The Stone Circles of The Gambia

Monday, December 24, 2007

Because neither Islam nor Christinity had been introduced to our earliest ancestors, they held firmly to traditional African beliefs and customs. They were influenced by secret societies and initiation rites of different kinds. For example, they regarded the Earth as sacred, because she provided them with food, and received the dead into her bowels, so wrote a leading Gambian historian in the work ‘Stories of The Senegambia.

The Stone circles are indeed the leading archaeological relics of our country. They are found mainly along the North Bank, especially at Wassu and Ker Batch in the Central River Division, and since 2006 they have been part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, the most prestigious listing of heritage sites in the world.

‘Our ancestors performed many ceremonies at sowing and harvesting time in the fields. Many historians believe that the stone circles of Senegambia were built by these early peoples 9perhaps the ancestors of the Jolas and Sereres) as sacred sites for the celebration of the cult of the earth. A harvest time, the people would bring offerings from their farms as a form of thanksgiving to the Earth.

Oral tradition suggests also that the stone circles were built round burial mounds of Kings and Chiefs in the same way as such royal persons were build in the ancient empire of Ghana. Once Islam was brought into the Senegambia in the eleventh century, devout Muslims (marabouts) as well as chiefs were buried in this way; and the circles became holy places. Today, vegetables like tomatoes and pepper are still left on the stones’.

In 1964/65, the first major comprehensive archaeologcal diggings at the site at Wassu was made by a joint group of Sixth formers from Gambia High School and British students. The Anglo Gambian stone circles expedition spent many weeks at Wassu digging and they found many interesting artefacts. The subsequent scientific dating put the circles at 1000 AD, making them early signs of civilization in our country.

‘The circles are composed of standing stones between ten and twenty four in number, their height above the ground varying between eight and six feet six inches and two feet. Diametres is from one foot ro three feet six inches. Originally, the interior of each circle was a burial mound of gravel and sand, much of which is now worn away’.

According to the Expedition Report published in 1966, ‘the stones were cut out of laterite that occurs in large outcrops in the Gambia. It is a feature of this stone that it hardens upon exposure to the air, and that prior to such exposure it is relatively easy to quarry.

Iron tools could have cut out one of the latger stones within a few days. Stones brought down a steep hillside and transported on rollers, or hammocks must have required a considerable labour force.

I have always argued that it must have also required a strong ruler and system of moblisation to marshall such a labour force. This is another proof of the high degree of administrative sophistication of the people in the lower Gambia at the ninth century AD.

The Stone Circles are symbols of Gambian civilisation.

Author: by Hassoum Ceesay