German archaeologists` refutations of Nigerian

Response to the article “Germans Loot Nigerian Artefacts” published on
February 24, 2012, in the Nigerian newspaper “Leadership” and forwarded to
SAfA members on March 5, 2012
Dear Colleagues,
Let us begin with the assessment that the allegations published in “Leadership”
are put forward solely by one Nigerian archaeologist, Dr. Zacharys Gundu of
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. Though elected president of the
Archaeological Association of Nigeria (AAN), Dr. Gundu disseminates nothing but his
own point of view. So far, we have not heard from or about any other colleague in
Nigeria or elsewhere sharing Dr. Gundu’s opinion. At the end of March, all involved
and concerned parties will meet to discuss these accusations. Dr. Gundu‘s
aggression against our Nok Culture project has been known since its inception as a
long-term research project in 2009. We have kept quiet, assuming that some kind of
resentment to a well-equipped research project from outside is understandable if one
considers the difficult funding situation our colleagues have to face in Nigeria. But
now the matter has reached such a level of defamation that we can no longer accept
it. We very much regret that the SAfA mailing list has been misused to disseminate
these unfounded allegations.
“The Germans” (as if the whole nation is involved!) are accused of having done bad
things at different places in Nigeria – culminating in the statements that due to the
temporary export of archaeological materials to Germany “Nigerians would be forced
to study Nigeria’s history in Germany” and that the “non-preservation of historical
artefacts ... had affected tourism in the country”. We will focus our response mainly to
the article forwarded to the SAfA members.
 The “Leadership” article echoes Dr. Gundu‘s allegation that our team is “mainly
responsible for the crime” of “artefact looting”.
■ This is wrong, and completely disregards the facts. Our team is focused on
scientifically investigating Nok Culture sites. Dr. Gundu turns the matter upside down.
Instead of the alleged looting, the Frankfurt project represents the only activity in
Nigeria that is rescuing data about the cultural context of the famous Nok
terracotta art on a legal and scientific base, having research permits as well as
a partnership and a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of
Frankfurt and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (which –
despite their alleged non-existence – can easily be accessed in the archives of both
That looting takes place is a fact that all Nigerian archaeologists are aware of. They
know that there is no time left to waste since whole regions have already been
ransacked. Just recently, we came across a site where an area of approximately a
square-kilometer has been perforated by holes, done by apparently large groups of
well-organized diggers, leaving behind hundreds of unsaleable fragments of
terracotta, potsherds, even complete pots, grinding stones and iron slag. We
recovered the materials, although their scientific value is low with the context
destroyed. To accuse an internationally evaluated and respected project of looting is
a shameless defamation. The harrowing destruction of irretrievable traces of the
past cannot be stopped by accusing foreign researchers that are in the country
for short times only and working on scientific programs with the intention to
rescue data to resolve the Nok enigma. Statements like “The Germans have
literally joined the rush in the illicit digging of terracotta in the Nok valley …”
(“Leadership”) are a distortion of facts, meant to make readers believe that the
intention of the project is nothing but the hunt for terracotta (in order to sell them?).
Dr. Gundu would have done better to have contacted us, or even visited us in the
field (which – by the way – he never did, despite our invitation) to learn more about
the concept of the project, which has been evaluated twice by an international expert
committee of the German Research Foundation (some of whom are SAfA members),
classified as excellent and worthy of funding. Due to his ignorance, he has not only
offended our team, but also this international evaluation team.
 Dr. Gundu accuses us of promoting “unethical archaeological practices in the
country” and reminds appropriate Nigerian institutions to “save Nigeria from the
arrogance and cultural imperialism of the Germans”. The ‘Leadership’ article
does not explain what these catchphrases should mean specifically. However, from
his former statements we know that he refers to the export of archaeological
materials to Germany, making people from outside believe that we steal Nigeria’s
cultural heritage.
■ This is wrong. All materials now in Germany have been exported only
temporarily, in compliance with Nigerian law, with permits of the National
Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the federal institution in
Nigeria responsible for research permits and our partner in the Nok project. Exported
materials are recorded in detail by the NCMM. The export to Germany offers the use
of methods and analyses that are not possible in Nigeria due to the lack of technical
equipment. Thus, the export is minimized to materials that can be subjected to such
analysis. Documentation work is carried out by Nigerian and German members of the
team in the field, and most archaeological materials are stored in a store room at
the Nok Culture Research Station in Janjala. The exported materials comprise:
- Archaeobotanical remains, i.e. charcoal, charred seeds and fruits, extracted by
trained Nigerian participants from soil samples. The remains provide information
about environment and economy and are used for radiocarbon dating.
- Soil samples for X-ray-fluorescence analysis (XRF) in order to identify the structure
of Nok sites by means of element mapping.
- Samples of stone tools, specifically for the detection of micro-residues and
typological analysis.
- Terracotta fragments (so far, we have not found any totally complete figurines) that
are badly in need of restoration since most pieces collapse after the removal of the
soil inside the figurine. Restoration specialists at the “Römisch-Germanisches
Zentralmuseum” in Mainz, Germany, are working on the figurines, closely monitored
by the NCMM, as was the case with similar German-Nigerian projects in the past.
