Unglazed clay objects from ancient times that are intact are incredibly rare, but archaeologists Peter Breunig and Nicole Rupp of the Goethe-University Frankfurt in Germany have hit the paleohistory jackpot. While visiting Nigeria for the 2010 field season, Breunig and Rupp uncovered a near-pristine specimen of the Nok culture, a society that existed from 1,000 BC to 500 AD and then mysteriously vanished.
Surprisingly, the Nok terracotta head was relatively easy to find, buried around 24 inches below the surface. The clay warriors remain shrouded in mystery as their purpose continues to baffle archaeologists. Some have hypothesized that the figures were meant to commemorate deceased members of the community while other believe that they may represent grave god meant to guide the dead to their final destination.
The discovery follows a trend of reignited interest in the Nok culture, whose technological innovations have captivated scientists interested in tracking the spread of Iron in the ancient world. Despite the invaluable information to scientists that Nok artifacts can provide, many of the terracotta heads have been looted in the past century and found their way into the homes of wealthy art collectors.