislodge them from their original resting places.
The largest of these impressive figures can stand up to one meter (3.3 feet) tall and resemble what might be kings or members of a social elite. Others wear horned helmets or carved-out gourds on their heads. A third of these figures are women.
The clay figures are strangely uniform, almost as if they had been mass produced. The eyes are always triangular, the pupils are pierced, and the eyebrows are high and arched. They look sedate and immersed in their thoughts. Lightning-shaped tattoos adorn their cheeks.
Scientists are puzzled about who could have created this collection of curiosities. How, they ask, could such a fanciful world emerge 10 degrees latitude south of the equator and far away from the rest of the world's civilizations?
Particularly perplexing is the question of how the Nok people smelted iron. Excavators have found iron bracelets, arrowheads and knives. No sub-Saharan people made anything comparable at the time.
The German researchers, which include geologists and paleoethnobotanists, have now used state-of-the-art analytical devices to examine this area. They use X-ray fluorescence devices, for example, to detect shattered bones, and their infrared cameras should make the remnants of buildings visible. In their initial findings, they have learned that the Nok lived on millet, cowpeas and an olive-like fruit. And Breunig now believes that the statues "were made centrally in some large workshops."
Next winter, the high-tech caravan of researchers will move back into the bush with up to 40 excavation assistants. The project could finally shed some light on a phenomenon that is one of the biggest mysteries of early history.
A Startling Discovery
In 1943, the British colonial civil administrator Bernard Fagg was the first to acquire a Nok figure, which had been used as a scarecrow in a yam field. Fagg encouraged the workers in the surrounding tin mines to come forward with any similar finds. Locals from more distant regions soon began bringing Fagg other artifacts, which brought his collection up to 150 pieces. They brought him amulets and clay elephants. They brought him a figure with a gigantic phallus reaching up to its head; another had vampire-like teeth.
For a long time, experts in Europe and the United States were largely unaware of the exciting findings. Only when a pioneer of thermoluminescent imaging presented new data in the 1970s did the archaeological community start to prick up its ears.
These findings led the community to ask a puzzling question: Was it possible that, between 600 B.C. and 300 A.D., when the Chinese started building the Great Wall and the Romans dotted their empire with triumphal arches, African master sculptors in faraway Nigeria were making statues of the highest aesthetic order out of mud coils?
The swiftest reaction to the sensational discovery came from people in the antiquities trade. In the late 1980s, Nok sculptures appeared sporadically in Brussels and Paris. Not only private collectors, but also state-owned museums, discreetly tapped into the fenced merchandise, and prices climbed as high as $50,000 (€35,000) per statue.
Then, in 1996, the sculptures came to the attention of the wider public when the exhibition "Africa: the Art of a Continent" traveled to London and Berlin. Still, at that time, it was mostly photos of the Nok works that went on display. The owners of the original statues -- mostly of whom were rich American collectors -- did not dare lend the exhibition their dubiously acquired African sculptures.
Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency, noted that the objects were being "systematically stolen" and that Africa's heritage was under threat from thieves. UNESCO finally put the sculptures on a list of objects that were illegal to import or export.
Still, these actions did little to temper the treasure-hunting fever in Nigeria. A gem mine near Kubacha, located in the tribal area of the Koro, emerged as an El Dorado for the sculptures.
"Extremely beautiful and barely damaged statues were discovered there in the tombs of the underground shelters," recounts one insider.
Miners there were constantly finding new choice pieces, including a rider on a fanciful horse and a figure holding a cat in a stranglehold.
Details about the mine are hard to come by. It is located in a semi-autonomous district ruled by Koro chief Yohanna Akaito with an iron fist. Akaito has sealed off the area with his private army, and even Nigerian government officials have no access.
One of the few whites who has been granted access to the area is Gert Chesi, and ethnologist and Voodoo researcher.
"The chief entertained me in his mud palace," Chesi says. "In the morning, trumpet calls woke us up, and then we went to the mine."
Chesi had an ulterior motive in coming here. He runs the "House of the People," a museum in Schwaz, Austria, which houses 50 Nok statues, the most splendid collection in the world. Once he was with Akaito, Chesi got right down to business.
Most museums purchased Nok artifacts without certificates and now hide them in their repositories. But Chesi makes no secret of his treasures.
"Each of our sculptures has an export license issued by Omotoso Eluyemi, the manager of the national museum," he says. "Everything was done legally."
It is true that the late Nigerian antiquities official's office could issue customs documents. But it would appear that he did this all too gladly -- while stuffing his pockets in the process.
Poison and Corpses
Now and then, you hear mention of bodies. Eluyemi died on February 18, 2006. According to the official version of events, he choked on a glass of water at dinner and suffocated. But insiders are sure that the 58-year-old was poisoned.
These are the circumstances in which the archeologists are operating.
In describing the situation on the ground, Breunig says that "thieves have rummaged through many thousand square meters of ground; there's one hole next to another."
Still, there is some hope for Africa's heritage. To this day, countless Nok villages lie untouched beneath the earth. In Ungwar Kura, for example, the team recently came across more than 130 millstones, which suggests that there was once a large village there.
The statues found there also contain new details. Some have boils and furuncles on their faces, while others appear to be high dignitaries. Foot rings, loincloths and arm chains ornament their bodies. While their hair is formed into buns and braids, twisted chains adorn necks like thick Christmas wreaths. "The social distinctions are clearly defined," Breunig says.
The researchers are still not sure what these peculiar adornments are supposed to indicate. Since stone pavement is often found near the statues, some have thought that they were situated in holy places or near altars. The archeologists have found remnants of deliberately deposited jewelry chains alongside them, which might lend some degree of support to this hypothesis.
For the time being, though, the purpose of the Nok statues remains unclear. And then there's still the question of whether these objects have anything to do with the Nok people making contact with other people. Some archeologists believe that the cultural renaissance resulted from contact with northern peoples, such as the Carthaginians, who might have arrived by desert. Still others point to the so-called "black pharaohs" of Sudan, who subjugated the whole Nile region between 750 and 670 B.C.
But, for his part, Breunig rejects the idea of such a far-reaching transfer of ideas. "It's 3,000 kilometers from Egypt to Abuja, and there was the obstacle of the Sahara in between," he explains. And, he adds, Africans didn't have camels in pre-Christian times. Instead, Breunig believes that Nok art evolved independently.
Still, the mysteries remain. If Breunig is correct, the Nok were isolated geniuses who created a tropical civilization out of nothing.
"There's no doubt that the Nok will continue to baffle us," Breunig says. "We're unearthing a magnificent part of the history of sub-Saharan Africa."