The restored materials will be presented in an exhibition in Frankfurt in 2013, after
which all materials will be repatriated to Nigeria, together with the exhibition
- Terracotta fragments and selected samples of potsherds to carry out XRF analysis
on composition of the clay used for manufacture.
 Our team is accused of “cheating local communities and knocking their
■ This is incorrect and another provocation. In the area of its activities (Kagarko
Local Government, Kaduna State) the Nok project is held in high esteem among the
local traditional authorities like His Royal Highness in Kagarko, the Hakimi, District
Head, Janjala, the Chairman of the Local Government, Kagarko, officers of the State
Security Service, the District Police Head, Immigration officers (all Kagarko) and all
villagers throughout the area, in particular in Janjala. The communities benefit
considerably from the project by being employed on our excavations and in the
research station. Particularly Janjala, the village where we built the station on land
given to the project by the community, is benefitting. We dug a well for the village and
built a two-room building for a secondary school; we also have a collaboration
agreement with a committee of Janjala (with whom we discuss such matters as, for
example, returning the ground after the end of the project, their choice of inhabitants
from Janjala they would like to see participate in the different kinds of project work,
payment according to standard local rates, etc.). We cannot see any “cheating [of]
local communities” here. Additionally, the project has used its good relation with the
Vice-President of Nigeria, Namadi Sambo, to draw his attention to some deficits in
the area. Hopefully, Janjala village will be supplied for the first-time with electric
power in the near future as a result of this endeavour.
 Elsewhere ( ) Dr. Gundu
explained “Germans ... give money to anyone that brings a Nok piece, so the
level of poverty is encouraging people to go out and begin to dig and bring Nok
■ This is incorrect. We want to avoid anything that could motivate local people
to dig for terracotta. For this reason, we do not buy artifacts and we never have.
The only payment made is a 1000 Naira (5 Euro) bonus for showing a Nok site to the
project so that we can add these sites to our list. We do this because we want to
document the unexpected high density of occupation during the Nok period and to
analyze the environmental parameters that determined the decision by Nok people to
settle down. To call this “undermining local communities by bribing them for access
to artefacts mines” (“Leadership”) is inappropriate, since almost all of the 200 sites
recorded so far are more or less totally destroyed and constitute nothing but
exhausted “mines”. Another motivation behind this encouragement of locals to inform
the project about site locations, is that informants will be employed on site if we
decide to test-excavate the site they told us about. This is not to exploit the “local
peoples’ mines”, but to rescue in the few spots that are spared from destruction a
handful of potsherds for ceramic chronology, terracotta fragments to prove that it is a
Nok site, and to collect some charcoal for radiocarbon dating. Sometimes people
bring fragments of terracotta from their own diggings, because they cannot sell
fragments to dealers. We accept these remains only if they are given to us without
payment. Only a small amount is paid to balance their expenses (e.g. for transport
The real (and illegal) digging for treasures in the ground takes place in another world
that we are neither informed about nor involved. Some weeks ago, for instance, a
large terracotta similar to the one exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris, was
excavated by some of our local laborers in our research region. We heard that they
sold it and tried to keep it in Nigeria. Poverty is indeed encouraging people to dig, but
they never do it as a commissioned and paid work for our scientific program.
 Elsewhere (, Julius
Berger, a Nigerian-German construction company, is accused of “aiding illegal
mining of terracotta”.
■ This is wrong. Julius Berger PLC is one of the largest companies operating in
Nigeria and is definitely concerned with other things than the “mining of terracotta”.
Their support concerns the accommodation they provide our team when in Abuja in
the company‘s camp and their help with maintenance of project cars in their
workshops. We have also received additional assistance from the company toward
construction of the research station. To mention that “Julius Berger has aided the
illegal mining of $2million worth of Nok terracotta” is not only a pure invention, it is an
outright lie.
The statement that “one small Nok piece can fetch you about four million dollars”
(“Sunday Vanguard” 29th of January 2012) makes the mischief complete. Only
somebody who has never checked the internet for prices on the international market
or paid by art galleries can make such a statement that is so completely wrong. But,
no matter whether the price is 4 million or 10,000 dollars, Dr. Gundu has come up
with a fictitious amount of money so as to misguide people and make them
believe that German archaeologists undertake their work for profit and not as
part of a search for knowledge and information. In fact, however, we see the
terracottas just as another source of archaeological information. In this respect, a
grinding stone, possibly with starch remains, found in a hypothetical domestic area,
could have more archaeological value than any terracotta.
 In the “Sunday Vanguard” (29th of January 2012) Dr. Gundu bemoans that “there
is no collaboration at all”.
■ This is wrong. During our fieldwork up to 30 people live and work in the camp.
Approximately one third of these are staff from the NCMM. The whole documentation
of excavated materials, the archaeobotanical sampling, and the field assistance at
the excavations including operating total stations is carried out by trained Nigerian
participants. The project also provides the means to carry out research within PhD
programs. Students and staff from universities take part. The project also supports a
Nigerian student’s participation on a Master’s program in African Prehistory and
Environment at the University of Cologne. We are and have always been open for
cooperation. But those who want to participate have to become active as well and
contact us.
Peter Breunig, Katharina Neumann, Nicole Rupp
Frankfurt, 14th March 2012