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Wassu and Kerr Batch stone circles

My Magazine 2022/07
6 min
Author: Lana Skorohod
The phenomenon of stone circle building is widespread throughout almost every continent. While the most famous being Stonehenge in England, it is a matter of recognising the site's significance and building a good campaign around it. The stone circles of Senegambia have been investigated only recently. The first professional excavations were made in 1964, and in 1995 the stone circles of Senegambia were proclaimed a National monument and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006. Stone circles of Wassu and Kerr Batch in The Gambia fall under the National Center for Arts and Culture custody. It is NCAC's responsibility to preserve, guard and present the Stone circles to the local and international public as a cultural heritage site of great importance.

Description and significance

In The Gambia, the stone circles are found in two major places: Kerr Batch and Wassu, but altogether over 60 stone circle sites have been identified. If we also add the ones in Senegal, the number goes up to more than an unbelievable 1000 stone circles. We can conclude that those sites were of great importance to the people of Senegambia, but their exact origin remains unknown. New Carbon-14 dating analysis suggests they are from the years 500 to 1500. Still, many different estimations were made based on excavations and writtings, and the age also varies from site to site. The construction of such monuments suggests that the society that built them was developed and probably even hierarchical, which is often needed for such major construction. The distribution of the circles follows rivers and their tributaries, which suggests the builders lived on fertile land and were probably agriculturalists. They could be using circles as a calendar to calculate the times of the year, essential for crop production, and were perhaps using the circular time concept. Some believe the Serer people may be the ancient custodians of the sites because most are found in the area of the 16th century Serer Sine and Saloum kingdoms. 

Photo by My Gambia

Stone circles appear to be the sites of burials and, as such, offer an important insight into ancient burial practices. The objects being excavated from the sites by archaeologists also suggest some routines of that unknown ancient communities. The way bodies are buried shows that the society was pre-Islamic, and the pits are often communal, but the differences in burial techniques suggest regional variations. The pits are usually filled with selected parts of the bodies, not the whole corpse. The inhumation of individuals was progressive in some memorial places. In others, many people would be buried due to warfare, disease or even human sacrifices, but the evidence of this type of practice remains insufficient. What is clear is that the stones were erected on top and around these burial sites, but a lot of archaeological material is probably still hidden under them. The presence of grave goods such as bracelets, spearheads and pottery indicate that those people believed in life after death. It also shows they were familiar with the use of iron, geology, and cutting and dragging techniques of laterite stone from the quarry site not far away.

The myths surrounding the use of stone circles vary extensively. Still, while scientifically unaccepted, the same theories can be found in many different parts of the world and are widely studied by alternative researchers. They connect the circles with spirituality, energies and sacred geometry. While the official guides do not offer these theories, there was a man who observed and studied the circles a lot. He went by the name Stone man, while his real name was Lamin Eydra. He started working as a freelance guide and travelled to Europe. When he returned, he continued guiding and was later employed as a site attendant by NCAC at Wassu – he did not know much about the circles at that time; it was only a coincidence that he ended up at that site. But later, he became so attached to the stones that he developed theories, observing their position, the lining of the sun etc. He made his own studies to notice that at each compound in the village, there is also a stone placed in the middle, and the owner is placing jujus on that stone. The stone man, unfortunately, passed away two years ago, taking a good portion of his knowledge with him. A few oral accounts of his teachings can be found, but nothing was written.

Photo by Kaja Hrovat

Excavations

P.O. Beale and F. A. Evans, in 1964-1965 through the Anglo-Gambian Stone Circle Expedition, did the earliest professional excavations in the Gambian stone circles. They found human remains and grave goods, which led to the conclusion that these sites were burial grounds. Since then, more archaeologists and anthropologists have made their contributions, among them Raymond Mauny, Baba Ceesay, Guy Thilmans, Paul Ozanne, Cyr Descamps, Hamady Bocoum, Augustin Holl, Amy Lawson, M.H. Hill, Luc Laporte, Adrien Delvoye and others. 

Photo by My Gambia

Conservation and management

Management of Kerr Batch and Wassu Stone Circles falls under the responsibility of The National Center for Arts and Culture in accordance with the law accepted by the National Assembly (NCAC Act of 1989, amended in 2003). Besides the actual stone circles, there is also an NCAC museum in Wassu where the history and grave goods (cooking pots, spearheads, swords) are presented and explained.

Photo by My Gambia

The conservation challenges they face are protecting the circles from fire, unauthorised digging, pressure from real estate, and animals; they put a wired fence around the circles for animals to stay away and not rub against them. 

A new project to protect the stones is setting up natural windbreakers – planting fruit trees to reduce wind and water erosion. The project is taking place under the ministry of forest and environment and in collaboration with ITTOG, Nyawarra agricultural institute, and international students from Indiana, who will soon start the practical work. For now, planning is taking place. Communities of Wassu will also benefit from these fruit trees as the Village development committee (VDC), the villagers and the youths of Wassu are involved in the project. 

Visitors usually place small stones on top of the old ones for luck; the guides and administration are not stopping this practice, for the effect of placing the small stones is a minimal cost in their words. 

Conclusion

To protect the stones from weather insecurities, the erection of a shield or a roof could be beneficial, and the physical contact with the stones must be limited to preserve them for as long as possible. Archaeological and especially anthropological research could improve the visibility of the sites by providing the general public with more interesting insights into interpretations and possibilities that these monuments present for the cultural identity of Gambian people and to familiarise the international public with them more, so people from different parts of the world will understand Senegambian culture of that era is comparable with others from different parts of the world.

Written by Lana Skorohod

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lana Skorohod
Student of Cultural Studies
I am a cultural studies student. My interests are creating and curating art, cultural management and exploring cultural diversity. While travelling to The Gambia, I learned about these topics at The National Centre for Arts and Culture in Banjul and many other locations.

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